Harry Caudill: Appalachian Environmentalist

A Plowboy Interview with an outspoken opponent of strip mining and a staunch supporter of Appalachia — its land and its people.

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    Appalachian environmentalist and author Harry Caudill.

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Harry Caudill, born in 1922, has spent most of his life speaking out for the land especially for the land of Appalachia. He has spoken as a citizen, as a crusader, as a historian, as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a Kentucky legislator (three terms). Unfortunately — as anyone familiar with the continuing rape of the Appalachians knows — he has spoken mostly in vain.  

Caudill suffers special agonies whenever he contemplates the desolation that strip miners leave in their wake and he has repeatedly cried out against this insane monument to greed in numerous magazine articles and three books: Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Dark Hills to Westward, and My Land Is Dying. The last, published in 1973, carries an introduction by Robert Coles which says of the book's author: "He writes, he fights in the courts, he speaks to people, he does all he can and more than most of us. A more enlightened nation would honor him as one of its finest citizens. But then, a more enlightened nation would not be so in need of his kind of extraordinary public service."  

A lifelong resident of Kentucky's Letcher County, which his ancestors helped settle, Mr. Caudill has practiced law in Whitesburg since 1948. He, his wife Anne, and one of their three children currently reside in a modern home near the base of Pine Mountain where Greg Carannante and Jim Webb conducted the following interview in late February of this year.
Mr. Caudill, what were the people who settled the Southern Highlands — especially West Virginia and eastern Kentucky really like? The classic story that we all like to repeat is that the white pioneers of this part of the country — our forefathers — were literate Scotch-Irish. Yet you maintain, in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, that the first settlers here were the "dregs" of Europe people originally imported into North America as indentured servants.  

I was talking to Jesse Stuart about that not long ago and he said, "I'm astonished that anybody would argue that we mountaineers are mostly Scotch-Irish. We're not. We're mostly English. Our ballads, our music, our traditions everything about us is English, and that's true. If you trace the oldest families in these parts back to their immigrant ancestors all of whom left Europe between 1600 and 1700 — well, there you are — indentured servants and a good number of them from England. Take my family, for example. We go back to William Caudill, who shipped out of Grave's End, England, in 1635 when he was 20 years old.

The Scotch-Irish didn't start coming over until way up in the 1700's, when England got to legislating against their wool trade That doesn't mean, however that our English ancestors — the ones who eventually peopled these mountains — were the stalwart pioneers that we like to imagine. Far from it!

It was the Scotch-Irish and the Germans and the Huguenot French, in the main, who pushed the frontier west. They passed right through these mountains and cleared them of Indians while our forefathers waited patiently back east. My ancestors, for instance, were down in Wilkes County, North Carolina when Boone and his contemporaries were building Harrodsburg and Boonesboro.

7/28/2010 7:13:20 PM

I wish every one of our elected officials in Washington and across the nation could read this. It is right on !

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