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Appalachia as Contested Borderland of the Early Modern Atlantic, 1528-1715 – Q&A with Dr. Kimberly C. Borchard

What led to your interest in this area of study?

I was working toward my doctorate in Spanish with a focus on colonial Latin American literature at the University of Chicago when I started noticing references in Spanish and Portuguese to a supposedly gold-rich land by the name of Apalache, beginning with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of a shipwreck in western Florida in 1528. Having been born and raised in rural Appalachia and feeling a bit homesick for the Appalachian foothills during my years in the midwestern flatlands, I noted the similarity of Apalache to Appalachia with curiosity and amusement, but I didn’t do much with the information other than take note of it.

When I was applying for jobs during the 2008 economic meltdown, I was invited by a senior colleague to participate in a Hemispheric Studies panel at the Modern Languages Association annual conference (where people working in languages and literature interview for jobs in the U.S.). I decided to take a break from my dissertation and try to figure out two things: the similarity between the words Apalache and Appalachia, and the stark contrast between all these accounts of Apalache as a land of hyperbolic wealth, versus the prevalent contemporary stereotypes of Appalachia as a land of poverty and hopelessness.

I imagine the readers of this blog are a diverse group, but I don’t know how familiar they may be with American stereotypes of Appalachia. Within the United States, the region is widely dismissed as a place of grinding poverty and even mental and moral degeneracy. The 1972 film Deliverance is the most famous example of this. The IMDb synopsis of the film describes it as “a canoeing trip . . . into the dangerous American backcountry.” While there is a canoeing accident involved, it is the ignorant, brutal, human inhabitants, eager to prey upon city-boy outsiders, who pose the real threat. While I was still living in Chicago, a PhD candidate in another program (who went on to hold a position at a prestigious institution) told me that people in Appalachia were “so dangerous” that there were special phone booths on the side of the main highways in West Virginia so that travelers could call police directly if their cars broke down, and thus avoid interacting with the locals. When I told him that I had lived and traveled in the region for most of my life and that this was untrue, he told me I was wrong.

With this as the cultural backdrop for my reception of the reports of an opulent kingdom populated by fearless warriors, I started with the Oxford English Dictionary to see where Appalachia had first been mentioned in print in English. It led me first to a 1607 account of Christopher Newport’s travel up the James River, and then to the English translation of an account originally composed in Latin by John Lederer, a German who explored westward from the area of contemporary Richmond, Virginia in 1669-1670. Lederer claimed there were Spaniards working silver mines in the Appalachian Mountains, that he had been on the verge of discovering the mines himself but refrained, in his words, “lest taking me for a Spy, they . . . condemn me to a perpetual Slavery in their Mines.”

I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and I was hooked.

After finding the rumor of Spanish-operated Appalachian silver mines in Lederer’s account of his failed attempts to cross the Appalachian Mountains, I began digging for more references to gold and silver in the mountains. At first, I felt like I was looking for a needle in a haystack, poring over sixteenth-century Spanish histories of the “Indies” and La Florida for stray references to any word vaguely resembling Apalache. But the more I searched, the more I found, and it seemed that virtually everyone who mentioned Appalachia by name during the colonial period characterized it as a gold- or silver-mining empire on the verge of discovery and exploitation. These rumors passed from Spanish to Portuguese to French before Lederer, who was the first European to attempt crossing the mountains from the English colonies – and he had originally published his account in Latin. Then, in 1690, Carolina governor James Moore claimed that Native Americans in the Appalachian Mountains reported having killed Spaniards operating a nearby silver mine to avoid being enslaved by them.

Moore’s invocation of the Black Legend to imply that Native Americans would face a better fate under English rule was deplorably cynical, by the way: twelve years later, Moore would be personally responsible for wiping out the majority of surviving southeastern chiefdoms, including that of the Apalachee, with massive and unimaginably brutal slave-hunting raids.

Could you give us an overview of your recently-published book Appalachia as Contested Borderland of the Early Modern Atlantic, 1528-1715

A polished version of the book synopsis can be found on the distributor’s website, but I don’t want to be redundant by repeating it here.

The book is the product of my initial shock and fascination upon discovering that the first written references to the place that came to be known as Appalachia were just northern iterations of the El Dorado myth that inspired so much European exploration of South America. The Apalache first described in Spanish accounts and associated with the people known as the Talimali Band of Apalachee Indians today was in the Florida peninsula, mind you – but agents of different European empires vying to establish control over North America continued to use the name, while moving it progressively further north over the course of two centuries, where it became permanently attached to the eastern mountains of today’s United States. French Protestants were the ones to cement the association of the name with the mountains, which they believed to be just north of their short-lived colony in eastern Florida, in the 1560s.

While tracing the misappropriation of the name of the Apalachee people and its evolution into the place we know now as Appalachia across languages and empires, the book documents and explores three main issues.

First, the intense European engagement with Appalachia (the idea if not the place) predated what is widely taught by two centuries, give or take. The creation of Appalachia—both its name, and its place in the colonial and early American imagination—began in Spanish and passed through Portuguese and French before it was ever uttered in English or conceived of by English-speaking colonists.

Second, one of the overwhelming motives for exploring and settling the region was rivalry between European empires. Everyone was afraid that someone else would get there and get rich first. The Spanish thought the Apalachee people themselves were mining gold; then the French thought the Spanish were mining gold and silver; then the Spanish thought the French were trading for silver with the natives of the southern mountains; then the English became convinced that the Spanish had secret mines hidden somewhere in the Appalachian range. What is most absurd about this is not just that mines were never discovered or established during that time, but that despite the fact that the search for mines continued to fail and, in many cases, the explorers themselves died gruesome deaths, the failure to secure evidence of the existence of the Appalachian mines only made everyone all the more certain that the mines existed – and that failure to find them was actually proof that some other, rival empire was hiding the evidence. Particularly given the fact that most of this played out during the Scientific Revolution, for which northern European powers are still broadly credited to the exclusion of other cultures, this is remarkable. Belief in the existence of Appalachian mines came to be grounded, and quite explicitly so, in the absence of empirical evidence. The absence of evidence was offered as proof!

Finally, it is my hope that readers walk away understanding that the appalling human and environmental sacrifices made in the name of profit in Appalachia form a cornerstone of all European engagement with the region, and indeed with much of colonial America, since the sixteenth century, and not merely the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when widespread coal mining became the economic powerhouse – and scourge – of the region. Those of us who grow up in Appalachia come to internalize much of what is taught in American popular culture: that we’re backwards, unimportant, marginal. It turns out that agents of multiple European empires were killing and dying over the right to exploit Appalachian mineral resources hundreds of years before coal was to become king. The struggle and its human and environmental costs have been there, in one form or another, since 1528. I feel it does kids from Appalachia a disservice not to teach them this long, dramatic history.

Incidentally, a month after my book was published I learned that a Canadian mining company is now looking to raze the Appalachian foothills about an hour west of where I live in order to extract as little as .03 ounces per ton of gold dust. This would destroy landscapes, ecosystems, and homes, not to mention poisoning the water source of the millions of us that live downstream. Nothing has changed. As William Faulkner said, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

What was the reasoning behind the time period of your book? 

1528 was the year that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition washed up on the western Florida coast and were told that the gold they were looking for could be found in a place to the north called Apalache, so that’s the reason for the first date.

I originally intended to end the book with John Lederer’s 1672 account, since I had set out to trace the evolution of the myth of Apalachee or Appalachian mines only until the English began looking for them. But then I discovered that James Moore, who ended up wiping out the Spanish mission of San Luis de Apalache (where Apalachee people still lived at the beginning of the eighteenth century), had also claimed to have received Native reports of Spanish silver mines in the Appalachian Mountains.

Moore has been abundantly studied by historians of the American South. However, once I discovered that he had also promised the discovery of Appalachian silver mines (in an obscure letter to the Surveyor General of Customs for North America), only to enrich himself by wiping out most of the remaining Apalachee population through slave-raiding just over a decade later, having failed to produce any mines… it seemed criminal not to include that horrific episode.

Moore’s main assaults on the Apalachee concluded in 1704. However, along with continuing conflict among colonists and various Native polities, as well as depletion of the deer population, Moore’s actions helped provoke the Yamasee War of 1715. In turn, the Yamasee War forever transformed the political configuration of both English and Native societies across the southeast. The final year in the book’s title could have been 1704, but I wanted to at least acknowledge the broader, roughly contemporaneous cataclysm.

Your book includes many different language sources. Could you tell us a bit more about the nature of the sources you used for the book? 

Of course. Most of them are accounts by participants in European exploratory or colonizing missions; many are addressed directly to the monarchs that their authors served. Others are more ambiguous or idiosyncratic. One is a Portuguese account of the Hernando de Soto expedition whose anonymous author is known merely as the “Gentleman of Elvas.” Another, the first history ever dedicated exclusively to Florida, was composed by the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the mestizo son of an Inca noblewoman and a Spanish conquistador. (One of his declared purposes was to exalt the bravery of  “Indians and Spaniards alike”. . . yet somehow, the Spanish usually end up looking pretty bad, not least in their behavior toward the people of Apalache.)

Then, of course, there is the secondary literature, by which I mean the scholarship that has been produced on all those sources.

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book? 

The biggest challenge was the same as the biggest strength: the inclusion of primary and secondary sources in so many languages. Each language produces its own body of scholarship, and then within that scholarship, I found it necessary to immerse myself in multiple disciplines to try to get a grip on what might have approximated reality (since I knew that vast gold and silver mines, at least during those centuries, were not reality). This involved reading up not just on history, but also archaeology and anthropology, as well as a sprinkling of literary analysis, on all the different linguistic canons.

Sometimes the scholarship from different language sources directly contradicts that produced in other languages. In the beginning, I thought the greatest difficulty would be that of finding enough primary texts. I soon discovered that I had more than enough primary texts; the issue was reconciling, or coming up with my own version, of the different realities described in those texts and the scholarship that studies them.

What are you working on now? 

I’m so glad you asked! I just finished a fun side project, the translation of a book of Spanish poetry, forthcoming in 2022. The publication of my book has also led to a number of invitations to speak at conferences and other venues dedicated to the preservation of history and heritage, which is exciting. But I was also recently invited to continue this work in a new way, contributing a chapter to a book that will include the transcription of interviews completed in Spanish with two Native women from western North Carolina (when the Carolinas were still part of “La Florida”) in 1600. The interviews, as well as the broader inquiry in which they were included, will be studied by scholars working in the fields of Indigenous Studies, Latinx Studies, Latin American Studies, and American Studies. It could not be a more natural continuation of the research for the book; in fact, the interviews in question are mentioned in my book, but there was no transcription of them available while I was writing, so my engagement with that part of the story ended in a footnote. This is an incredibly exciting project and one that I am honored to be part of.

There is some other work that I have recently started as well, but it is a bit more complicated to explain.

A valid critique made by a peer reviewer of an earlier, article-length version of this research I published in the journal West Virginia History was that I focused exclusively on the European side of things, without interrogating the indigenous side of the story.

This was true, but not by design: most of the Native societies involved in the accounts I study were wiped out, without having had the opportunity to leave written testimony of their experiences. I started my research with the primary sources, and the primary sources were invariably written by Europeans (save that first history of Florida, whose author was not an eyewitness, nor did he have firsthand knowledge of the Apalachee or other southeastern peoples).

While I was doing the research for the book, I studied all the anthropological, ethnohistorical, and archaeological sources I could get my hands on to try to fill in those gaps in the primary sources. Relatively late in the process, I realized that not only had some Apalachee escaped Moore’s persecution in Florida, but that their descendants are still living today. I came across a Wall Street Journal article from 2005, in which Florida archaeologist Bonnie McEwan got a call from Gilmer Bennett, Sr., then-chief of the Talimali Band of Apalachee Indians. She thought it was a joke! The Apalachee had been violently persecuted for centuries: first by the Spanish, then the English, then the United States government, and then, finally, by the despicable terrorist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (I include the link in case any of your readers are blissfully unaware of this group; they are notorious in the U.S.). Lynchings continued well into the twentieth century. They eventually let it be believed that they had been hunted into extinction and began “passing” for white, because it was simply too dangerous to let themselves be known. Around the 1990s, however, they re-emerged and began the struggle to be reinstated as a federally recognized tribe. Their story is astonishing, and I encourage your readers to learn about it in this article in the Tampa Bay Times.

It felt wrong that I should write an entire book on the havoc unleashed across the southeastern U.S. by rumors and myths about the Apalachee people without somehow involving the modern Apalachee people in the story – even if it was just to introduce myself and let them know the role their ancestors had played in my work. So, when my book finally hit the press and my copies arrived late last spring, I took a page from Chief Gilmer Bennett’s playbook and I cold-called the number on their Facebook page.

A warm and kind lady by the name of Renee Bennett, with whom I have now spoken several times, answered the phone. I introduced myself, asked permission to bend her ear for a few minutes, and then (with her consent) explained the nature of my work. I said that I wasn’t sure that my book could be of any help in the Apalachee efforts to gain tribal reinstatement, since it had more to do with rumors about their ancestors than with their ancestors themselves; but then again, since those rumors directly contributed to centuries of persecution, maybe it would help? I ended by explaining that I would like to send them a copy of the book, if they had the least interest in it, and that if they didn’t, I would neither take offense nor ever bother them again.

Renee told me to go ahead and send the book. Two weeks later, I got a call from Gilmer, Jr., better known as TJ, son of Chief Gilmer, Sr. (who passed in 2015), and brother of current Chief Arthur Bennett.

I have been in regular contact with both Renee and TJ since last June. TJ visited my colonial Latin American seminar last week (via Zoom) to talk with students who had just finished reading the stories told about the Apalachee by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The tribe collaborated with me on a conference paper that I delivered just last week (at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association annual conference), and I am trying to advocate for them within the broader U.S. academic community to rally support for their final bid for tribal reinstatement.

Thus far, I have succeeded in getting enthusiastic promises of support from some of the most prominent scholars of southeastern ethnohistory, anthropology, and archaeology in the U.S. The fight for tribal reinstatement is full of bureaucratic and political pitfalls, though, and they could use all the support they can get. This is a long shot, but if any readers out there are experts in U.S. tribal law– they could use your help!

I cannot know if these efforts will ever amount to anything, and the process is notoriously grueling, with the deck stacked against the most vulnerable. But for now, at least, it has become my calling to draw as much attention as possible to the plight of the modern Apalachee, and to appeal for support in every corner, as sometimes what is necessary is to meet the right person, at the right time. In that regard, I am especially grateful for your invitation to talk about my work here.

Kim Borchard earned her B.A. and M.A. from Ohio University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She teaches courses in Spanish, Latin American colonial literature, and Spanish for Social Justice at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Her book, Appalachia as Contested Borderland of the Early Modern Atlantic, 1528-1715, represents the unexpected convergence of her love for her native Appalachia with that of the study of languages. She can be reached at