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Mountain Culture and Tug Valley Life
by Ken Sullivan

The Tug Valley took its cultural imprint relatively late in American history.  Located well off the major routes of westward migration, the Tug watershed was passed over in favor of broader river valleys to the north and south or richer soils and gentler terrain to the west.  Settlement commenced in earnest only around the turn of the 19th century, at a time when the farther frontier was already advancing on the Mississippi.

The first Tug settlers made their mark in a cultural vacuum.  There was no surviving native Indian population whose ways might affect those of the newcomers, nor any Indian threat to impede settlement.  Thus there was little of the cultural interchange that marked the advance frontier, nor was the early Tug Valley shaped by the culture of warfare.  Unlike the New, Kanawha and Holston valleys, the Tug River country was settled in peace.  

The culture they brought was western European in broad derivation, the settlers being predominantly of British and German descent.  But America itself was nearly 200 years old at the time and had developed set ways of its own, and it is likely that these contributed more to the Tug than did more remote European antecedents.  Tug pioneers brought distinctly American patterns of non-intensive land use, for example, and American ideals of government.  Mountaineers were not a lawless people, instead taking a utilitarian view of politics and the law, resorting freely to the courts and seeking whatever advantage government might bestow.  Such traits have produced some notorious corruption cases -- but also a population that takes more than a textbook interest in self-governance.

Given the basic raw materials of a western European heritage and American notions of society and politics, the prime factors at work were time and isolation.  For most of a century after settlement the people of the Tug went largely undisturbed.  They filled the rugged landscape nearly to its natural capacity, given current agricultural practices, evolving large local kinship groups.

Left alone, Tug people became more like themselves.  They were overwhelmingly white, with negligible slave or free black population, almost entirely Protestant, and they spoke an English which grew increasingly archaic by outside standards.  They resided on isolated farmsteads, taking their living from the land and providing most of their worldly goods by their own practical handiwork.  Visitors who penetrated remote mountain areas of this era described a population that was backward but proudly independent, a population whose contemporary ancestors were pure of the changes that swept industrializing America in the 19th century. 

But those changes came soon enough, reaching southern West Virginia in the closing years of the 19th century.  Timbering was the first modern industry seriously pursued in the Tug watershed, followed by railroading and coal mining.  Industrialization had profound cultural implications, altering the economic basis of life, effectively divorcing residents from control of resources, and bringing a huge influx of population.  The newcomers were much different from the original settlers, many of them eastern and southern European immigrants or blacks from the American South.  They brought alien ways, leavening the traditional mountain culture with new languages, new food, new religions, new dress, and entirely new ways of looking at the world.

Time passed and cultures melded in the Tug Valley as elsewhere in America.  Immigrant parents aged and died, to be replaced by native-born children.  Sharp cultural distinctions faded.  By World War II the Tug watershed was richly American place populated by citizens from a broad diversity of backgrounds.

Mine mechanization and other economic changes of the post-war era have pushed the Tug population in size and broad demographics in what may be viewed as a new direction -- or an old one.  There are fewer residents than there were, and they are more homogeneous.  In these ways the current Tug population more closely resembles that of pre-industrial times.  It may be speculated that the original core population -- descendants of the settlers of two centuries ago -- is re-emerging as the continuous thread of Tug Valley history. 

Ken Sullivan is the Folklife Director at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and Editor of Goldenseal magazine.

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