Colonial Period

Backcountry Folks And The Colony’s Views On Sex, Money And Recreation

albions-seedNote: This is the last of the four entries about Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. If you have not read his book, and are interested in the American Colonial Era, I highly recommend it. Click here to access all the posts in this series.

In this post, I’ll examine the same three folkways I did with the other colonies: Sex, Recreation and Money. In the book, Fischer examines about 20-25 folkways for each colony.

The last group highlighted in Albion’s Seed are also the late arrivers — coming to North America from 1717 to 1774. This group of immigrants, generally referred to as Scott-Irish, actually originated in the border region of northwest England.

They landed mostly in the Quaker Colony of present-day Pennsylvania, but in a rare twist of events, the Quakers, who had created the most religious and ethnically diverse settlement in North America at that time, did not want them and encouraged the settlers to head to the backcountry.

So, they ended up in present-day Appalachia.

Let’s look at how their beliefs on the Big 3: Sex, Money and Fun compared to the other three colonies.

Money. One persistent image of settlers in the Backcountry Colony is that of the rugged individualist living off their own piece of land. The reality, though, then — and now — is much starker.

In the 18th century as many as one-third to one-half of the taxable white males in the region owned no land. It was not any better a century later. According to Census reports from 1850 and 1860, in a sample of eight Tennessee counties, the wealthiest 20 percent of the region owned 82 percent of the improved land and 99 percent of the slaves. In 1983, the top 1 percent of land owners possessed nearly half of the land in Appalachia. The top 5 percent owned nearly two-thirds.

Fischer notes,

This pattern of wealth distribution in the southern highlands in the twentieth century was much like that which existed two hundred years earlier.

However, Fischer does note, one of the counties in Kentucky that had a more equal distribution of land was Cumberland County. Both the Beatys (my maternal line), and the Claywells lived in Cumberland County. The Claywells originated in the Virginia Colony. The Beatys were members of the Backcountry Colony. (They also fought in a decisive Revolutionary War Battle).

Recreation. Because of the conflict that existed in the Border regions of England (where these immigrants originally lived) many of the games and sporting activities transported here were contests of ‘courage, strength and violence.’ Some of the games have fallen out of vogue, but some, like wrestling lives on. Two types of wrestling existed. One was a regulated bout — similar to tournaments held today in high schools. The other type was a no holds barred free-style where everything was legal. These bouts only ended when the opponent ‘gave up.’

Other popular recreational activities imported from England included running, jumping, leaping, and axe or spear throwing contests. Of course, many of these activities laid the foundation for modern Track and Field events. One of the Backcountry Colony’s most famous sons, President Andrew Jackson, was known in his youth for his exceptional running and leaping skills.

But, not all the recreation in the Backcountry was imported from the Mother Land. A case in point is sharpshooting. Since bullets tended to be a valuable commodity, back settlers become highly skilled at hitting distant marks, often using a tree or other support to steady their gun. In the 20th century, one of the region’s most famous sharpshooters was WWI hero Alvin C. York.

Sex. Although the Puritans were very comfortable discussing sex, these conversations did not come close to the familiarity that the backcountry colony had with the subject. Sex was discussed openly and one’s beauty was often, contrary to customs in other parts of North America, put on display. In the late 1700s, Anglican Church missionary Charles Woodmason commented,

The young women have the most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible round their breasts, and slender waists and draw their Petticoat close to their hips to show the fineness of their limbs… indeed nakedness is not censurable or indecent here.

The sexual mores of the newly inhabited region were also different from the other three colonies in another area.

In 1767, Woodmason determined that 94 percent of the brides, whose weddings he had officiated, were pregnant. He attributed this number to two factors: the lack of clergy in the region and love feasts. Love feasts, celebrated at night, included significant amounts of alcohol, and often ended with unwed couples in bed, according to Woodmason. But these prenuptial pregnancy were handled differently than in the other three colonies. In the other colonies, formal prosecutions for fornication were usually launched — and one or both of the guilty parties punished.

In the backcountry, prenuptial pregnancy was not viewed as a legal issue.

220px-Andrew_JacksonAs highlighted in Killings — Folk Justice in the Upper South, one of values of the region centers on a unique approach to justice. Carried from the border land regions of England, justice was meted out under a simple rule of retaliation. The principle could be boiled down to this:

A good man must seek to do right in the world, but when wrong is done to him he must punish the wrongdoer himself by an act of retribution that restores order and justice to the world.

According to Fischer, a young Andrew Jackson was told by his mother to “never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anyone for slander, assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself.”

Apparently Jackson took her advise to heart because he is the only United State’s President to have killed a man in a duel. The duel was fought over an insult levied at Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

Categories: American History, Appalachia, Colonial Era, Colonial Period, Cumberland Plateau, Family History | Tags:

Quakers And Their Beliefs On Sex, Money, And Fun

Note: This is the third in four entries about Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. As I mentioned in the first post, since this is a large book (900+ pages) I did not want to write a single review. Instead I am writing about each of the four British American colonies Fischer examines. If you have not read his book, and are interested in the American Colonial Era, I highly recommend it. Click here to access all the posts in this series.

In this post, I’ll examine the same three folkways I did with the Puritans and the Virginians: Sex, Recreation and Money.


Many politicians — and Americans in general I suppose — love to tell the story of America’s beginning in a largely mythological manner. The myths tend to capitalize on two reoccurring themes: settlers came here in search of religious freedom and secondly, all Americans can ‘make it to the top’ through hard-work and determination. Although the story lines are effective in creating a sense of nationalism — overall, neither are historically true.

But, at least with the Quaker-led British American colony, one of those story lines is fairly accurate for one group of settlers. The Quakers did in fact lay the groundwork for a society built around the idea of religious freedom.

Where They Landed

Although Quakers came from all parts of England, most originated from the North Midlands region. By and large, they landed in present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware. In North America, they were barred, banned and persecuted by the leadership of both the New England Puritan and the Virginia colonies. Being a Quaker in either of these two colonies meant risking being literally branded with a hot iron — often to the face — or execution by hanging.

The hatred levied against them seems somewhat odd since they were pacifist Christians. But it was their inner light theology that caused the hatred. They believed a ‘still small voice’ existed in everyone and if a person listened to that voice they can be saved. Although in many churches today this idea is somewhat accepted, the approach was threatening to established churches of that era because it effectively bypassed the need for the clergy.

Another Christian principle the colony promoted was its acceptance of various religious and ethic groups. The colony was the most diverse of the four British American colonies.

Money. Since the Virginia Colony was a profit-driven business venture, leaders there eventually conquered Indians for their land, but the Quakers felt the more godly approach was to purchase the land (since it belonged to the Indians). It is in the division of this purchased land that best demonstrates how the Quakers viewed the role of material possessions in a society. Their leader, William Penn, who called the colony as a holy experiment, felt the distribution of land should accomplish two tasks:

  1. Provide a source of capital for the founding of the colony.
  2. Create a rural society of independent farming families without great extremes of wealth or poverty.

It was because of this approach that Penn was initially successful in creating the most equal society in the Colonial era. Tax lists from the late 1600s show that in Chester County, the wealthiest 10 percent owned less than one-fourth of all the land. For comparison, in the Virginia colony, the wealthiest 10 percent controlled two-thirds of the land.

It was also the Quakers that largely created the concept of charitable organizations to help the poor.

Recreation. Much like their neighbors to the south, the Quakers were opposed to sport-type activities – especially the sports favored by the New England colony (basically forerunners of baseball and football). Sports and other non-pragmatic activities were seen as a waste of time and their courts punished people who participated in any of the forbidden games. Like the Puritans to the north they were also opposed to horse racing or games associated with gambling.

But their strongest aversion was reserved for the blood sport games that were so prevalent to the south in the Virginia colonies. Although they believed killing game for food was justified, they believed no person had the right to take pleasure – or make a game of – the death of an animal. They were very opposed — and believed it was a sin — to participate in the blood sport of gander pulling — an activity popular among Virginia farmers.

This did not mean, though, that they felt all forms of recreation were evil, but they did tend to view pragmatic recreation as the most God-like choice. Because of this belief one of the most popular form of exercise and recreation was gardening. Because of the colony’s obsession with plants they produced a disproportionate number of botanists – and even produced some of England and America’s leading horticulturalists.

Sex.  The Quakers’ belief in the purity of the inner light presented a vexing conundrum concerning sexual relations between a husband and wife. Like New England and Virginia, the Quakers had laws outlawing sex between unmarried partners or adultery. A Pennsylvania law of 1683 concerning fornication stated that both the single man and the single women should be punished by being required to get married, to be fined or to be whipped – or all three. The law was overthrown by England sometime after 1700 when the Crown ruled it was unreasonable.

The punishment for adultery was even more severe.

  • 1st offense – a year in jail
  • 2nd offense – life imprisonment

The law was later revised and those who somehow engaged in a third offense were branded on the forehead with the letter A.

Even in marriage, sex — unless engaged in for procreation — was often considered sinful. Because of the impurity many associated with sex, long periods of abstinence were commonplace in Quaker families. Homes often had separate beds and rooms for the husband and wife. Some couples went so far as to believe that engaging in sex without the intent of propagation was an act of fornication or lust.

One of the unintended byproducts of this approach to marital sex was instituting population control through what amounted to a form of birth control.

Categories: Colonial Era, Colonial Period | Tags:

Peter Claywell: The Life Of An Indentured Servant In The Virginia Colony

In the classic 90s comedy Seinfeld, Kramer reprimands Jerry Seinfeld for Jerry’s callous, off-handed remark about ‘those people’ — the dentists. Kramer, misinformed as always, launches into a tirade telling Jerry that ‘those people’ came to this country ‘in search of a dream’ like everyone else.

That ‘search’ is referenced often throughout our country’s history, but in the beginning, for some it was more of a choice between bad or worse. This is especially true for immigrants that landed in the Virginia Colony.

Peter Clavell, 1664

As I have written before, Peter Clavell, the first Claywell in my family tree to live in North America, was an indentured servant. Research by the late Charles Clayville, Jr. offers the following sketch of Peter.

The first reference to Peter Clavell’s arrival in the New World appears on the Certificates and Rights. In 1664 he was an Indentured Servant according to a land patent to Southey Littleton in Accomack County, Virginia. …Peter probably did not arrive directly from England. They transported him from Jamestown, Virginia where Southey had purchased or traded Peter’s headright from a ship’s captain. To pay for his transportation, Peter agreed to work (be indentured) as an unpaid servant to Southey for five years.

What is Indentured Servitude?
Although significantly less harsh, in many ways indentured servitude is similar to slavery. Immigrants typically became indentured because they could not pay for — part or all of — their passage to North America. Most of these servants ended up in the Virginia Colony.

virginia-coSince the colony was a business venture – and laborers were needed to produce a profit– the Virginia Company of London advertised and marketed extensively in England for recruits. When they failed to secure enough laborers, convicts were accepted and some people, even children, were kidnapped and delivered to Virginia.

But, the company also created the headright system. It was one of the first examples on North American soil of a potentially good idea gone bad. As the Library of Virginia points out,

As a result of the abuses and of the transferable nature of the headrights, the system, which may have been intended initially to promote settlement and ownership of small plots of land by numerous immigrants, resulted in the accumulation of large tracts of land by a small number of merchants, shippers, and early land speculators.

Since the system effectively concentrated two-thirds of the land into the hands of the wealthiest 10 percent, the imbalance of wealth meant indentured servants were near the bottom of the food chain. The bottom being held by slaves. Being so far down the social ladder meant the servants had very limited legal rights.

In America at 1750: A Social Portrait Richard Hofstadter explains what it meant to be an indentured servant.

An indentured servant was legally considered his master’s chattel. This meant the servant could be bought and sold, he could be passed along through an inheritance and he could be rented out. Unlike a slave, though, an indentured servant could own property, but like a slave, he could not vote. The master was legally permitted to beat the servant for certain offenses and the servant could not marry without the master’s permission.

The inability to legally marry (without their master’s consent) led to a societally-imposed celibacy, but also led to a significantly higher rate of children born out of wedlock than in the other colonies.

I’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place
Unmarried women, were publically flogged for bearing a child, but not so much because it was considered morally wrong, but because of the time ‘stolen’ from their master during childbirth and childrearing. Although illegitimacy was high in Virginia, the most common crime committed by indentured servants was running away.

To curtail this situation, an extremely lopsided system of punishment evolved. At first, individuals convicted of running away, would be required to extend their contract by twice the number of days lost. So, if a person escaped for a month, their servitude was lengthened by two months. Eventually, it became so uneven, that in Maryland, the punishment was a 10-to-1 ratio – or 10 months for every month the servant was gone. One unfortunate female servant’s contract was extended by 15 years, according to Hofstadter.

Upward Mobility: The American Dream
One of the tenets of Americanism is that people settled here for a chance to improve their lot in life. The reality, especially in Virginia, was many were forced to emigrate. However, even those who did choose to come as indentured servants faced considerable odds of climbing up out of their impoverished beginnings.

Hofstadter notes,

The Horatio Alger mythology has long since been torn to bits by students of American social mobility, and it will surprise no one to learn that the chance of emergence from indentured servitude to a position of wealth or renown was statistically negligible…. For a great many the journey across the Atlantic proved in the end to have been only an epitome of their journey through life. …They had so often left a scene of turbulence, crime, exploitation and misery that there could not have been much hope in most of them…few could have expected very much from American life.

Beating The Odds

Peter, based on Clayville’s findings, was one of the lucky ones that did enjoy some upward mobility. It appears he was granted 50 acres of land after his contract was fulfilled (which was customary) and Peter went on to purchase a couple hundred acres. Clayville’s research also states,

Sometime around 1682, Peter married Elizabeth Selby, a daughter of a large landowner Thomas Selby, Sr. Thomas in 1666, patented 1250 acres in the Bogerernorton Hundred which is now part of Worcester County, Maryland.

Ten years later, in February, 1692, Peter died and bequeathed the land to Elizabeth. The land was eventually divided among their three sons: Peter, Selby and Thomas.

A Christian Nation And Slavery

One of the blights on our country’s past is slavery. It was introduced in the Virginia Colony more than 40 years before Peter arrived. In all likelihood, Peter work side-by-side with slaves in the tobacco fields.

Despite claims that America began as a Christian nation, the ‘we are all brothers’ precepts of Jesus did not apply to slaves. During this era, in England, slaves who converted to Christianity could be freed, but that idea just didn’t fly here. To keep recently converted slaves under their master’s control, beginning in 1664, the year Peter arrived, the Colonies passed laws preventing emancipation even for the converted.

Categories: Colonial Era, Colonial Period, Family History