Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hillbilly Stereotype Started with New Yorker

"The Arkansas Traveler" by Edward Payson Washburn, 1858. 

Arkansans have been portrayed as backwoods hillbillies who lack education and intelligence since the area’s earliest years. An early visitor to the Arkansas Territory, Henry Schoolcraft, was instrumental in the development of the negative stereotype.

Schoolcraft was born in New York in 1793. As a boy, he became enamored with rocks and spent a lot of time studying geology. As an adult, he channeled that interest into a mining career. In 1818, Schoolcraft came to Missouri to scout mining interests, then moved south into the Ozarks.

He tried to recruit people for his Ozarks excursion, but all declined except Levi Pettibone, a fellow New Yorker.

Schoolcraft and Pettibone were not experienced outdoorsmen. Early in the trip, Schoolcraft made mistakes, including not hiring an experienced guide. He also wanted to “live off the land” during the trip but brought only a weapon used to hunt large game. He didn’t bring equipment to hunt smaller game, such as rabbits and squirrels.

The Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks largely were uncharted. As Schoolcraft and Pettibone wandered through the woods, they got lost numerous times. While following the North Fork of the White River, they encountered their first Arkansans — a family in a cabin at Bennet’s Bayou. The travelers had not seen anyone for 20 days, and Schoolcraft was eager to meet the cabin owner.

As Schoolcraft approached, he noticed the house was draped with deer and bear skins. The cabin’s owner, a man identified only as “Wells,” invited Schoolcraft inside. The cabin was well-built and fairly new, but Schoolcraft thought it was primitive and dirty. In his diary, Schoolcraft described the cabin as “the abode of man beyond the pale of the civilized world.” 

The man’s family also disturbed Schoolcraft. The boys were dressed in animal hides, and the girls wore buckskin frocks. Schoolcraft wrote “all were abundantly greasy and dirty.” 

The family also lacked social niceties, Schoolcraft wrote. “They could only talk of bears, hunting and the like. The rude pursuits and the coarse enjoyments of the hunter state, were all they knew.” None of the house’s residents could read, and the closest thing to government was the justice of the peace of Lawrence County, which was about 100 miles away. 

Schoolcraft was similarly critical of everyone he met in the Ozarks. To him, Arkansas was an alien place that was more than geographically far away from his native New York. It was also far away culturally, economically and religiously from what he knew.

When Schoolcraft returned to New York in 1819, he published the diary of his travels in a book called, “Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818 and 1819.” The book was the first glimpse northeasterners had of Arkansas, which became a Territory in March 1819.

The picture of Arkansas that Schoolcraft painted in his book was not pretty. He repeated tales of illiterate hunters, near feral children and crushing isolation. After reading his book, few New Yorkers were willing to make the trek to Arkansas. In Schoolcraft’s words, Arkansas was “beyond the pale of the civilized world.”  That reputation stuck, even as Arkansas developed. 

At least one other writer traveled to Arkansas and had similar criticism of the state. In the 1930s, writer H.L. Mencken made a trip from Baltimore, Maryland, to Arkansas. “Such shabby and flea-bitten villages I had never seen before, or such dreadful people,” Mencken said afterward. In response, the Arkansas legislature, in session at the time, passed a resolution to pray for Mencken’s soul.

Arkansas might have started out as the rough-and-tumble, backwoods territory Schoolcraft described, but as the state developed, so too did its culture, education, economy and amenities. Despite the progress, for many, the hillbilly stereotype persists today.

For more information about Schoolcraft, visit the Arkansas State Archives at http://archives.arkansas.gov or call 501-682-6900.