Monday, August 01, 2005

McDougall on them-there Scotch-Irish

I'm still reading McDougall's Freedom Just Around the Corner and learning a bit about some of my forebears and thus about the Ozark culture that seems indebted to them. In pre-Revolutionary America, the Scotch-Irish pouring into the colonies between 1700 and 1775 headed for what was then the frontier in a search for land far enough from everybody else for them to enjoy untrammeled their libertarian freedom of individual choice.

They had some odd folkways:

Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason was shocked to observe [the lack of 'decorum' of the Scotch-Irish] among the cabins dotting Virginia's foothills. Everyone slept in a family pile, children ran naked, and girls who had barely reached puberty pulled up their skirts (especially while dancing) and pulled down their shifts to display buttocks and breasts. Even topographical names contained the familiar "four-letter words." (153)

For those curious about these topographical names, McDougall supplies some in a footnote, which I'll bowdlerize since this is a family-friendly blog:

The creeks once named Tickle C-nt, Sh-tbritches, and F-cking will not be found on a contemporary map, but eighteenth-century upcountry Virginians knew them well. (535, n. 36)

Such sexual openness was doubtless encouraged by their consumption of alcohol:

Scots and Irish carried with them their thirst for the wee dram, or pint as the case may be. Even children at table were given a glass of whiskey sweetened with sugar. Over time, their experimentation with local marshes, stills, and the aging of liquors in various casks perfected those backwoods masterpieces called Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee sippin' whiskey. (153-154)

I have some tales of moonshiners in my own family that I ought to relate sometime, but not today. At any rate, the Scotch-Irish thirsted not only for backwoods spirits but for a somewhat more sublime one as well:

So numerous and idiosyncratic were the evangelical preachers who worked the frontier that no generalizations are possible except to observe that they were highly emotional, given to field-preaching in the manner of Whitefield, hostile to organized churches, and focused on the born-again, life-changing experience. Those were features bound to appeal to a rural Celtic population already romantic, suspicious of authority, and jealous of independence. "Repent, ye sinner, and be saved" -- especially when cried at dusk in a torchlit meadow littered with jugs -- was a simple message that blamed the frontiersman alone for his sordid condition and put the future entirely in his own hands. The preacher was the medium, but the message was that man and God are alone with each other, free to make their own peace. (154)

They insisted on their freedom:

Having known nothing but oppression and suffering for centuries at the hands of all manner of governments and churches, these were people infused with a pure libertarian spirit for whom freedom meant individual choice. These were people who hated taxes because they reckoned all who imposed them to be glorified thieves. These were people who hated boundaries because they reckoned all who drew or enforced them to be glorified jailers. These were people who, as a German traveler observed in 1768, "shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint. They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild." On the American frontier they could achieve that object.

That explains why the Scotch-Irish settled the Ozarks -- they were aiming to get away from everybody else. In this aim, they succeeded quite well until recently -- as I myself observed growing up in the Ozarks.

A lot has changed over the two hundred and fifty years since the time and place that McDougall describes, but some of it may have remained unchanged even into the 20th century if Vance Randolph's collection of folk tales and jokes in Pissing in the Snow reflects Ozark reality:

One time there was two farmers that lived out on the road to Carico. They was always good friends, and Bill's oldest boy had been a-sparking one of Sam's daughters. Everything was going fine till the morning they met down by the creek, and Sam was pretty goddam mad. "Bill," says he, "from now on I don't want that boy of yours to set foot on my place."

"Why, what's he done?" asked the boy's daddy.

"He pissed in the snow, that's what he done, right in front of my house!"

But surely, there ain't no great harm in that," Bill says.

"No harm!" hollered Sam. "Hell's fire, he pissed so it spelled Lucy's name, right there in the snow!"

"The boy shouldn't have done that," says Bill. "But I don't see nothing so terrible bad about it."

"Well, by God, I do!" yelled Sam. "There was two sets of tracks! And besides, don't you think I know my own daughter's handwriting?" (5)

Sam's daughter could write? Well, I always suspected that education was detrimental to morals.


At 11:46 AM, Blogger The Root said...

Interesting how they conveyed their desire for freedom from Puritanical constraints on language by giving their rivers and landmarks names that their churches in Scotland would have blushed at. Almost like "marking their territory", you know. :)

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I hadn't thought of it as marking territory, but it's an intriguing suggestion.

They were geographically pretty far from the Puritans but too close to the Anglican tobacco planters who looked down on them as what would now be called "White Trash."

So, the crude naming of places might have been more a way of snubbing their Scotch-Irish noses at those tidewater Virginians who carried their southern England Cavalier noses entirely too high.

Or the Scotch-Irish might just have called creeks by such crude names because they themselves were crude and thought the names were funny. There might even be a funny, if crude story behind each name.


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