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Origin of the Cracker: poor white Americans
Sept 1, 1700 | North America
WHAT IS A CRACKER?
“What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluous breath?" —- William Shakespeare, King John, Act II, Scene 1, 1594.
Many things were apparent about the way America was going to be populated. Though it may have been seen as a place for religious freedom or a refuge from the harsh treatment of poor people in distant lands, countries like England saw it as a place to dump the worst of its society. A convenient way to outlaw those unwanted millions: exile them to a far away land. So, along with the millions yearning to be free were the millions yearning to be free to wander unmolested in new territory and to ravage the inhabitants of the new world and the settlers alike. Altough most penal emigrants were from debtor prison, England consistently emptied its prisons of all manner of cutthroats, malcontents and other felons and sent them to the United States well into the 1800s…yes, even after American Independence.
Much of this is mentioned by Woodiwiss (2001) who indicates as many as 600 convicts per year between 1719 and 1772 were sent to America, while 1000s more poured in from Scotland and Ireland: "Blackmailers, pimps, rapists, embezzlers and mercenary thugs" among them. So called "crimps" or kidnappers preyed on the poor in those countries, sometimes plying them with alcohol, inducing debt and then sending them from debtors prison to America.
C.E. Lester, in his 1866 Glory and Shame of England, makes it quite clear that this exporting of poor and criminal souls continued even after the war of 1812, despite the clamoring of state governments.
I am half tempted to give what lays at my hand, the statistics of pauper exportation to the United States by the British government. Of her exportation of criminals, secretly and clandestinely, to our shores, I need hardly speak. Ever since our government was founded this has been British policy. In multitudes of cases condemned men, indicted persons, or people who had become obnoxious or dangerous, whom the colonial authorities would not receive, have been shipped to this country--- supplying us with murderers, burglars, forgers and thieves; while of the pauper class the number has amounted to tens of thousands. We all know that this mean, unfriendly and contemptible conduct of the British government went so far, that our general and State Governments had to resort to laws of self protection, when the most earnest and repeated protests and expostulations had failed. The records of our criminal courts in every state of the union show the enormous excess imported over native pauperism and crime.It is also well known from authentic sources, that b y far the larger share of imported paupers was of of the class sent away by the authority or money of the government or both (page 289).
Another source for this is the the Encyclopedia Americana (1920), which put the number of British convicts coming to America at 10,000 from 1717 - 1775. It mentions also that Maryland had 20,000 criminals from Britain, half since 1750 (341). Lester, (1866: 289), chronicled the continuation of shipments of British paupers to America in the 1800s:
…In one year, between June of 1835 and July of 1836, the Poor Law Commissioners of England reported that 7,075 paupers were expatriated at the cost of £39,340, or about $196,000. A more brutal deed was never justified by a civilized nation. Whenever a good opportunity offered itself, these paupers, old and infirm, were shipped off like cattle, in vessels hired to convey them to other countries, where there miserable food and miserable burial would not be charged to the government. Is not this more inhuman than shipping off slaves to New Orleans or the Georgia plantations…
Many Americans are indeed unaware of this British, Irish and Scotch effort to rid themselves of criminals by sending them to America. Many uneducated, in our Federal Government, still talk about how Georgia was a "penal colony", though no one in America considered debtors as criminals (see Dixon and Galan, 1990). Most Americans reached the colonies as indentured servants and worked off their passage to America. Before slavery was rife, most Americans working here were indentured.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, indentured servitude had been a common practice in the United States for 150 years.
…Redemptioners paid their passage to America by binding themselves as servants for terms of from two to seven years. In the seventeenth century most of the servants were English; in the eighteenth century most of them were Germans, Swiss, Scots, Scotch-Irish, and Irish. Victims of kidnappers and convicts sentenced to transportation by English courts supplemented this flow of unfree labor. Probably more than half of the immigrants to the thirteen English colonies in North American came as bondsmen. ( Stampp 1956: 16).
Another problem was the colonists saw no problem in allowing pirates to use American ports.
There was little stigma attached to piracy in early British America for more than a century after Drakes exploits. As the colonies developed, stolen wealth often boosted the fortunes of hard pressed local economies. Port officials in Rhode Island, New York, Virginia Maryland and the Carolinas were prepared to offer safety and security to pirates in return for a share in the plunder. Even Governors, such as Benjamin Fletcher of New York, accepted "gifts" of money, goods and jewelry from a number of particularly ruthless pirates ( Woodiwiss 2001: 29)…
This New World was occupied by millions of Indians. Already disease from De Soto’s and Columbus' Expedition made its way via trade goods from Cuba as far North as the Great Lakes, before the first settlers arrived in Virginia. The death of 99% of Southern Indians left the surviving aboriginals with no oral history and no idea who had built those huge mounds and earthworks at Macon, Kolomoki, Poverty Point and another 100 Indian cities. Studies have shown drastic population reduction throughout the East and South from 1540-1600. When the Mound builders died out other tribes came in: The Cherokee reached North Georgia by 1650; Souixian groups like the Nanticoke and Saponi were as far east as Virginia and the Shawnee ranged from the great lakes to the Tennessee Valley.
In Florida and the deep South were the Spanish, who brought with them Moors, Sephardic Jews and other North Africans. Spanish settlements and missions proceeded up the East Coast beyond South Carolina and all these peoples found their way into the local Indian gene pool. In 1619, the first boatload of Angolans arrived aboard the White Cloud and soon melted into the population of the new colonies. The New World had become a huge cauldron of émigrés: those with great hopes of new wealth and the profligate.
Many who made it to America had been on the run from the Spanish inquisition; these conversos, Moors and Sephardic Jews left Spain and radiated throughout Europe and the British Isles. There were Angolans from a civil war; Scots from a border conflict with England that had gone on for centuries and Irish from their war with England. Many of the horrors of war were exported to America; attitudes and forms of villainy poured off the boats.
The aristocracy and even the middle class in England called these people "lubbers", idlers, braggarts, trespassers on their land and common criminals. Lubber as in "land lubber", not land lover as many think it. A lubber was an idle profligate trespassing and poaching and under the constant eye of those with land and wealth. Many lubbers did eventually find their way into the yeoman farmer or landed society, but most did not. These people became known as "crackers", especially some time around the end of the French and Indian war.
By the 1760s, "crackers" was in use by the English in the British North American colonies to refer to Scots-Irish settlers in the south. A letter to the Earl of Dartmouth reads:
…I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode (McWhiney 1988: xiv.)…
A similar usage was that of Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, to refer to "Virginia squatters" (illegal settlers) (1909: 35).
George Washington, himself, was aware of the problems of these "squatters" pouring into private lands even before the French and Indian war. He was Visiting Lord Fairfax for a little fox hunting and the Lord noted:
…His Lordships possessions beyond the blue ridge had never been regularly settled nor surveyed. Lawless intruders - squatters as they were called - were planting themselves along the finest streams and richest valleys and virtually taking possession of the country. It was the anxious desire of Lord Fairfax to have these lands examined, surveyed and portioned out into lots, preparatory to ejecting these interlopers or bringing them to reasonable terms (Irving 1888:62-63)…
The most important factor involved in defining this new group of miscreants was its mobility. Having trespassed, or intruded on Indian land and upon being discovered, these profligates would move on.
According to Mitford Mathews, cracker was the first term to be widely and popularly applied to the poor whites in the western reaches of the British Colonies. Mathews writes: "the term in the sense of a poor white" was first used and defined in a 1766 administrative report to the Earl of Dartmouth. Gavin Cochrane, a colonial officer, wrote to inform the Earl about the behavior of certain British subjects in the Upper Ohio River Valley:
Reported complaints came from the Cherokees that white people came into their hunting grounds and destroyed their beavers, which they said was everything to them….I (sent) orders to have those beaverers made prisoners.... (I) thought it my duty to act in the public good; everything succeeded as I could have wished; the officers at Fort Prince George told the Indians the orders he had received and bid them seize the beaverers and bring them to him without hurting them. They brought three of the lawless people called crackers, who behaved with great insolence and told the officer that they neither valued him nor the Lieutenant Gov(ernor) (Mathews 1959:126).
The earliest explanation of the lifestyle of these "crackers" comes from a Frenchman, Le Clerke Milfort (Paris 1802), who wrote of his travels and experiences in the south after the revolution. In Memoire ou coup d'oeil rapide sur mes differens voyages et mon sejour dans la Nation Creek, he described a hard set of ne'er-do-wells who populated the countryside of most of the former colonies.
In I784, at the time of the American peace, and American independence, there was in the United States a very large number of vagrant and dishonest people, inevitable result of a revolution which gives birth to them and with which they must disappear. Peace taking away from them the means of subsistence that they found in devastation and corrupt practices which are inseparable from war, the result was that the peaceful men and the landlords were easily endangered either in their persons or their property. In order to rid themselves of this scourge, they united and declared a war to the death on all these vagabonds, who could not give up the habit of pillaging. Seeing themselves eagerly pursued, they found themselves compelled to seek another refuge. They withdrew to Georgia, where they have remained in peace; but as they still remember their old habit of stealing, they often go into the hinterland of the two Carolinas and of Virginia and take away from the unfortunate inhabitants all the horses that they can catch.
Note on the Americans called Crakeurs or Gaugeurs
I also said in the first part of my memoirs, that while visiting Tougoulou, Franklin, and other places situated in the hinterland of the United States, I had found some Anglo-Americans of a peculiar sort, called Crakeurs or Gaugeurs, who are nearly all one-eyed. I wanted to know the reason for this. The reader will perhaps not be displeased if I give an account at this time of what I learned about this on the spot.
The reader will remember that I said above that the inhabitants of North Carolina harvested a large quantity of potatoes, with which they made a kind of tafia which they call whiskey. These Crakeurs are very fond of this liquor; when they drink some of it, since they are by nature quarrelsome and mean, they quarrel among themselves, and agree to fight on the day they appoint. Their fights are very much like English pugilism or boxing, except that they are more murderous. When the Crakeurs have agreed on the day and the hour when they are supposed to fight, they gather as many spectators as they can; they form them in a circle and stand in the center, and at a signal given by the oldest among the spectators, the fight begins.
These men are very wicked and do not wish to submit to any government; for the most part they live, more often than not, only by hunting. They plant a little tobacco which they carry, during the winter, to seaboard towns, and which they barter for wisky, firearms, and gunpowder. Although I remained only a few days among them, I had the opportunity of being invited to a meal which amused me a great deal by its singularity, although the food was very bad. This is how it was:
One of these men, having recognized me as a stranger, invited me to have dinner at his house with several of his friends; his wife, who had heard that in well-bred company it was proper to serve tea, asked her husband to get some in exchange for tobacco; he brought her half a bushel of it. She put it all in a cooking-pot and added to it a large ham; she boiled the whole lot until the ham was cooked. The guests having arrived, she took the ham out on an earthenware dish, threw away the liquor, and placed the tea leaves on another dish, and served the whole on the table. I saw all the faces light up at the sight of an inviting dish about which they were building up high hopes, and every one was getting ready to have a real treat. I observed, without saying a word, not being in a hurry to be the first one to give an opinion on food that I knew was not fit to eat; and I watched each one chew with all his might the tea leaves which no longer had any agreeable taste, when suddenly the wife flew into a great rage against her husband, at whose head she threw her plate, reproaching him for having brought her inferior tea, and for having used the money, which good tea would have cost, to buy whiskey for himself. This comical scene made me laugh a great deal; but it was not without difficulty that I succeeded in making the woman listen to reason, and in making her understand that it was not the tea leaves which were used, but instead their infusion, mixed with a little sugar.
Since I had not eaten anything, and was very hungry, I decided to taste the ham which I found rather good, and to which the tea had given an excellent flavor. I ate a great deal of it, since it constituted the whole dinner.
These men go around almost naked. They are addicted to idleness and drunkenness to such an extent that it is the women who are obliged to do everything. They are somewhat better dressed than the men. In winter, they spin cotton and flax which they mix together; from this they make a cloth which serves for all their clothes, even for shirts. These women are as hard-working as the men are lazy.
The farther one goes into the hinterlands of the United States, which are nearly all inhabited by the same kind of people; the further one penetrates the more dangerous and vicious they are. They often assassinate travelers to rob them. Their closest neighbors are scarcely any safer, they go to the homes of those whom they believe to have some wealth; and when they have succeeded in getting into a house they kill all those they find there, lead away the cattle, and carry away all the goods which they sell afterwards in another state. These thieves wear their hair cut very close to their heads, and paint their bodies and faces with different colors in the manner of the savages; so that their appearance is truly frightful.
There is in each state of the United States a governor who, once in office, looks upon himself as an absolute sovereign. He uses all means which are in his power to secure the devotion of the persons under his administration; impunity is one of those which he uses with the greatest success. Thus it is most difficult to obtain restitution of the stolen goods from the thieves of whom I have just spoken, and who are placed under the protection of one of these governors. The request for the restitution of goods is often made without success.inhabited by the same kind of men, the more dangerous and mean one finds them. They often murder travelers to rob them. Their closest neighbors are scarcely any safer (183-191)…
Milfort describes these luckless, landless savages in great detail and provides them the name which stuck.. Today crackers and their lifestyle are more associated with Georgia and Northern Florida. But they all came from somewhere else before Georgia and Florida were states. One can follow their progress, moving year after year from the tidewater colonies to all those new acres opened up by results of the French and Indian War and the subsequent American Revolution. One can say that crackers moving into the Ohio Valley not only precipitated the French War…but the American Revolution as well as it was the British view that the Ohio Valley belonged to the Indians, while most colonists disagreed with that portion of the Treaty of Paris. From that moment on the Indians would always choose the British side over the colonists, with few exceptions.
Others described these same people as the frontier expanded. One was Isaac Weld (1800) who travelled through Virginia in the 1790s. He described the same villiany, gambling and fighting Milfort and others witnessed:
Perhaps in no place of the same size in the world is there more gambling going forward than in Richmond. I had scarcely alighted from my horse at the tavern when the landlord came to ask what game I was most partial to…It is chiefly, however, the lower class of people that partake of these amusements at the taverns; in private there is perhaps as little gambling in Virginia as in any other part of America. The circumstance of having the taverns thus infested by such a set of people renders travelling extremely unpleasant. Many times I have been forced to proceed much farther in the day than I have wished, in order to avoid the scenes of rioting and quarreling that I have met with at the taverns, which is impossible to escape as long as you remain in the same house where they are carried on (142) …
Of all the uncouth human beings I met within America, these people from the western country were the most so; their curiosity was boundless. Frequently I have been stopped abruptly by one of them in a solitary part of the road, in such a manner, that, had it been another country, I should have imagined it was a highwayman that was going to demand my purse and without any further preface, asked where I came from? If I was acquainted with any news? Where bound to? And finally, my name?
Stop, mister! Why I guess now you be coming from the new state? No sir--Why then I guess you be coming from Kentuc? No sir -- Oh! Why then, pray now where might you be coming from? From the low country-- Why you must have heard all the news then; pray now, mister, what might the price of bacon be in those parts? Upon my word my friend I can't inform you-- Aye aye I see, mister, you be'n't one of us. Pray now, mister, what might your name be (172)?
Weld noted that such encounters were frequent and usually ended after five minutes and a drink at the nearest tavern, then down the road another questioner would appear.
Not all descriptions were as hilarious, adventurous and rowdy. Some were downright appalling, like that mentioned in Dunaway's Slavery in the American South (1996 ).
I cannot omit noticing the many distressed families I passed in the Wilderness (road) Nor can anything be more distressing to a man of feeling to see women and children in the month of December. Traveling a wilderness through ice and snow passing large rivers and creeks without shoe or stocking and barely as many rags as covers their nakedness without money or provision, except what the wilderness affords….to say they are poor is but faintly expressing their situation….Ask these pilgrims what they expect when they get to Kentucky and the answer is land. Have you any? No, but I expect I can get it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but every body says its good land….and when arrived at this heaven in idea what do they find? A goodly land I will allow but to them forbidden land. Exhausted and worn down with distress and disappointment they are at last obliged to become hewers of wood and drawers of water (69).
Most historians seem to agree that the term cracker arises from a British term for a braggart or loudmouth. The quote from Shakespeare's King John Indicates the age of the expression, but many other ideas have been put forward to nail down the origin of the term. Evan's History of Georgia (1908) includes a list of them:
…The driver of each wagon carried a whip, which he often popped and cracked as he drove along. With the handle in both hands, he would pop his large whip from side to side until it sounded like the rapid fire of a pistol. From this practice the name "Georgia Cracker"is said to have originated, the cracker being a man from the country, who, in driving to market, cracked his whip as he went along (191).
A cracker wagon is not like what most wagons were back then; being most often described as like the one I have always personally associated with these landless rogues: It has two rather than four wheels and more often than not pulled by a cow, bull or ox.
Evans also lists several other possible origins for the term "cracker":
1). Because they eat "cracked corn".
2). A group of Georgians in the revolution who were "crack shots" and thus feared by the British.
3). Bill Arp, the writer said they were boasters in the British sense, but also offered that "crack brained" and being "cracked" came from the same source (Evans, 1908: 191)
It is interesting to note that Nelson (2005) in his research on the subject, was able to follow the history of these crackers into the mill towns of the cotton era south, well into the 20th century. He describes the work of a journalist Clare de Graffenreid, who 100 years after Le Clerke, was still describing the cracker community as slothful men with working women:
Grouped about in a single store of the village, lounging, whittling, and sunning their big lazy frames, sit a score of stalwart masculine figures, while their offspring and womenkind toil in the dusty mill. In these accounts, the work of the women serves only to emphasize what observers saw as the despicable laziness of cracker men. Such condemnations of male idleness were most often misunderstandings of poor white labor practices. Cracker men, in this context, engaged in hunting as a primary labor activity, which was more sporadic work than farming; it was more flexible and created moments of leisure throughout the day, giving the impression of consistent unemployment (121)...
(from: History of the Pony Club, unpublished)
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