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On July 15, 1896, the Huntington Advertiser of Huntington, West Virginia, printed a story titled “The Poor Whites: Origin of a Distinct Class Living in the South.” Subtitled “The ‘Cracker of the Hills’ is the Direct Descendant of the ‘Sold Passengers’ Who Came to This Country in the Seventeenth Century,” the story initially appeared in the Chattanooga Times of Chattanooga, Tennessee. And here it is:

The notion that the poor white element of the southern Appalachian region is identical with the poor people generally over the country is an error, and an error of enough importance to call for correction. The poor white of the south has some kinfolk in the Adirondack region of New York and the Blue and Alleghany [sic] mountains of Pennsylvania, but he has few relatives any place else about the Mason-Dixon line. The states of New York and Pennsylvania were slave states until the early part of this century.

This poor white mountaineer descends direct from those immigrants who came over in the early days of the colonies; from 1620 to about or some time after the Revolutionary war period, as “sold passengers.” They sold their services for a time sufficient to enable them to work out their passage money. They were sold, articled to masters, in the colonies for their board and fixed wage, and thus they earned the cost of their migration.

The laws under which they were articled were severe, as severe as apprentice laws in those days. The “sold passenger” virtually became the slave of the purchaser of his labor. He could be whipped if he did not do the task set [before] him, and woe to the unlucky wight [sic] if he ran away. He was sure to be caught and cruelly punished.

And though he was usually a descendant of the lowest grade of humanity on the British islands, he still had enough of the Anglo-Saxon spirit about him to make him an unsatisfactory chattel.

From 1620 forward–the year when the Dutch landed the first cargo of African slaves on the continent–the “sold passenger” was fast replaced by negroes, who took more naturally and amiably to the slave life.

The poor white naturally came to cherish a bitter hatred for the blacks that were preferred over him. He already hated his domineering white master. When he was free to go, he put as many miles as his means and his safety from Indian murderers permitted between himself and those he hated and hoped he might never see again. In that early time the mountain region was not even surveyed, let alone owned by individual proprietors.

The English, Scotch, Irish and continental immigrant who had some means sat down on the rich valleys, river bottoms and rolling savannahs, and the poor white was made welcome to the foothills and mountain plateaus.

These descendants of the British villain of the feudal era grew and multiplied, became almost as distinct a people from the lords of the lowlands as the Scotch highlander was, as related to his lowland neighbor, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The stir of the period since the close of our civil war has made somewhat indistinct the line that separates the mountaineer from the plainsman of the south, especially in the foothills and at points where the two have intermingled in traffic, in the schoolhouse and church, and especially where the poor whites have been employed at mining, iron making, etc. But go into the mountains far enough and you will find the types as clear cut as it was 100 years ago, with its inimitable drawling speech and curious dialect, its sallow complexion, lanky frame, lazy habits and immorality–all as distinctly marked as they were when hundreds of these people found Cherokee wives in Georgia and Tennessee in the early part of the century and bleached most of the copper out of the skin of the Choctaw as well as out of the Cherokee.

It is a pity that some competent anthropological historian has not traced the annals of this interesting and distinctive section of our population, and made record of it in the interest of science, no less than in the interest of the proper education and elevation of the mountain people. It has become, especially in the Piedmont section of the south, a most important labor element. The cotton mill labor by thousands comes from the “Cracker of the Hills,” and it is destined o become a great power, that labor population, social and political.

The redemption of the poor white began when slavery went down in blood and destruction, and it has gone on faster and traveled further than some of us think.

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