- From Hillbilly to Frontiersman:The Changing Nature of the WVU Mountaineer
West Virginia’s state motto, “Montani semper liberi” (“Mountaineers are always free”), began life as a declaration of the state’s independence from Virginia and continues to reflect an iconoclastic spirit with which contemporary residents still identify. From the beginning, West Virginians embraced their new identity as Mountaineers, though what it meant to be a Mountaineer at that time, and since that time, has varied considerably and has been profoundly influenced by West Virginia University’s adoption of the Mountaineer as its mascot in the early twentienth century.
The Mountaineer identity predates the formation of the state: long before the Civil War, residents of the western part of Virginia felt themselves to be culturally and economically different from their eastern counterparts. Most mountain residents were independent and geographically dispersed farmers who did not own the relatively small parcels of land that they farmed, whereas the eastern part of the state was dominated by wealthy, slave-holding landowners. When the state of Virginia drew up its constitution in 1776, it granted voting rights only to “white males owning at least 25 acres of improved or 50 acres of unimproved land.”1 This requirement clearly favored residents in the more level and already cultivated eastern part of the state. Western Virginians were also disenfranchised by Virginia’s law allowing only “two delegates per county, regardless of population.”2 Western residents bristled under these restrictions, and in 1803, John G. Jackson, the state representative from Harrison County, in the western part of the state, wrote a letter to the Richmond Examiner condemning these practices. Notably, he signed it not with his name, but instead as “A Mountaineer.”3
Thus, from its first appearance in print as a synonym for a resident of western Virginia, the idea of the Mountaineer has not only been integral to West Virginians’ identity, but also inherently conjures up notions of rebelliousness, independence, and dissent—although how those notions manifested themselves changed over time, as we shall see. And, despite the term’s longevity, ideas about [End Page 15] who the Mountaineer is have always been contested and fluid. The image of the Mountaineer underwent substantial change after World War II, particularly in its formal and informal incarnations at West Virginia University. During this period, students and administrators forged very different images of the Mountaineer, and the legacy of those competing images lingers to the present day.
The Evolution of the Mountaineer
Before looking at the Mountaineer at WVU, specifically, we need to consider the term “Mountaineer” more broadly, because it has currency outside of West Virginia, and because it has been used both as a synonym for the term “hillbilly” and as a proud corrective to that term. As such, it is important first to trace the cultural roots of both terms, both to understand their shared semantic origins and to understand when, where, and how West Virginians tried to gain control of Mountaineer iconography.
The figure of the Mountaineer has its roots in the colonial American figure of the rural rube, itself based on the stock character of the Yorkshire-man “Hodge” in British theatre.4 Perhaps the earliest analogy can be found in Virginia planter William Byrd’s account of his 1728 expedition to survey the contested boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, in which he describes lazy men who “lye and Snore … light their Pipes. … [and] loiter away their lives” while their wives do all the work—an image made concrete by Billy DeBeck some two hundred years later in the character of Snuffy Smith.5 In between, however, the figure’s geographic, class, and racial identity took on ever more complexity. After the Civil War, the term “poor white trash” emerged explicitly to emphasize the nonwhiteness of impoverished white rural Southerners. Descriptions of the era point to the desire of urban Northern whites to distance themselves from this “Cracker race,” as one newspaper article put it, and also to place “white trash” in a hierarchy of whiteness and pseudo-whiteness that would prevent such people from advancement. An 1866 Boston newspaperman contended that poor southern whites lived in “such filthy...