A Brief Population History of Central Appalachia
They Peaked in 1830
For this post, I want to look at the population history of Appalachia. As those who follow me on Twitter know, I spend a lot of my weekends traveling, especially in Appalachia. Over Memorial Day weekend, I was in Harlan County, Kentucky, and it was fantastic. But it also got me thinking about Appalachian population and I realized, huh, I’ve got no idea what the history of Appalachian population actually is. Luckily, I have my handy-dandy historic county files, so I can actually look into this question. Let’s start by getting the total population of “Appalachia.”
But for that, we need a definition of Appalachia. One such definition could be the Appalachian Regional Commission’s coverage. But ARC is a sprawling region that goes vastly beyond what most core-area Appalachians would consider Appalachia, and what most people around the country would consider Appalachia.
So I have taken the ARC counties for Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and then trimmed them down a bit around the edges and, crucially, dropped Knoxville out. This yields us a much smaller region concentrated in areas I think everyone would agree are “Appalachian.” The largest cities are Asheville, NC; Charleston, WV; Kingsport, TN; Maryville, TN; Johnson City, TN; Hendersonville, NC; Morgantown, WV; Oak Ridge, TN; Blacksburg, VA; and Huntington, WV. In other words, this is an area of small towns and rural populations.
So here’s a map of my final area:
Pretty straightforward except for Knoxville. I dropped Knoxville because I decided I want to talk not only about the region of Appalachia, but about the places outsiders imagine as being Appalachian. Knoxville isn’t usually “imagined” as being Appalachian. It’s a major interstate crossroads and, all in all, a fairly well-to-do city. Plus, Appalachia is imagined as being basically rural. Knoxville has close to 200,000 residents. The next largest city in my area, Asheville, has under 100,000. Knox County has about 450,000 residents. It’s in a league of its own as far as Appalachian population levels goes.
Appalachian populations grew faster than the nation on the whole until 1830, then lost share after that. They reached a semi-stable plateau from 1900–1940, but the sharp decline after that was accompanied by actual population decline. And although the 1970s saw some recovery, it was undone by decline in the 1980s, and continued weak growth since, and indeed another decline from 2010–2015.
So we can see some key inflection points here. Useful snapshots might be 1800, 1830, 1870, 1920, 1950, 1970, and 2015. Below, I’ll provide maps for each of those years, all using the same scale.
Woah, woah, woah, woah. Hold up there. That map got weird.
Settlement skipped the core of Appalachia! Look at that! From 1800 to 1830, a whole cluster of green dots shows up around the Ohio River, central Kentucky, and further into Tennessee, but the classic core of Appalachia, in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia, remains remarkably empty. In other words, today’s poorest parts of Appalachia also appear to have been settled thinly and late.
By 1870 that empty space is starting to fill up, but, still, eastern Ohio seems like the major Appalachian population center. Core Appalachia is not very large.
Boom! There we go! Central Appalachia has been settled! By 1920, the population-lagging hill-country of Kentucky and West Virginia had caught up to the peripheries of Appalachia. And if you flip back up to the population graphs, you’ll notice that, after steep share-decline from 1830 to 1870, the graph leveled out such that, by the first half of the 20th-century, Appalachia’s share of national population essentially stabilized.
And a stable share means absolute population growth.
By 1950, you can almost see a trend reversal. Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia seem like population hubs compared to more thinly-populated eastern Ohio and the western edge of Appalachian Kentucky. And, for the record, these maps are all drawn on pretty much the same scale.
The reason, of course, is coal. From 1870 to 1950, huge amounts of coal employment created a massive demand for labor in Kentucky and West Virginia. This labor demand was met by domestic migrants, locals, and international migrants. Also notably, coal workers were forbidden from quitting their jobs to volunteer during WWII, reducing the impact of a major population re-shuffler.
But by 1970, uh-oh. Eastern Kentucky is visibly depopulating, as is southern West Virginia. Again, this is the loss of coal jobs. Without coal coming out of the ground, this region did not prove to be optimal for a large number of other industries. There are some of course, including timber, tourism, and some manufacturing, but by and large these areas just aren’t ideal for lots of what we might call “high-value-added” industries.
By 2000, eastern Kentucky’s decline had continued. Southern Appalachia in Tennessee and North Carolina grew substantially, but both the core Appalachian counties and the “Rust Belt periphery” in Ohio and northern West Virginia show clear signs of decline.
And now we come to the present day. But I want to make this a little easier to see the change, so below is a map of change.
As you can see, southern Appalachia continues to grow. A few counties along the periphery of Appalachia have also eked out growth. But the overwhelming story within the heart of Appalachia is a decade and a half of decline.
Just so you can see it more clearly, I got the time series of population for the 62 Kentucky and West Virginia counties I identify as the “deep core” of Appalachia, in absolute and share of national terms, shown below:
As you can see, the heartland of Appalachia has suffered a far more severe population decline than the region on the whole, with 2015 populations having the smallest share of the national population since 1810, and total regional population 19% below its peak in 1950.
What To Do With Appalachia?
Hah! You Think I’ve Got Solutions!
There’s a whole genre out there of “urban elites solve Appalachia’s problems in 1500 words.” It’s a bad genre which exploits Appalachians in difficult straits as some kind of blank canvas on which the author’s agenda can be painted.
I can’t tell you what we should do about Appalachia’s population decline, because I don’t know. Here’s a Twitter exchange I had while in Harlan:
So yeah, I’m not sure what to do, or even if there’s anything we can do, and even if we can, I’m not sure if we should.
But the histories do suggest that attempts to maintain Appalachian population levels face serious headwinds. It was a seriously underpopulated area relative to its neighbors for a century or more, until coal mining began. Coal mining is the sole, exclusive reason why Appalachia’s population boomed.
Today, it’s hard to see what industries exist in which Appalachia has a comparative advantage as vast as it had in coal. I’m not saying none do or could ever exist; I’m just saying that if they can or do, they don’t seem extremely clear right now. Tourism is great, but Appalachia competes with many areas, and access is at least as hard or harder as the Rocky Mountains in many cases. Timber is swell, but lots of places have timber, and Appalachia’s terrain can, in some cases, make it less advantageous for logging than, say, the flat coastal plains of south Georgia. Agriculture on the scale practiced in Appalachia is not nearly as lucrative as in other parts of the country, especially since the topography makes big factory farms challenging, and the lack of nearby high-income urban centers takes niche sales and farmers-market-markups off the table.
Greater availability of social welfare and public support certainly boosts Appalachia’s relative position, or at least means it may not depopulate as much, but that’s not exactly a strong stimulus for growth and upward mobility.
In other words, the market equilibrium for Appalachian population may be even lower than the levels we see today. I know this will cause deep sadness for locals who long for recovery; and as someone who genuinely loves Appalachia, it does for me too. But we can’t let hopes blind us to realities. On some level, population must be associated with economic activity to support it. Coal mining is still declining, and when it’s completely gone, it’s not clear how much economic activity will remain, and therefore how much population can be sustained.
Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.
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I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.