Editor’s Note: The text is taken from Tom Skeyhill’s, His Own Life Story And War Diary, a collection of interviews Skeyhill conducted with World War I Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York of Pall Mall, TN in the 1920s.
I ain’t had much of the larnin’ that comes out of books. I’m a-trying to overcome that, but it ain’t easy. If ever you let life get the jump on you, you have to keep hiking to catch up with it again, and I never knowed the truth of this like I do now. It ain’t my fault. It ain’t nobody’s fault. It jes happened. We were most all poor people in the mountains when I was a boy. We hadn’t neither the time nor the money to get much larnin’. The roads were bad. There were creeks to cross. So I ‘rowed up uneducated. And I never will stop regretting it. Only the boy who is uneducated can understand what an awful thing ignorance is. And when he is suddenly pushed out into the world and has to live with educated people and has to hear them discussing things he can’t understand, he then sorter realizes what he has missed. And I’m a-telling you he suffers a lot.
When I joined the army I immediately knowed what a terrible handicap my lack of schooling was. When I went over to Paris and visited all sorts of places and seed things I didn’t know nothing about nohow, I jes wished I could have had my early life over again. I jes knowed I would have got some larnin’ somewhere. Then when I come back home again and found so many people knowed and wanted to meet me, I kinder felt all mussed up about it. But until I begun this book I never fully understood how necessary an education is and how little chance you have to get anywhere without it. When I sit down to write I know what I want to say, but I don’t always know jes how to put it down on paper. I jes don’t know how to get it out of me and put it in words. I ain’t had the training. Hit’s no use kicking about it. I suppose I have to do the best I can. I can’t do no more. All the same, I do wish I could have had the advantages of good schools and books and teachers.
I have promised myself that I am going to get these things for my children; and for a heap of other children too. I’m a-ded-icating my life to building schools in the mountains. If it is necessary I’m going to build good roads and bridges and provide transportation so that the children can get to these schools too. If they can’t afford it nohow, I’m a-going to give them a chance to work their way through.
Mountain people are not great readers. I don’t mean the people in the towns and more settled communities in the mountain country, I mean we-tins right in the mountains. It is hard to get books and there ain’t no libraries. But we’re most all good storytellers. And we repeat our stories over and over again until they become sort of household news. Whenever you get two mountaineers together you ‘most always get a story. Around the old blacksmith shop, at the store, or at the shooting matches you are most certain to hear a whole mess of them; and when we visit each other and sit around the old open fireplaces on long winter nights we tell a right-smart lot of them. Hunting and shooting stories are the most popular.
And the best of them are remembered and handed down from father to children, jes like the muzzle-loading guns and the old dresses. We never seem to tire of hearing about old Davy Crockett’s bear hunts and Daniel Boone’s fights with the Indians. And we have all kinds of stories of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. They used to get around these parts. There’s a whole heap of Crocketts living in Jimtown to this day. These old-timers must have been right-smart men. We don’t find the like of them around nowadays. But times have changed. Maybe we don’t live the sort of lives which make great men.
Since I was knee high to a duck I’ve heard tell of these men. I guess what outsiders call history is jes plain story-telling with us.
So you see we mountaineers, without having read many books or studying the subject are tol’ably well informed of what has done been in these parts since the time of the first settlers. The records have been repeated in story form and handed down year after year until it comes to us.
These-here mountains of old Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky were once the hunting and fighting grounds of the Cherokees and Creeks. They was jes about the fightinest Indians that ever put on the war paint. I guess the panthers and wild cats must have studied their methods. Them-there Indians must have been kinder fond of these-here parts. The bears and buffaloes must have attracted them. There sure must have been a mess of them around here. It was nothing for the early settlers to shoot a hundred bear in a single season. They say that Davy Crockett shot ten in one day. I’m a-telling you that’s a lot of bear.
Daniel Boone once saw so many buffaloes grazing in the valleys of these-here Cumberland mountains that he shouted, “I am richer than the man mentioned in the Scripture, who owned the cattle of a thousand hills; I own the wild beasts of more than a thousand valleys.” And there must have been a lot of deer on the hoof. Some of the old settlers in the mountains still have the fringed deerskin shirts and moccasins of their pioneer ancestors. And there were coon, fox, and panther and all sorts of other varmints. There still are.
But the white settlers come in and started things. The first to come were the fighting Scotch-Irish. They come from the borders of Scotland and from the north of Ireland. They were followed by the Cavaliers from the hills of Scotland and by the Covenanters from England, the Huguenots from France, and a number of Germans. But the Scotch-Irish outnumbered all the others. They were the first. They stayed right on and these mountains are full of their descendants to-day. These old settlers were the most independent. God-fearing and God-loving people in the world. They left the other side rather than bow down to kings and dictators and accept political and religious beliefs they didn’t believe in nohow. So they come over here where they hoped to be able to govern themselves and worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. They followed the Quakers over into Pennsylvania and then hiked down the Shenandoah Valley to the mountains of North Carolina, and from there they fought their way through the Smokies over into the Cumberlands and Kentucky. That’s how Daniel Boone travelled.
He was a kind of trail blazer. Wherever he led others followed; that is, if they got past the Indians. They fought it out all over this country. It was tough fighting from the start to the finish. They tomahawked and shot and scalped each other until nigh every inch of these mountains and valleys was stained with human blood. “The Dark and Bloody Ground” begins only a few miles from where I live. There was no stopping them-there early pioneers. They gave the Indians the best they had. It was enough. When they started anything they stuck it out until it was done finished. They believed the only good Indian was a dead one; so they proceeded to make them all good. And they did a right-smart job of it. There are not many redskins left today; and them that are live by themselves on Government reservations. The trouble was there wasn’t room enough for both to live in this-here country. What happened is what always happens, when two people fight the strongest won. And the new settlers happened to be the strongest. That’s the way of nature.
They were the fightinest men. They were always at it. If it was not the Indians, it was the English or French or Spanish. The Tennessee Sharpshooters were in the thick of it at King’s Mountain. They went up the slopes and sharpshooted Ferguson and his Red Coats until there was nigh on none of them left. That-there Ferguson was a tol’able hard-fighting man himself, and he and his troops were great favourites with Cornwallis. And our mountain men shot them all to pieces. That was one of the turning battles in the Revolutionary War. The Tennessee Sharpshooters were Andrew Jackson’s favourite troops. Their old long-barrelled muzzle-loaders did a whole heap to whip the English at New Orleans.
They were up against it there too. They were fighting the pick of Wellington’s veterans, the ones who helped to bust Napoleon. And the mountaineers out-fought and out-shot them. They were well in it, too, at Pensacola and later on in Mexico. My grandfather, Uriah York, was in the Mexican War and took part in the storming of the heights of Chapultepec. Them-there old pioneers was always fighting. Whenever their liberty was threatened they went right at it. And once when they figured their own Government was not doing the right thing by them they up and founded the free and independent State of Franklin, which was in eastern Tennessee. If you step on a rattler he will strike, and if you step on a Scotch Irishman or a Highlander he will jes natcherly hit back until somebody gets hurt.
The descendants of them-there old pioneers are the mountaineers of to-day. We haven’t changed so very much. Of course, we don’t wear deerskin shirts and moccasins and coon-skin caps. We get on tol’ably well now in overalls and jeans. The old muzzle-loaders are givin’ way to the modem high-powered rifle and shotgun—but jes the same there are a right-smart lot of hog rifles, as we hunters call them, in the mountains even to-day. Most all of us know how to load them, with cap and ball; and up to one hundred yards prefer them to any other rifle in the world. The modem home is drivin’ out the little old log cabin with the rough-hewn logs and puncheon floors, but they ain’t all gone. You see them here and there through the mountains. My brother George still lives in the one in which we ‘rowed up.
Even if our clothes and guns and homes are changing, we still sort of hang on to the old pioneer’s love of political and religious liberty. We haven’t much use for rituals and prayer books. Our God is still the God of our ancestors—the God of the Old Testament. We still believe in His word as it has been revealed to us in the old Bible. In politics too we still hang on to the old ideals of liberty and states’ rights. In our family life too we are much the same. Blood is still pretty thick around these-here parts, and we still stick together much like the clans of our ancestors.
The mountains have sorter hemmed us in along with our own beliefs and ways of living. We kinder live an Eighteenth Century life, in the middle of the Twentieth Century. You can kinder trace our pedigree in the names of the towns all through the mountains. There is Pall Mall, where I live; and Jamestown, the county site; and Livingston, close by; and Cookeville, and Crossville, and Rugby. Them’s good old Anglo-Saxon names. And to kinder balance things, there is Possum Trot, Coon Gap, Wolf Valley, Wolf River, and Burrville. There’s the pioneer side of us. And jes like the towns which are a mixture of old Anglo-Saxon and the spirit of the frontier days, so we-tins are a mixture of old Anglo-Saxon stock, kinder seasoned and hardened in the roughness of this-here new continent of ours.
So we people in the mountains claim that while we are good Americans, the sons and daughters of early pioneers, we are also the old Anglo-Saxon type and among the purest in America. We still sing many of the old border ballads and speak a heap of old English words, like “ain’t,” “we-uns,” “you-uns,” and “afeared.” We are big and rangy and raw-boned. And there are ‘most any number of red-headed people all around. We have a saying that you may see a red-headed man in the penitentiary, but you will never see one in an insane asylum.