How did West Virginia get a reputation for inbreeding?

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June 3 2008 6:45 PM

West Virginia, Incest Virginia?

How the Mountain State got a reputation for inbreeding.

Dick Cheney. Click image to expand.
Vice President Dick Cheney

At the National Press Club on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney noted that his maternal grandmother is descended from someone named Cheney, then quipped, "So we had Cheneys on both sides of the family—and we don't even live in West Virginia." (Click here for a video.) In response, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia railed against the veep, accusing him of "astounding ignorance toward his own countrymen." How'd West Virginia get a reputation for inbreeding?

Exaggeration-prone outsiders. In the 1880s and 1890s, writers such as Mary Noailles Murfree and John Fox Jr. traveled across Appalachia, looking for "local color," and overstated the degree to which mountain populations lived in isolation. During the same time period, missionaries reported pervasive ignorance and poverty, with large families living together in ramshackle cabins. The notion of widespread inbreeding was at least in part the result of crude assumptions about how these isolated forest people might have been perpetuating their communities.

It's true that, through the 19th century, transportation networks developed slowly in the rugged, westernmost portion of Virginia (incorporated as West Virginia in 1863). The area was never entirely cut off, but many people lived in remote "closed communities" with little incoming or outgoing migration. Research on intrafamilial marriage in such enclaves is slim. In 1980, anthropologist Robert Tincher published a study titled "Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia," based on 140 years' worth of marriage records. He concluded that "inbreeding levels in Appalachia … [are neither] unique [n]or particularly common to the region, when compared with those reported for populations elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history."

Stereotypes about West Virginian breeding practices have long been linked to the state's poverty. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited West Virginia mining towns in the 1930s, national newspapers ran pictures of rundown shacks and barefoot kids in rags, which left a lasting impression of the state as a backwater. West Virginians became the prototypical "hillbillies," and incest served as a crude "scientific" explanation for their downtrodden social condition.

In more recent memory, the 2003 film Wrong Turn helped perpetuate the inbreeding stereotype. Set in West Virginia, it features cannibalistic mountain men, horribly disfigured from generations of incest. Then, in 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch released a T-shirt emblazoned with a map of the Appalachian state and the words "It's all relative in West Virginia." In February, a casting director for the upcoming thriller Shelter put out a call for extras with "unusual body shapes, [and] even physical abnormalities" to depict West Virginia mountain people.

For the record, West Virginia has strict anti-incest laws. Only adopted cousins are allowed to marry, while in Vermont, Virginia, and many other states, first cousins can tie the knot. *

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Explainer thanks Edwin Arnold of Appalachian State University, Anthony Harkins of Western Kentucky University, and David Hsiung of Juniata College.

Correction, June 9, 2008: The article originally stated that a handful of states allow marriages between first cousins. Many is more accurate since the practice is legal, or legal under certain circumstances, in more than 20 states. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.