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Mountain Climbing
6/14/2011
Traverse the peaks and valleys of your family tree with our guide to tracing Appalachian ancestry.
In 1953, newlyweds Frank and Drema Riser shared a home with Frank's parents in a small West Virginia coal town. His father and brothers had been miners, and Frank was expected to join them underground. Instead, he followed his brother-in-law to Cleveland, where he immediately found work at a General Motors auto plant. Drema soon joined him, and they raised their family in Northern Ohio.

Their experience was more typical than they knew: More than a million people fled the overworked hills of Appalachia for Midwestern factory jobs in the two decades after World War II. But the story of Appalachian families as we know them, the "mountain people," began long before, when their ancestors migrated into the stunning highlands and lush valleys of the oldest mountains in North America.

The history of Appalachia is a mountain of stories: Tales of Cherokees who slipped silently into the woods to avoid the often-fatal Trail of Tears. Revolutionary War veterans who homesteaded steep hillsides. Recently emancipated African-Americans who labored on mountaintop logging crews. European immigrants who descended into pitch-black coal mines to provide for their families. And, of course, folks like the Risers, who left their hills and families behind but keep them in their hearts to this day.

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