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  • Appalachia as a Contested Borderland of the Early Modern Atlantic, 1528–16821
  • Kimberly C. Borchard


During the twentieth century, Appalachia became stereotyped as a rural back-water rife with the poverty and ignorance emblematic of English-speaking "Deep America" at its worst. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines Appalachia as "a term for areas in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern US that exhibit long-term poverty and distinctive folkways."2 But far from foreshadowing impoverished twentieth-century caricatures of the region, the first European accounts of the area offered promises of boundless wealth alongside dramatic tales of violent encounters with indigenous warriors and the ever-present threat of attack by European rivals. With local Native American informants feeding their dreams of gold and silver mines dwarfing those of Mexico and Peru, explorers of Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German origin raced to stake their claims to the imagined riches of the Appalachian borderlands.

Charles Hudson describes Spanish interest in North America as borne of the conquest of the Nahua and Inca empires in 1519 and 1535, respectively. Since "Spaniards had found riches only after reaching the interior" of the territories controlled by these great New World civilizations, hope blossomed that similar wealth would be found inland to the north.3 The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca reported that Native Americans told him "samples of gold" he discovered in western Florida in 1528 came from a distant realm called Apalache.4 The term was transposed to the mountains as Apalchen by the Spanish cartographer Diego Gutiérrez in 1562, and the mountains denominated Montes Apalatci by the French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues following his travel to Florida in 1564–1565.5 The Apalachee of northwest Florida thus "unwittingly gave their name to one of the largest natural features in the eastern United States, the Appalachian Mountains."6 Gabriel Archer did not make the first English-language mention of the "mountaynes Apalatsi" until his 1607 account of Christopher Newport's exploration of the James River.7 [End Page 91]

Notwithstanding the international array of individuals and languages involved in the exploration and (mis)naming of Appalachia, American historiography has portrayed postcontact Appalachian history as an essentially English affair, with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish and French forays into Apalache/Apalatci as anomalies in the path toward inevitable Anglo-American settlement. Conversely, studies of colonial Latin America touch on Apalache as a northern realm stumbled upon and abandoned in the course of catastrophically failed expeditions leaving Cuba in search of wealth comparable to that of Mexico and Peru. Perhaps it is due to Spain's failure to establish any imperial stronghold or center of administrative power in the area (as opposed to the missions that survived in Florida until the eighteenth century) that there has been no sustained effort to study Spain's interest in Apalache as analogous to its sixteenth-century search for gold in South America. Nevertheless, Apalache would maintain the evocative power of El Dorado in the English colonial imagination well into the eighteenth century. And a wide variety of early documents indicate a pervasive belief that the eastern mountains of North America hid within them a native empire of fertile lands and rivers flowing with gold, populated by fearless warriors and formidable women.8 Rumors such as these were so typical of early Spanish accounts of the mythic Amazonian El Dorado that they were clichés by the 1560s, when Apalache appeared on maps of North America; and English interest in the Appalachian Mountains was fueled from the beginning by rumors of Spanish mines secluded in an opulent inland dominion, which, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, became suspiciously reminiscent of that described by Spanish explorers in the far reaches of Amazonia.

Though belief in the existence of Spanish mines inspired the first English-funded exploration of Appalachia in the seventeenth century, significant gold deposits were not discovered in the Appalachians until the 1820s, and the first Georgia gold mines did not begin operation until summer 1829.9 A brief period of nineteenth-century gold mining was soon overshadowed by the large-scale mining of coal that began in earnest in the...


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