By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
What do the color of the Tennessee Volunteers, the College of William and Mary and the word “hillbilly” have in common?
According to Dr. Barry Aron Vann, all can trace their origins to the Scot-Irish ancestry of early Appalachian settlers — and in particular, William of Orange in the 17th century.
“To understand our culture, you have to understand what happened back then,” he told the audience at Tuesday’s Hungry for History lecture on “The Wilderness Road and the Seed of Ulster.”
Vann, who joined the University of the Cumberlands this year as the founding director of the doctor of education program, gave an hour-long history lesson, complete with personal antidotes and character voices.
In 1688, James II was king of England, Scotland and Ireland, and — much to the dismay of Northern Ireland Protestants — had converted to Catholicism. The issue of religion (and a few other policies) eventually led to a revolution in which William of Orange, a Protestant prince from Scotland, gained the crown.
At Williams’ arrive, James fled to France and began raising an army to invade — which he did, landing in Ireland in 1689.
“(Wiliam’s) followers, who had hid out in the woods and up in the hills where they could see their enemies coming, were known as ‘billyboys’... hillbillies,” Vann said.
The billyboys and William of Orange went on to victory, and their influence was felt in America. The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693 in Williamsburg, Va., was named for William of Orange and his wife. Vann asserted that chants of “Big Orange” could even been traced to the Ulster-Scottish tradition brought by the settlers of the region. “Orangemen” celebrations in Ireland that still take place today, he said, look like any game day in Knoxville, Tenn.
The early wave of Scots-Irish immigrants came over in the early 1700s.
“Whenever these folk started coming to America, they weren’t able to go to New England because, or course, the English had already established themselves there,” Vann said.
Instead, they were encouraged to settle the wilder regions to the west — the Appalachian Mountain range.
“Most of our anscesters, including mine, were humble people,” Vann said. “They were freed from the bondages of fuedalism, and when they arrived in the ports Philidelphia and Charleston, S.C., they were for the most part poor. They’d spent all their money getting over here, very few of them had any surplus wealth at all.”
Early settlers included Scottish Protestants, English Baptists, Welsh Baptist, English Quakers, French Huguenots and German Baptists. Today, there are relatively few Protestants and Presbyterians in Appalachia. Vann attributed that decline to those faiths’ requirements that clergy obtain formal training — something not easy to do in the early frontier years, though many early colleges in the region were established to do so.
The Scots-Irish immigrants — who Vann said had spent years fighting the Catholics and centuries fighting the English — typically had little faith in government and were very self-relient.
“Family and kin are so important because there was no central government that you could call upon to help out,” Vann said. “... So when you come to Appalachia and you don’t have a central government and your government is pushing you to the forefront, well what are you going to do? You’re going to rely upon family, you’re going to rely upon taking the law into your own hands, and you’re going to rely upon a way of life that your ancestors have been developing for centuries.”
The “hillbillies” settled the ridges of the mountains, on locations that weren’t ideal for farming but did provide an opportunity for defense.
“Do we have in this part of the country a strong love of the central government?” Vann asked. “Do we believe that when we’ve got a problem, we call up the government to fix it? Now where do you suppose that comes from? It comes from our ancestors.”
Next week, Vann will look at the influence Scot-Irish heritage has had on Appalachia today — from economics to country music.
Vann will continue his lecture at noon Tuesday at the Tourism Community Room. On Dec. 9 and Dec. 16, Dr. R.W. Reising will present a two-part series on athlete Jim Thorpe. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased by calling 215-0127.
By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
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