I am taken with the stories of the settlement of my home region in the early history of the United States. The mountains became a home of hope for many who were getting away from something worse somewhere else. Their satisfaction with this land was enthusiastic partly because here they were truly free from the oppression of the European Aristocracy with its arrogant classist attitudes and hierarchical structure. They forged a culture here that encouraged freedom of thought and freedom of spirit.
One of my favorite stories that exemplifies this is the development of the little town of Jonesborough, in what is now Tennessee. It was founded in 1779 as an outpost in the newly-formed Washington District (the first community in America named after the General and future president of the US). The legislature of North Carolina claimed control of the area and so they chartered the town, naming it after the venerable Willie Jones of Halifax, a man of some influence in the Dan River Valley along the North Carolina/Virginia border. Jones had become convinced of the need to expand the state across the mountains and his support made the formation of a seat of government there a reality. So he was rewarded with becoming the namesake of the town that formed there by legislative action.
Jonesborough soon became the first capital of a new state, the State of Frankland or Franklin. This was before the young nation had decided how to form new states, and so this effort was a pioneering one in forming new partitions within the sphere of influence of the US. It was formed in 1784, and was composed of lands in what is now East Tennessee and portions of southwest Virginia. The freedom of self-determination was intoxicating for the mountaineers. They were finally in charge of their own destiny from a political vantage point, yet even with this new situation there was soon trouble. Some who didn’t like separating from the mother state of North Carolina formed a powerful minority and battles were fought between the Franklinites led by Governor John Sevier and the Tiptonites led by Colonel John Tipton. With other influences the new state’s fortunes were soon ended and by 1789 the territory was included in a US Territory (the “territory South of the Ohio”), with territorial government located a few miles from Jonesborough at a farm known as Rocky Mount. The State of Tennessee would not be developed as a governmental unit until 1796.
The families who made up this entity were many of the same who had gathered at Sycamore Shoals in 1780 to travel together as a militia to a place near the South Carolina border known as “King’s Mountain.” They fought hard and used their trusty long rifles and tactics of battle which they had probably learned from the Cherokee and other tribesmen. Their warfare led to a mighty routing of the British, even the death of their commander in that place. It was the news of this battle that led in part to the famous action in Yorktown, Virginia soon thereafter when Cornwallis surrendered and the United States was free of British rule. When mountaineers decide to take action, look out. They are a determined lot.
So back in the town of Jonesborough, there was much marrying and giving in marriage as families grew and civilization became secure. But the ways of the wilderness continued to influence the region. In the second decade of the 19th century a pair of brothers named Embree, who were Quakers, decided to start a newspaper. The Emancipator was the nation’s very first newspaper dedicated to the abolition of slaves, and it was generated in the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee. This was in what is known as the American South. But in the mountains of East Tennessee, where freedom was deep in the veins of the people.
In fact, even as late as the Civil War, the sympathy of many East Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians (and indeed several people in the westernmost parts of Virginia who would pull out later and form the state of West Virginia) ran largely pro-union. The sentiments were so strong that politicians in the more slavery-dependent west and middle regions of the state could not get the votes to secede until 1861, making them the last state to secede. As soon as the war was over they were the first state to return. They had contributed Lincoln’s vice president to the nation, Andrew Johnson, a man who would succeed the war president, and whose home was in Greeneville, Tennessee (that mountainous, eastern part of the state, again). Johnson’s acquaintance, a Methodist preacher who had gone into very vitriolic unionist Republican newspaper publishing (whose newspaper was once called the “Whig and Rebel Ventilator”) William G. Brownlow, would ascend after the war to the governor’s mansion of the state of Tennessee in its post war, Republican-led existence. Brownlow’s home in the 1830s and 1840s was, you guessed it, Jonesborough. That he is known as “the most hated politician in Tennessee history” does not take into account the huge support he mustered from the eastern counties. In many of the mountain communities there were Methodist Churches after the war located side-by-side, one of southern affiliation, and the other of northern affiliation, directly linked to Brownlow’s interests. The Methodists in Jonesborough fought over the building and had to get a judge to rule who owned it after the war.
I am telling you this to illustrate a point. You can’t second-guess mountain people. They have their own opinions. They cannot be easily fit into a mold. As soon as Mountaineers detect you’re trying to fit them into your categories, they’ll blow your categories to smithereens. It’s a multi-generational, deeply held viewpoint. The title of this essay is directly influenced by the state motto of the mountain state itself, West Virginia. Montani Semper Liberi
If you want to make a mountaineer mad, just try to tell them they “have” to do something or other. Go ahead, try. You’ll get a quizzical look, a stoic silence, and you’ll be lucky if you get home without a tail-end full of buck shot. Non-conformity isn’t just a value, it’s a survival skill.