Old Data, New Data

Map left showing Appalachian counties supporting Union (yellow) Map right showing Appalachian regions most likely to use racial slurs in search terms on Google (red)

Map left showing Appalachian counties supporting Union (yellow) Map right showing Appalachian regions most likely to use racial slurs in search terms on Google (red)


The map on the left was compiled during the Civil War era.  The map on the right is the recent result of Google Analytics data.

Most people inclined to think about it have always seen the Civil War in terms of a simple North/South divide.

The literary-minded among us grew up aware of The Mason-Dixon Line in song and history, believing that just a few degrees of latitude determined a geographically and ideologically simple division between “Yankeedom” and “Dixie”.

Twern’t so, however.

“Appalachia”, the great ridge separating “The East” from “The West” in the American imagination, has always existed as a separate entity unto itself.

The yellow fields in the map on the left represent counties which voted AGAINST secession from the Union. A good eye will notice that in the 1860s, Union sympathies could be seen in a rough pattern corresponding to the most mountainous parts of West Virginia, the hills of western Pennsylvania, East Tennessee, Northern Alabama and North Georgia, with Eastern Kentucky trying to sit on the fence.

What was going on – that this backbone of Union sympathy extended like a worrisome splinter right down into the flesh of the so-called “Deep South”?

But an even more interesting question arises from the map on the right side.

Like an almost devilish alter-ego, the spine of hills and hollers which were once stubborn outposts of resistance to the Confederacy have turned into something different altogether.

The red areas on the modern map correspond roughly to the yellow counties on the old map.

But this time, red represents those places in the USA most likely to use the “N-word” and other racist terms in Google searches and social media analytics.

What changed, and why?




Actions taken by the Tennessee state legislature in the years preceding the Civil War furnish an example of how laws can have a profound effect on personal and public identities, then and now.

The new 1834 Constitution of Tennessee reset the limits of the voting franchise, depriving free persons of color” of their right of suffrage.

The new Constitution read:

“Every free white [author’s bold type] man of the age of twenty-one years, being a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the county wherein he may offer his vote, six months next preceding the day of election, shall be entitled to vote for members of the General Assembly, and other civil officers for the county or district in which he resides.”

This one-word change to Tennessee’s first state Constitution brought it largely in line with with the norm in neighbouring states.

But why did Tennessee differ in the first place?

Why did free blacks have the right to vote under the first state Constitution?


As ever more repressive race laws came into force in places like Virginia and the Carolinas, the free people of color who had been present there since the early 1600s found themselves ostracised, in an atmosphere of repression and violence.  The danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery became a daily reality.

The mountains and valleys, hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee became a magnet for this lowest section of the American underclasses, along with various hunters, trappers, war veterans, bandits, runaway slaves and indentured servants.

In addition to these came an array of impoverished Germans, Jews, Gypsies, Swedes, Welsh, Scottish, English, Irish, South Asians, and many others.

ALL of these peoples intermixed in varying degrees with each other and with the indigenous populations of Southern Appalachia, creating America’s first truly multi-ethnic community.

In 1790, a half-Cherokee, half Welsh man named “Thomas” didn’t care if his neighbour “Solomon” was quarter African, quarter Creek Indian, and half German, as long as he could fire a long rifle when the Chickamauga attacked their blockhouse fort.

And Thomas certainly wasn’t going to deny Solomon his right to vote once things settled down a few years later.

So for thirty or forty years, Southern Appalachia – especially in its remotest, rockiest places where land was free or cheap – remained a refuge for people of every ethnicity.

But the bigoted and greedy never rest, and by the 1830s, avaricious, violent bigots had their eyes firmly fixed on more slavery, and more land.

Indian land.

Families who were “living as Indians” were forced out of their homes at gunpoint, rounded-up, and herded west like so many cattle.

Mixed-ethnic families who were “living as whites” had their voting rights removed.

The resentment felt by these mixed-ethnic mountain communities surely contributed to their mostly pro-Union sentiment at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Which of course led to an inordinate level of suffering at the hands of Confederate bushwhackers.

The eventual triumph of Union troops did not improve their lot.

If anything, prospects for mixed-ethnic Appalachians became worse than ever with the advent of post-war Jim Crow laws and the restoration of “white” supremacy between 1880 and 1930.

Being seen as anything less than 100% “white” carried grave social consequences in terms of access to education, access to jobs, and a loss of personal dignity.

It is a huge oversimplification to put it this way, but whereas African-Americans in the Deep South could agitate for civil rights as a community – a community descended from the formerly enslaved – isolated mixed-ethnic mountain people who were descended from “free people of color” had no such power in numbers.

So instead of marching for “brown rights”, many JUST CHOSE TO SELF-IDENTIFY AS “WHITE”.

Dark complexions were explained by the existence of the now proverbial “Cherokee great-grandmother”.

Acceptable ethnic descriptors, often with a grain of truth to them, came into common use.  “Black Dutch”.  “Portuguese”.  “Black Irish”.

Even people with only one or two remote ancestors from Ulster (representing perhaps 1/64th of their ancestry), proclaimed themselves as “pure Scots-Irish”.

And the tragedy, the absurdity of American race-based identity reaches its zenith when a person on social media shares a vintage photo of a clearly mixed-ethnic great-great-grandmother.

One person comments “Oh my goodness. She looks part Indian.”

Another opines that she might be “Melungeon“, an epithet implying part African ancestry.

Another retorts with “Why’d you say that? There are loads of people in Ireland with a dark complexion and black hair. We’re Scots-Irish!”.

Round and round the arguments fly.

And thinking people are left to ponder the meaning of two maps, separated by 150 years and thousands of lives lived in the cold shadow of “race identity”.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #union #confederacy #racism #ethnicity

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