top of page

Defining Appalachia

An image of the 13 Appalachian states with the 423 counties and 8 independent cities colored in

The United States comprises many distinct geographic regions, largely defined by their geographic position on the North American continent (e.g., Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, and West; O’Connell, 2012).


Within these geographic regions lie various subregions and even regions that cross the traditional four- or five-region map used by the majority of government agencies. The Appalachian region is one such region.

Note: Much of the information in this section relies upon the tireless efforts of Stewart Scales, Emily Satterwhite, and Abby August and their “Mapping Appalachia: A Digital Collection” project, as well as the work presented in their Journal of Appalachian Studies article, Mapping Appalachia’s Boundaries: Historiographic Overview and Digital Collection (Scales, Satterwhite, & August, 2018).

Appalachia Over Time

The traditional understanding of “Appalachia” is that it is composed of areas that lie within the Great Appalachian Valley region.


This traditional understanding, however, has been repeatedly defined, redefined, and refined over the past 125 years.

The Appalachian Region was first geographically defined in 1896 by William Goodell Frost, President of Berea College with the help of his former student, C. Willard Hayes “…then working for the Geological Survey” (Walls, 1977).

The Great Appalachian Valley shown stretching along the eastern United States. Reprinted from Wikipedia, by Perhelion, 2010

Perhelion. (2010, May 12). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 05, 2022, from

Frost’s initial designation of Appalachian counties and cities included 194 counties based upon 1896 borders; as borders have shifted, a current map of those areas included in the 1896 designation would include 195 counties and 13 cities in Virginia where certain cities have separate Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) codes from counties and are recognized separately from the counties in which they reside.

A photo of President John F. Kennedy

Since Frost’s 1896 definition, the Appalachian region has undergone twelve major revisions, expanding and contracting as different university and federal agencies worked to better define which states and counties were inside “Appalachia.”


The most significant step in the recognition of Appalachia as a distinct region deserving of special consideration occurred in 1964 when, at the request of the late President John F. Kennedy on April 9th, 1963, the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC) was formed.

PARC consisted of a representative designated by each of the governors of the Appalachian States and a representative of each of the heads of the major federal departments and agencies (e.g., United States Department of Agriculture). Its purpose was to prepare a comprehensive action program for the economic development of the Appalachian Region. One of their recommendations was the creation of a regional organization to continue the development effort, leading to the 1965 formation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC; PARC, 1964). PARC’s new mapping of the Appalachian Region included 340 counties and 4 Virginia cities.

In 1965, Congress passed the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 (Appalachian Regional Development Act, 1965) which form ARC and defined the Appalachian Region as 360 counties in eleven states, excluding Mississippi and New York, but authorizing the Commission to study and consider the addition of New York counties (Bradshaw, 1992). The Commission did so, also in 1865, adding an additional 13 counties from New York. Since the initial 1965 iteration, ARC has expanded the Appalachian Region seven times, the last of which occurred in 2021, expanding the region to include 423 counties and 8 Virginia cities (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2021).

An image of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1965
Berea Region - 194 Counties & 12 Virginia cities (1896)

Visualizing Appalachia


Appalachian Regional Commission. (2021). Appalachian Region. Retrieved January 06, 2022, from


Appalachian Regional Development Act, Pub. L. 89-4 § 403 (1965).

Bradshaw, M. (1992). The Appalachian Regional Commission: Twenty-Five Years of Government Policy. Appalachian Studies, 10.

Frost, W. G. (1896). An Educational Program for Appalachian America. Berea Quarterly, 1(4), 3-22.

Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Pub. L. 117-58 § 11506 (2021).

O’Conner, S. P. (2012, January 03). United States Regions. Washington, DC: National Geographic Headquarters: National Geographic: Maps: United States Regions.

President’s Appalachian Regional Commission. (1964). Appalachia: A report by the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission, 1964. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

Scales S., Satterwhite E., & August, A. (2018). Mapping Appalachia’s Boundaries: Historiographic Overview and Digital Collection. Journal of Appalachian Studies, 24(1), 89–100.

Walls, D. (1977). On the Naming of Appalachia. An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boone, NC: Appalachian State University Press.

bottom of page