The Yew Pine Mountains is a range of mountains in east-central West Virginia. The peaks of this range pierce the sky from 3000 to 4800 feet. The Yew Pine Mountains begin with Cheat Mountain and run to the southwest. They include Cheat Mountain, Elk Mountain, Red Lick Mountain, Black Mountain, Cranberry Mountain, Kennison Mountain, Viney Mountain, Caesar Mountain and Droop Mountain and stretch from the northern tip of Pocahontas County to its southernmost border. In these mountains is a spruce tree growing only at 4000 feet and above. To the old people who settled this wilderness frontier in the mid 1800’s it was known as the Yew Pine. The experts who name such things chose to call it the Red Spruce. In the central and southern area of what is now known as West Virginia, the fiddle tune ‘Yew Piney Mountain’ was one of two favorites, the other being ‘Jimmy Johnson’.
The Hammons family lived in Kentucky during the time of Daniel Boone’s first settlement when it was still considered the Indian Nation. During this time, they were one of only two families of white settlers in that area of the mountains. Living apart from any white settlement, they were under the protection of the nearest Indian village. The Hammons’ were forced to take flight from this initial region of Kentucky due to a dispute with the village chief concerning an ornate ‘Pennsylvania Rifle’ belonging to the Hammons’.
Over the next century the Hammons family would continue to move within the eastern regions of Kentucky, but their final exodus from the area immediately prior to the Civil War was made from Whitley County.
Kentucky being a border state on the line between North and South during the lead up to the Civil War, considerable conflict arose within the region concerning allegiance to one or the other. To escape the turmoil, the Hammons traveled east into the western counties of what was still Virginia. Some of those western counties seceded from Virginia during the Wheeling Conventions of 1861, eventually to form the state of West Virginia in 1863. The Hammons found their new home within Webster County where turmoil stirred. Indeed, prior to the Wheeling Conventions, Webster County seceded by itself from the rest of Virginia and established itself as the Independent State of Webster. In flight from this whole new conflict, the Hammons’ next and final migration was further east still. It was here that they traveled up the Williams River to the Yew Pine Mountains of Pocahontas County.
The Hammons’ encountered up the Williams River hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin forest that was yet to be settled. This region was still unsettled due to its remoteness and the impenetrable nature of the wilderness barrier that bordered it. While this border discouraged entry, it likewise discouraged the exit of those who had crossed it. The frontier traditions brought with the Hammons out of Kentucky and into this remote and secluded place, including the musical traditions they are most famous for, continued for another 50 years without interference from the outside world. As per Jesse Hammons, ‘after the Civil War, it was 13 years before a stranger ever darkened my door’.
It was only with the timber industry in the early 1900’s that civilization began to encroach upon the Hammons’ way of life. This way of life may have disappeared with the generation of Hammons’ born prior to 1900 had it not been noted for its value and documented as such before their passing. It was in the late 1960’s that Dwight Diller, a neighbor and native of Pocahontas County, befriended this generation of Hammons’ and began learning and documenting their traditions.
Yew Pine Mountains
Hammons House near Williams River
Maggie Hammons (banjo) and Ruie
Sherman Hammons and Dwight Diller