Backcountry, typically defined as “any remote or undeveloped area,” is called in some regions backwoods, boondocks, or hinterland. Poverty tends to be a common denominator for the people who live there. Backcountry people have existed on the edge of American civilization since colonial times, when their economy was based on the trade of goods among families living in settlements that lay within and just beyond the Appalachian Mountains and its subranges, including upstate New York, central and western Pennsylvania, the Kentucky and Ohio River valleys, as well as territory in Virginia and the Carolina highlands. At that time the Appalachian backcountry was often referred to as the “settled region of the frontier.” During the Great Awakening of the 1750s, however, the majority of backcountry people isolated themselves to some degree by converting to the Baptist faith. As the numbers of backcountry settlers grew, conflicts arose around property ownership. Rivalries burst into violence until the time of the American Revolution, a war that tended to bind backcountry people even more closely together, as most of them were of Irish or Scottish descent. Herman Melville hinted at the strong and strange community bonds when he wrote in Moby-Dick, “What says the Cannibal? As I live he’s comparing notes; looking at his thigh bone; thinks the sun is in the thigh, or in the calf, or in the bowels, I suppose, as the old women talk Surgeon’s Astronomy in the back country.” Though the region’s inhabitants were once derisively labeled “hillbillies,” backcountry life is now considered a uniquely American experience that began to define the values of the American character.

Elizabeth Cox