Humans have an innate ability to move locations; from the very early days of humanoid
existence, we have been wanderers. Our early survival depended on being nomadic; following our food source, hunting and gathering along the way. Domestication and city building did not stop our wandering ways. As climates have shifted and resources have changed, wars broken out, and economies hit the skids, humans have moved right along. One fact remains true from prehistory until today — we move in the hopes of creating a better life.
The United States is a nation mostly populated by people who have come from far away. We are a nation of migrants. Each wave of migrations, whether from outside our borders or within, has its own story. This blog is about one such story: those who initially settled the mountains of North Carolina and Southern Appalachia and later turned their heads toward lands further west in Washington State and the mountains of the North Cascades.
My husband and I moved to the beautiful Appalachian mountains a year ago from the far northwest corner of Washington State. We are the face of today’s migration, a flip of past cycles. Once we finally arrived in our new home, a funny thing kept happening: everywhere that we went people were telling us that they had familial lines back in Washington State. The two locations that came up most frequently were the Skagit River valley and the town of Darrington, places that were both close to our former home and that we knew reasonably well. What was going on? Are we living in the Twilight Zone? I had to figure out what this seemingly bizarre connection was all about. This two-part blog series will cover what I have found.
Clearly both the Southern Highlands and the Northern Cascades have been natural draws to my family. I can understand the comfortability that those headed from the old mountain chain, to the young one must have felt. They are very similar, though separated by a vast nation. Both areas have relatively temperate climates, yet experience all the seasons. They are mostly rural mountain zones, covered in lush forests with beautiful bubbling streams and rivers. With similar natural resources, similar industry arose, although the economic growth was staggered in timing. Even the elevations are similar: the town of Darrington sits at 549 ft. and the tallest peak, Whitehorse Mountain, stretches to 6,852 ft., though there are peaks in the Pacific Northwest that do reach much higher and can be covered in glaciers. Natural surroundings are not the only common denominator in these two locations. Independence and rugged nature of the people are integral to the character of both places. That human similarity might be owed to the fact that there is so much influence culturally from the Southern Appalachians or that the people who were drawn to the Cascades are a certain breed, a chicken or egg situation or a scramble of both. Being so similar, (see pictures at the top of the page) the PNW (Pacific Northwest) has been a natural draw for those looking for a new start from the much older mountainscapes of Western North Carolina. In Woodrow Clevinger’s seminal work on the Appalachian Mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest, he speaks to this idea of common place, “The basis of cultural transfer lies in the similarity of conditions of the Cascade foothills and the Appalachian Mountains. Many people escaping the pressure of population on inadequate resources of the Appalachian Mountains found the Cascade hills the most ideal habitat in the West.” 1
There would be three main migrations from the Southern Appalachian highlands to the Northern Cascades. The first push came in the days of westward expansion, specifically the 1880’s; second wave came in the beginning of the 20th century through the Depression; the third and last big migration came after World War Two, the mid ‘40’s-’70’s as a part of the larger national, great migration. A little note of context: when I speak to Southern Highlanders, I mean people who came from the more general area of: West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Western North Carolina. In a more pinpointed way, I will refer to folks originally from our specific location of Western North Carolina as either the Tarheels or Carolinians.
To understand the earlier soft migrations of the Southern Highlanders to the Cascades we must look at the larger picture of American expansion and migration going all the way back to the War of 1812 and the ramifications for the fledgling nation. Though the war of 1812 was considered a draw by all standards, the U.S. did succeed in a major accomplishment, establishing our young nation as a truly independent one and reinforcing the outcome of the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 created a more definitive boundary between English-ruled Canada and the young United States. The Louisiana Purchase had also been made just a decade prior, securing a large portion of land west of the Mississippi and south through the port of New Orleans. Lewis and Clark were charged with their epic journey of discovery, and the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was just around the bend. The nation was ready to look west and fulfill its manifest destiny of settling this great land from sea to shining sea. But it was not until the treaty dealing with the Oregon territory that the United States could truly stretch its wings.
With the Oregon Treaty of 1846, England and the United States agreed to split the Oregon Territory, once containing land stretching as far north as British Columbia, as far-east as parts of Montana, and as far south as, yes you guessed it, Oregon. Britain and the United States agreed to split the territory at the 49th parallel, opening up the lands of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon to U.S. settlements. The Oregon Trail was on, Dysentery was a very real phenomenon, and a broken wagon wheel was a lot more detrimental to those early settlers than to the early pioneers of computer gaming.
It would take decades for the Federal government to begin making real inroads on western settlement. Despite this inaction, people began pushing west, not waiting for the government. By the 1850’s it was common thought that a majority of the good, arable land in the east had been claimed. People also saw the great wealth to be had in the lands west, specifically with the California gold rush of 1849. The first true government initiative to move settlement westward came by way of the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act was voted on 3 times between 1852-1859, narrowly passing in 1860, only to be vetoed by President Buchanan. Early on, both Northern and Southern factory owners were fearful that if the government passed a Homestead act, granting people cheap lands in the west, they would be left without a low-income workforce. Influential people in both the North and the South were against the government program. In the South there was yet another sticking point: what would become of these new western lands once they became full states? This question would become a catalyst for the Civil War. The southern states feared that the western states would be non-slave holding. The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 solidified that fear, pushing the South toward secession. Without the Southern votes in Congress, the Homestead Act of 1862 finally became law, granting 160 acres in the great lands west to anyone willing to file a claim, survey the land and homestead it for 5 years. Those making claims did not need to be citizens or white males, though most were. Eventually even females and African Americans would file claims.
With the Homestead Act now in effect and the Gold Rush in full swing, inevitably some people made the slog west. But the War Between the States and the extreme difficulty of travel limited the numbers of those who could migrate. At this point in the early 1860’s, the rail lines still ended in Missouri (though there were small localized lines in California). Some industrialists had pushed for a transcontinental rail line as early as 1817, though little progress would be made until after the Civil War. The rail infrastructure, primarily being used for the war machine on both the Union and Confederate side in the early 1860’s, would be a huge factor to the outcome of the Civil War. Rail lines were often tactical targets to stifle the movement of supplies and soldiers. Construction became limited to rebuilding and maintaining the tracks that were damaged and most necessary for the war machine. Once the Civil War was over the need to reunite the country, both physically and metaphorically, was signified by the building of the Transcontinental Railway. The national project would be propelled forward by men like Theodore Judah of the Central Pacific. Judah may have been the man most responsible for the inception of the rail line, yet he passed away from yellow fever shortly before the project raged full steam ahead. There would be many industrious men thereafter to pick up stake and see the project to completion. More than a few of them made large sums of money and amassed serious power by the time the last railway spike was driven in 1869.
Scandalous money laundering was not limited to the national scene. Locally, two men, General Milton Littlefield and George W. Swepson, held up the building of trunk lines in Western North Carolina, eventually embezzling millions from the state government and delaying the construction of rail infrastructure in the mountains by nearly 20 years. Despite this ruinous behavior, the rail lines would eventually be completed and the impact to the mountain communities of Western North Carolina would be immense, affecting local industry, education and the ability of people to travel. By 1889 the smaller rail lines in the Mountains were connected to the larger National system. With the the rail line connecting Chicago to Seattle completed in 1883, an easier path to the Pacific Northwest for those migrating from the Southern Appalachians had arrived. Clevinger speaks to the rail lines in aiding in this migration west, “The saturation point in the population of the Appalachian plateau coincided with important developments in railroad transportation. In the period 1880-1900 the Northern Pacific and Great Northern roads linked the Puget Sound region to Chicago.” This rail line is for the most part still in existence, the Empire Builder, and may be the most beautiful ride in the passenger rail system today. The implementation of the Homestead Act, the dire economic situation in Southern Appalachia, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, along with the local trunk lines, combined to create the perfect storm swelling into the first WNC-PNW migration of the 1880’s.
Who are the people who made this first migration, where did they come from, and where did they go? During this first, and smaller, migration from Southern Appalachia, people mainly found their way to Southern Washington and the Cowlitz River basin in Lewis County. This is an area that most pioneers had overlooked due to the difficulty of travel and the rugged terrain. Woodrow Clevinger makes this point and speaks to the mentality of the early migrants, “As a rule, the immigrants from the southern mountains did not seek opportunity in the lowlands and cities. The highlander was more of a frontiersman, like Daniel Boone. Therefore he found a very congenial habitat in the narrow valleys of the western Cascade slope which earlier pioneers of the Puget Sound did not desire.” One of the earliest Southern Appalachian migrants was Rufus T. Siler, born in Franklin to David W. Siler, of the same Siler family line that Siler City is named for in central North Carolina. His grandfather was Jacob Siler the famous North Carolina frontiersman, Cherokee Indian agent, and Congressman. During R.T. Siler’s funeral, a close friend, N.B. Coffman, tells about the early days, 1885, when he and Rufus first came to the Cowlitz River valley. Siler would find the Big Bottom zone for his homestead and eventually the town of Randle,
“The road to the east ended a short distance beyond Mossyrock. From there dense forest had to be traversed and uncleared newly blazed trails had to be followed. The Cowlitz river had to be crossed and re-crossed – safe only with the aid of friendly Indians.
When he suddenly and unexpectedly came out of the dense forest of giant firs and gazed upon the enchanting vision of wide open valley stretching miles to the east with majestic snow-capped Adams in the background, he was captivated with the prospect. There below him in that level valley of fabulously rich soil he could take for the choosing a homestead of 160 acres. He staked off and blazed out what was to be his future farm home.”
Rufus Siler would become one of the most prestigious members of the community. He would become the first postmaster in the area and had initially named the town of Randle ‘Vance,’ after Senator Zebulon Vance from North Carolina, a close family friend of his father. He carved a homestead out of a Big Bottom area and would marry Josephine Landes, raise children and farm the homestead till his death in 1937. Along the way he would help create a chain migration of relatives that followed along from the western North Carolina mountains, also becoming major contributors to the pioneer lands of Washington State. “Soon Judd Siler, Weimer Siler and a long list of others arrived and developed one of western Washington’s richest valleys,” said friend N.B. Coffman of the Siler family. Rufus Siler and his cousin Judd Siler would also run against each other for state legislature, both from Lewis County, one running as a Democrat, the other as a Republican. Judd Siler would go on to win that contest and was a Washington State legislator for years after. A third cousin in the same generation as Rufus was Harry Siler. He would be the first of the Silers to make his way north into Snohomish County, a county that we will get to know much better in the next instalment of this blog series. Harry Siler was a businessman in Everett, Washington, as the owner of Siler Logging and Railroad Company, a company that would operate for 78 years, and an early settler of Snohomish county.
The Siler family is one of many in the history of this migration; in the next instalment of this blog series we will come to know several others. So far we have gone on our first adventure in discovery, learning about the context of western migration on a national scale and how it has affected the micro-migration of folks from Southern Appalachia to the Pacific Northwest. We have seen that transportation was a huge factor, particularly the building of national and regional rail lines, in the movement of people from the older mountains of Southern Appalachia to the younger Northern Cascades. In the next blog we will learn more about the families that moved during the next two migrations, in the early 1900’s and the Great Migration after World War Two. We will see the impacts that these migrants had both culturally and ecologically (think possums), on Washington.
Thank you for joining me in this first part on the Southern Appalachian mountain to Northern Cascade mountain migration. Please feel free to make any comments and if you have any family stories to tell, we would love to hear them. Jackson County Public Library will also be co-sponsoring an event with the Jackson County Genealogical Society in April. The event will cover this migration and will include a showing of a video about the Tarheels of Darrington, Washington. Keep your eyes peeled for information and we hope to see you there!
Straw, Richard Alan., and Tyler H. Blethen. High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place. University of Illinois Press, 2004.
BLACKMUN, ORA. WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA: Its Mountains and Its People to 1880. special limited edition ed., Appalachian Consortium, Inc., 1977.
The West: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward
Other books or videos that may be of interest:
Empire express : building the first transcontinental railroad by David Haward Bain
The West, a documentary series by Ken Burns
And a special thank you to Rob Ferguson of Western North Carolina University History Department for being a great human resource!
 BLACKMUN, ORA. WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA: Its Mountains and Its People to 1880. special limited edition ed., Appalachian Consortium, Inc., 1977.p.378-379
 Clevinger, Woodrow R. “The Appalachian Mountaineers in the Upper Cowlitz Basin.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, Apr. 1938, pp. 123., http://www.jstor.org/stable/40486282?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
 Clevinger, Woodrow R. “The Appalachian Mountaineers in the Upper Cowlitz Basin.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Apr. 1938, pp. 115, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40486282?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
 N.B. Coffman Pays Tribute to Rufus T. Siler, Pioneer .” Chehalis Bee-Nugget, 6 Aug. 1937, p. 8, http://www.newspapers.com/clip/14860090/rufus_siler_obit_part_1/. accessed 03/11/2017