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Celtic Ways in the Old South
By Grady McWhiney
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1988 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Historians, in their much-argued efforts to determine the extent to which the antebellum North and South were similar or different, have paid too little attention to the abundant observations of contemporaries. Most of the people who traveled in antebellum America — Northerners, Southerners, and Europeans — concluded that the South and the North were significantly different places with incongruous inhabitants and cultures. "Thus far all is new, all is strange," a young New Yorker wrote during a visit to the southern United States in 1843–44. His first impression — that in the South he was among foreigners — never altered. "Life here is so different from that at the north," he declared. "I felt ... that I was indeed a stranger in a strange land." A Southerner, in turn, spoke of the northern United States as a "strange land" that he could never understand; another Southerner called the North "a totally foreign country," and a third wrote from Boston in 1854: "I long to return to the South. Kind as many persons have been to me here, I am not at home. I feel as an alien." An Englishman noted: "one could scarcely fail to remark how essentially the characters of the Northern and Southern people differ." Southerners, said a Scot, "are quite a distinct race from the 'Yankees.'" "The manners and habits of Northerners," insisted another foreigner, "are strikingly distinct from there fellow citizens to the southward." The number of observers who recorded such statements is endless.
To understand why Southerners and Northerners were different from and often antagonistic toward each other — indeed, to understand the Old South — one must put aside some myths. The most important myth to recognize and to discard is the belief that southern ways were English ways. How, one might ask, could emphasizing English influence on the South be a mistake when "everyone knows" that the vast majority of southern whites are and always have been of Anglo-Saxon origins; when a distinguished southern historian can insist that the "English influence [on the South] was powerful"; or when another can state that "the South is the habitat of the quintessential WASP" and call it "the biggest single WASP nest this side of the Atlantic"? The answer is that both the common wisdom and the scholars are wrong.
There has been all too little understanding of the ethnic background of white Southerners. "They were mostly transplanted Englishmen with a scattering of continental Europeans," writes one author, who supports his argument with a quotation from Stephen Vincent Benét: "'And those who came were resolved to be Englishmen, Gone to the World's End, but English every one.'" A different writer claims that both the North and the South "were peopled by Englishmen," and two others emphasize "the gap between Anglo-Saxon and African in the South."
Accounts of the South's past usually make such vague or sweeping references to cultural ethnicity that readers are likely to be confused over who are and who not are Anglo-Saxons. For example, the authors of a popular work praise "the German colonists of the South" for their "many sterling qualities" and announce that their "foresighted methods of farming contrasted with the wasteful methods of the Anglo-Saxons." According to these authors: "The Scotch-Irish early became Southerners. They were of the same Anglo-Saxon stock as the people of the coast regions." To contend that the Scotch-Irish came from the "same Anglo-Saxon stock" as the English indicates a profound ignorance of the most important cultural conflict in the history of the British Isles. Moreover, ignoring the Germanic heritage of the Anglo-Saxons is as serious as overlooking the conquest and occupation of England by Anglo-Saxons and the significant Germanic contributions to the English language and culture.
Standard histories of the South give no indication that Celts were important in the region. Some works notice the Scotch-Irish and the Scots, but the Encyclopedia of Southern History — which devotes numerous pages to such ethnic groups and their influence as the English, the Germans, the French, the Indians, the Africans, the Spanish, and even the Acadians — ignores the Scots, the Scotch-Irish, the Irish, the Cornish, and the Welsh. The indexes of most volumes on the South do not include the words Celt or Celtic. Few general works on the Old South even mention the Irish. Those that do usually state that only a meager number of Irishmen migrated to the antebellum South and those who did were generally hired to do work that slaves were too valuable to undertake.
And yet the works of some specialists indicate that in the South, in striking contrast to New England, there was a large Celtic component in the population from the beginning. In an analysis of 7,359 references to seventeenth-century Virginians, John Eacott Manahan found in 1946 that 6,647 (90 percent) came from Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, or the Celtic fringe of England. Conversely, Charles Banks, in his study of 2,885 English immigrants to New England between 1620 and 1650, showed in 1930 that only 185 originated in the Celtic fringe; 2,043 (71 percent) came from the east and southwest of England. More recent scholarship by James Horn and David Grayson Allen sharpens, elaborates, and in some respects corrects these studies but generally bears them out.
Approaching the subject in a different way, Harry M. Caudill also found that many more Celts settled in the antebellum South than conventional sources acknowledge. Using a modern Welsh telephone directory and old Welsh church records, Caudill refuted Ellen Churchill Semple's contention that the settlers of eastern Kentucky were Anglo-Saxons. "The 1984 [Welsh] telephone directory," he found, "is astonishingly similar to the name listings of that portion of Kentucky which begins about thirty miles east of Lexington and continues to the Big Sandy and the Virginia line. In turning its pages a Kentuckian develops the distinct feeling that he is not in a foreign country but is back home.'" All but 6 of the 112 Kentucky counties named for persons have Celtic names. Caudill concluded that rather than The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains Semple "should have called her article The Celts of the Kentucky Mountains."
Similarly, a number of scholars have found that large numbers of Irish arrived in the South at an early time. One investigator has discovered records of "a great infusion of Irish blood" into the South throughout the colonial period. Another concludes that thousands of Irish were transported to America between 1703 and 1775 and that many settled in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. And yet another scholar estimates that in 1790 Irish settlers constituted 25 percent of the population of South Carolina and 27 percent of that of Georgia.
The Irish presence in the South has been overlooked by historians who have assumed incorrectly that during the colonial period of American settlement all natives of Ireland outside Ulster were devout Catholics. "The passionate and exemplary attachment of the Irish nation to the Catholic faith dates from a later time," wrote a distinguished Irish historian about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; "the real contest was between Englishmen and Irishmen rather than Protestants and Catholics. ... In Ireland in the seventeenth century ... the Irish laity were still for the most part only passively and traditionally Catholic." Nor had the situation changed appreciably by the first part of the nineteenth century. "The figures on church attendance in pre-famine Ireland indicate that only thirty-three per cent of the Catholic population went to mass," noted an eminent authority. "Most of the two million Irish who emigrated between 1847 and 1860 were part of the pre-famine generation of nonpracticing Catholics, if indeed they were Catholics at all." Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century, long after most of the Irish who came to the South had migrated, did the "devotional revolution" turn Ireland into a country of churchgoers who equated Irish nationalism with Catholicism.
Irish settlers in the South, especially those who arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, suffered little cultural shock; nominal Catholics at most, they mixed with the Scotch-Irish and Scots — people with whom they had shared traditions and ways for centuries — feuded and stole each other's livestock, just as they had always done, and helped to spread Celtic culture across the southern backcountry.
Even in eighteenth-century Ireland there was more interaction and friendship between Catholics and Protestants than has generally been assumed. "There are very few families of Protestants and Catholics which are not intermarried with each other; of consequence, little or no bigotry prevails," reported the Reverend Stewart Dobbs from County Antrim at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A story is told of the friendship between a local Irish priest and a Protestant minister who was in danger of being transferred because his congregation was so small. On the critical Sunday when the minister's bishop arrived for a final check on church attendance, the Catholic priest told his own congregation what would happen to his friend if the bishop found the church empty. "The whole [Catholic] congregation was moved to tears, ... sailed down to the Protestant Church, and filled it to capacity. The old bishop was charmed and declared they were the finest congregation he ever saw. ... Ever afterwards the people prided themselves on the work of that Sunday."
The evidence indicates that in the backcountry South large numbers of Irish simply adopted the religion of their neighbors. For example, Andrew Leary O'Brien, who was born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1815, migrated to South Carolina, married a local girl, and converted to her Methodist faith. Thousands of other Irish joined the Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian church. A Catholic bishop, after traveling in the antebellum South, maintained "that, calculating from the names of the people, no less than forty thousand had lost the Faith in the Carolinas and Georgia." Later a British Catholic observed that the South was full of people with Irish names. "No doubt," he wrote, "the Wesleyan missionaries on circuit baptised the children and grandchildren of Irish who had not brought their women or their priests. Wesleyan ministers, Methodist bishops, bear Irish names — Healy, Murphy, Connor. Their blood could only have come from Ireland. ... One of these Irish patriarchs ... did meet a priest after fifty years, and could only present two grownup generations of Methodists."
As Forrest McDonald has shown in the Prologue, conflict between the English and the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles marked the history of that area for well over a thousand years. Eventually the English, from their cultural stronghold in the southeastern part of what became the United Kingdom, managed to dominate the whole through persistence, orderly habits, an internalized sense of propriety, a unique system of common law, the habit of obedience to that law, literacy, a capacity for devising flexible but stable political institutions, and other cultural traits. But the peoples who occupied Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Hebrides, and the western and northern English uplands resisted all the way; and as late as the latter part of the eighteenth century few of them except Scottish Lowlanders — of whom only small numbers emigrated to the South — had yet been encultured into English ways.
This cultural conflict between English and Celt not only continued in British North America, it shaped the history of the United States. British immigrants — English and Celtic — brought with them to America their habits and values as well as their old feuds, biases, and resentments. How much of their cultural baggage they managed to retain over time depended on where they settled in America; those settlement patterns, in turn, helped create a sectionalism that swayed the social, economic, and political life of the nation and ultimately exploded into the War for Southern Independence.
Before examining the culture that Celts brought to America, it is important to look at antebellum settlement and migration patterns and to determine as best we can who settled where. The first federal census, taken in 1790, reveals that the seven states north of the Mason-Dixon line contained approximately 1,900,000 people — about the same number as the six states south of that line — but by 1860 the North could claim a population of over 20,300,000, or some 9,100,000 more than the South.
The importance of these figures in understanding settlement patterns is that they show that the Old South, relative to the Old North, was sparsely settled. Even near the end of the antebellum period, after the southern frontier (that is, the point beyond which there were fewer than two people per square mile) extended into Texas, there remained an extensive interior frontier in the South. Large areas in Georgia, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas contained fewer than five persons per square mile. In 1850 only six southern states had as many as twenty settlers per square mile; Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi had between eleven and sixteen; Arkansas and Florida between two and four; and Texas fewer than one per square mile. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, despite the push of westward migration, the Old South remained a thinly populated area of untouched forests and vast grazing lands.
Such a region was ideally suited for the clannish, herding, leisure-loving Celts, who relished whiskey, gambling, and combat, and who despised hard work, anything English, most government, fences, and any other restraints upon them or their free-ranging livestock. Between the early seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries, hordes of Celts from the British Isles found their way to the southern parts of what would become the United States, indeed, a steady stream of them crossed the Atlantic before the American Revolution. In the 1770s James Boswell spoke of "the present rage for emigration" from the Highlands of Scotland, and Dr. Samuel Johnson observed that many people "have departed both from the main of Scotland, and from the Islands." Still another diarist noted in 1767: "The Gazette says 10,000 people a year go from the North of Ireland to America."
Most of these people left their homes because conditions in the Old World had become inimical to survival, at least in accordance with their traditional pastoral ways of life. A group of Scots on their way to North Carolina in 1774 gave an inquisitive official some rare testimony on their motives for migration. George Morgan, Donald McDonald, and John Catanock explained that they had left Scotland because rents had been "raised from Two to Five Pounds Sterling" while the "price of Cattle at the same time [had been] reduced full one half." William McLeod was off "to ... North Carolina, where he has a Brother settled who wrote him to come out assuring him that he would find a better Farm for him than he possest at home." James Sinclair was migrating because "he had lost great part of his Cattle two years ago, the rearing of Cattle being his principal business, the prices of Cattle were reduced one half while the Rents were nevertheless kept up and in many places advanced." John Ross was on his way "to Carolina because the rent of his Possession was greatly Advanced, [and] the price of Cattle which must pay that Rent reduced more than one half." George Grant planned to settle in North Carolina "because Crops failed [at home], and at the same time the price of Cattle was reduced more than One Half. That his Brothers in Law already in America have assured him that from the Cheapness of Provisions ... he may better his Circumstances in that Country." Hector McDonald was going to North Carolina "because the Rents of his possession had been raised from one pound seven shillings to Four pounds, while the price of the Cattle raised upon it fell more than One half." William McKay also intended to settle "in North Carolina, because his Stock being small, ... and the price of Cattle low, he found he could not have bread for his Family at home." William Gordon, "having two Sons already settled in Carolina, who wrote him encouraging him to come there, and finding the Rents of Lands raised in so much, that a Possession for which his Grandfather paid only Eight Merks Scots he himself at last paid Sixty, ... was induced to emigrate for the greater benefit of his Children." John McBeath "left [Scotland] ... because Crops failed, he lost his Cattle, the Rent of his possession was raised, ... [and] he was Encouraged to emigrate by the accounts received from his own and his Wife's Friends already in America, assuring him that he would procure comfortable Subsistence in that Country for his Wife and Children." Eliz. McDonald left "because several of her Friends having gone to Carolina before her, had assured her that she would get much better Service and greater Encouragement in Carolina." James Duncan was migrating "because ... the price of Cattle [was] so much reduced that one Cows price could only buy a Boll of Meal." William McDonald planned to join "Friends already in Carolina, [who] have given him assurances of bettering his Condition"; he "left ... because Crops failed, Bread became dear, the Rents of his possession were raised, ... [and] the price of Cattle [became] so low ... that he could no longer support his Family at Home." Aeneas McLeod left home "because ... the price of Cattle was reduced one half, the Rent was nevertheless still kept up." Hugh Matheson was on his way to "Carolina because ... the price of Cattle has been of late so low, and that of Bread so high, that the Factor who was also a Drover would give no more than a Boll of Meal for a Cow." William Sutherland planned to settle in "Carolina because he lost his Cattle in 1772, and ... was obliged to perform with his Family and his Horses so many and so arbitrary Services to his Landlord at all times of the Year ... that his little Stock daily decreasing, he was encouraged to go to Carolina by the assurances of the fertility of land." George McKay left because "the price of Cattle on which he chiefly depended was greatly reduced, ... by which the Farmers in general were brought into great distress." Alexander Morison migrated because his rent had "doubled, the price of Cattle [remained] low ...; the Tenan[t]s were in various ways opprest by ... Factors; And ... Reports from America [gave him] ... hopes of bettering his Circumstances in that Country."
Excerpted from Cracker Culture by Grady McWhiney. Copyright © 1988 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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