You can see Appalachia from here.

Where Is Appalachia?

Americans love to argue about regional definitions. The Upshot recently ran a piece exploring how we define “the Heartland” (spoiler: most people view the Heartland as either the Midwest or non-coastal regions). 538 has run polls exploring which states are in the south (yes, Kentucky definitely makes the cut!) as well as which states are in the midwest (Kentucky sometimes gets included here too. Hm.).

There’s debate about how to define Appalachia as well. The most typical definition is based on the Appalachian Regional Commission:

However, this map has several commonly-cited defects. On the one hand, it seems to include far too much: does Appalachia really extend all the way to the Atlanta suburbs, central New York, Lake Erie’s shores, the edges of Cincinnati, Mammoth Cave National Park, and practically the Mississippi River? We seem to be over-defining the region here.

On the other hand, there are odd omissions. Why is virtually the entire upper Shenandoah excluded from Appalachia? Indeed, why is almost the entire Virginia Blue Ridge system cut out? How does it happen that a near-majority of the Appalachian Trail is located in counties not in Appalachia? That seems odd!

Other definitions have been proposed:

But here’s the basic problem.

Appalachia is a very big region, as I’ve explained at length in the past. It has a lot of land area and a lot of people; indeed it’s more densely populated than the nation on the whole (surprise!), yet simultaneously associated with rurality. Furthermore, Appalachia is a mountainous region, indeed a region in some sense defined by its “Appalachian Mountains.” But mountains serve as subdivisions; they cut apart communities and areas and make the formation of a singular identity difficult. In my opinion, we should think less about “Appalachia” and more about “Appalachias.” There are several Appalachias.

I recently got the chance to fiddle with this neat county-mapping tool. I originally played with it to make maps of places I’ve been.

Where I’ve traveled.

But I quickly realized there was a more interesting use of the tool: open-source, collaborative mapping of regions! It’s very easy to build and color-code regions with the tool, so it’s a chance for people to color in their own map and their own view of what constitutes a specific region.

So, on a whim, I colored in my view of the Appalachian region(s). Here was my first attempt:

Okay, so I’ve got several regions here! I’ve extended the range of Appalachia in the east, most of the area I call Great Valley Country, while I’ve fairly drastically hacked down Appalachia in the south and in Ohio.

Crucially, I’ve also set up sub-regions. The sweeping, straight ridges and broad valleys of the Great Valley Country, the Extended Smokies, and the Interior Ridgelines bear little resemblance to the highlands of the Southern Periphery, or the jagged, tight ravines of Holler Land, or the industrial river valleys of Pittsburghia. Meanwhile, the Interior Ridgelines, with their rurality, lack of major cities, dense preservation areas, and steeper mountains, are quite different from the more prosperous and less dramatically sculpted Great Valley Country, or the higher-altitude and more rugged Extended Smoky Mountains.

But I got criticisms. Some examples of common criticisms:

On Facebook as well, feedback came pouring in:

So, 2 common threads will stand out.

  1. I shortchanged western North Carolina and north Georgia.
  2. Ohioans and New Yorkers really want to be seen as Appalachians.

The North Carolina exclusion seems particularly egregious, and to be honest was just a mistake on my part. So I did a Take 2 on the map. Here’s what I got:

Okay, so, some improvement maybe! The Extended Smokies have been extended a lot. But, other than that, pretty similar. I was resistant to the New York/Ohio expansions, and even to some Georgian ones. On the whole, one of my main thoughts here is that the “Appalachian” franchise may have been too broadly expanded, such that the word lacks meaning.

But then I realized, huh, maybe I’m missing the point. My method here of assigning different Appalachias, so Pittsburghia Appalachia, Interior Ridgeline Appalachia, etc, allows for some flexibility. Maybe the regions I’m resistant to adding should be included, as they are part of what at least some people view as Appalachia… but I should just make them their own region! Seems reasonable!

And then I got thinking, hey, are my existing regions right? So I tweaked a few counties here or there… but then I realized I might have one big mistake. Take this recent map of US regions based on commuting patterns:

Note how the Columbus region extends all the way to Virginia! Holy cow! Basically, much of West Virginia exists in a very direct economic relationship with Ohio. We can zoom in for more detail:

Notice here how Pikeville is its own economic cluster, and how Ohio extends all the way into Charleston! Beckley gets lumped in too, but the relationship is much more diffuse. All in all, this map gave me pause about including western West Virginia, and even pieces of northeastern Kentucky, in “Holler Land,” as I think the Pikeville region and eastwards into southern West Virginia is really the quintessential Holler Land. As such, I made a new region, called the “Appalachian Rust Belt,” extended deeper into Ohio, but also including Parkersburg, Huntington, and Charleston, WV, as well as Ashland, KY.

UPDATE 1: I’ve updated the map above! I deleted a county in Delaware I’d accidentally added, and also extended the Great Valley Country a bit further north into NJ.

The final result is above. I think that’s a pretty good map of Appalachia on the whole, and especially of its various sub-regions. If what you want is “hard-core Appalachia,” then Holler Land and the Interior Ridgelines are probably your best bet. But you will find substantial populations who self-identify as Appalachian, as well as various common cultural artifacts, throughout all these regions.

You may disagree with my definition. That’s fine! I hope you’ll leave a response outlining your own definition! You can draw a map of your own here.

UPDATE 2: I also think this map is reasonable:

UPDATE 3: This tweet is interesting. Below is the original proposed ARC map, without many of the politicized additions.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. 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.