Who lived in these mountains?

Perdues spend more than 30 years seeking answers

By Noirin V. Quillen (Sociology '02)
Charles Perdue and Nancy Martin-Perdue.

Charles Perdue and Nancy Martin-Perdue.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

Extending for over one hundred miles across eight counties through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah National Park is a place of recreation and refuge for many. But for Charles Perdue, a professor of anthropology at U.Va., and his wife, Nancy Martin-Perdue (Sociology '74), a scholar-in-residence, their 30-year interest in the Shenandoah National Park is centered not on the beautiful landscape that the park encompasses. They are interested in the people who inhabited the land before the park's creation in 1934.

The Federal government decided that in order for the land to be turned into a national park, the residents must be removed. "The actual number of people living in the Park at the time is unknown," said Perdue "but there were over 500 families, with the average size family being 5.5 people." So, in 1934, the Federal government issued a decree that all inhabitants of the soon-to-be park would have to leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

In 1964, Perdue was conducting research in Rappahannock County for his dissertation in folklore for the University of Pennsylvania when he and Martin-Perdue met John Jackson, a local musician. Jackson and others told the Perdues about the little-known human cost of the resettlement process. As the Perdues became part of the community, they began to meet other people who had also been displaced from the park. The rich history and stories of the mountain residents intrigued the Perdues, so they began to look for more information on the displaced people. However, they said, all of the information that they could find was inconsistent and full of negative stereotypes.

In 1971, Charles Perdue was hired to teach at U.Va. Meanwhile, he and Martin-Perdue got involved with other people who were interested in the Shenandoah National Park resettlement and received a small grant to do research on the mountain residents. They scoured records from courthouses, conducted field research in eight counties and made several trips to the National Archives to piece the story together. Martin-Perdue said they "had a difficult time finding information on the residents of the Park, due to the unwillingness of Park officials to see the human side of the ordeal."

Together, the Perdues have written several publications about the residents of the National Park and say they will continue to invest their time and energy as long as there is more information to unearth. For Charles Perdue and Nancy Martin-Perdue, research on the National Park resettlement never ends. After decades of work, they have an abundance of historical and statistical information, crafts and even photographs pertaining to the past residents of the land. And, although some negative stereotypes about the people of the Park still remain, the Perdues' research has certainly helped change attitudes towards the mountain inhabitants. "We are trying to tell the accurate story about who the people actually are, where they came from, and a little about their lives," Perdue said.

Nancy Martin Perdue