America has a long and storied history of iconic figures who shape how we imagine our cultural past. Perhaps most notable are the hillbillies of Appalachia and the cowboys of the American Southwest during the period when our country expanded westward. While their differences are obvious and recognizable, they pale in comparison to their similarities which have roots stretching back centuries.
The First Hillbillies
Before our great nation was born, the Appalachian Mountains were being settled by Protestants from the province of Ulster in Ireland. Beginning in the 1730’s, settlers originally from lowland Scotland and England made their way to Ulster before crossing the Atlantic. They soon would become known as the Scots-Irish and over the following decades, established roots from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains.
The origin of the term “hillbilly” has been debated by scholars who believe it is derived from Scottish dialect. The Scottish referred to “hill-folk” as individuals who lived among the hills while “billie” referenced those who followed King William III. It is thought the terms were combined into “hillbilly” by a radical faction named the Cameronians.
The First Cowboys
Almost one hundred years later, the American cowboy we think of today would appear. Westward expansion brought American settlers to Texas in 1821, many of whom were the descendants of the Protestant immigrants turned hillbilly years earlier. Expansive swaths of land and the promise of good fortune awaited them.
For the twenty-five years prior to the Mexican American war, the settlers would encounter Spanish ranch owners known as hacendados. English and hillbilly culture began to meld with Spanish traditions. As their lifestyles merged, a future American icon would emerge – the cowboy.
A Shared Spirit
As the world develops around them, hillbillies and cowboys continue to retain their independent spirit. For many, each represents freedom, individuality, and closeness to nature. And while both are most at home far from the constraints of urbanization, hillbillies and cowboys can be found nearly anywhere within our great country and beyond.