Posts Tagged With: albion’s seed

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:

Virginia Colony Boldly Embraces All Forms Of Inequality

Note: This is the second 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: Sex, Recreation and Money.

Governor_William_BerkeleyAlthough, I’ve never been able to conclusively determine the very first Clavell/Claywell to land on North American soil, some records show that a Peter Clavell died in Accomack, Virginia in 1692. Peter is a forefather of Shadrach Claywell. Shadrach is often the beginning point for U.S. Claywell genealogy. He was born in Bedford County, Va. So, it does appears the Claywell line landed in Virginia, which would also support the reasoning that they are English (and at least one of Shadrach’s children was described by his widow as English).

If Peter was, in fact, an indentured servant it was a rough start for a new beginning in a new land.

Different Approach To Colonization

Unlike the Puritan colonies to the north — a region populated by extended family units, educated individuals, and a more socially and financially equal society — the Virginia colonies were established in a nearly opposite manner. British royalists became the governing class and then through controlled immigration policies populated the colony with illiterate, unattached individuals. Sixty percent or more of the Virginia colony was illiterate — compared to 30 percent or less in the Puritan Colony.

This approach to cultivating a colony led to a highly stratified society with very defined social classes. The high illiteracy rate kept the impoverished class oppressed since they were ill equipped to improve their lot in an ever increasing literate world.

Money Flows To The Top

In 1641 Sir William Berkeley began his 20+ year reign as governor and under his leadership the colony grew from 8,000 to 40,000 inhabitants. During his reign and for centuries beyond, the region remained divided into two distinct groups: the haves and have-nots. According to Fischer, about 10 percent of the population controlled up to 75 percent of the usable land. This was a stark contrast to the northern Puritan colony where the division of wealth was closely regulated and the hedonistic pursuit of wealth was discouraged.

Fischer reports that 70 percent of the Virginia population owned no land while another 20 percent was slightly better off — owning small parcels.

In Virginia, a significant portion of the laborers, like Peter Clavell, were indentured servants. This meant, among other things, that they worked without wages for about seven years. But since the laws were slanted in favor of the property owners these servants, already the working poor, were at an even deeper disadvantage should a dispute concerning their contractual agreement surface. Simply put, the indentured servants were at the mercy of the ruling class so the poor became poorer and the wealthy expanded their holdings.

Killin’ Time Is Killin’ Me

The Virginia Colony phrase ‘killing time’ has its beginning in south England where most of the original laborers emigrated from — and it was a stark contrast to the Puritan concept of improving time. Recreation included significantly different activities in the Puritan and Virginia colonies. The Puritans enjoyed ice skating and games that were the forerunners of baseball and football. They saw recreation as necessary for the development of the Christian character whereas the Virginia colonies saw absolutely no value in any ball-centric sport.

By and large, the Virginia colony residents preferred blood sports. Some of the games were bizarre, like muzzling the sparrow, while others were more pragmatic and practical, like hunting game. But one of the most popular, festive blood sports of Virginia Colony farmers was a tortuous game that required dexterity, horse riding skills, and included the possibility of losing a finger to an angry gander.

Here is how Fischer describes the sport of ganderpulling.

An old male goose was suspended upside-down by his feet from the branch of a tree, and the neck of the bird was lathered with grease. The contestants mounted their horses and galloped past the goose, endeavoring to tear off the bird’s head by brute force as they rode by…. The scene was a lively one — shouting crowds, a swirl of violence, the goose twisting in agony, dismounted riders rolling in the dust, and finally the climax when the carotid artery gave way and the winner rode in triumph through a shower of crimson gore.

Barefoot And Pregnant

Although the roles of men and women were not equal in the Puritan colonies, whenever sexual crimes were committed, like adultery or fornication, the Puritans tended to punish both genders equally, Fischer writes. In Virginia, it was a much different approach.

First, men were allowed, and even expected, to engage in sexual activity with willing, and often, unwilling participants. The punishment for rape was sometimes less than the punishment for petty theft. This was because women, even in the upper, Royal class, were seen as breeders. They were ‘cursed’ with the sin of Eve and their only real purpose was to bear children for their husband (but this did not exclude women from all the hard, manual labor associated with farm work).

This mindset led to several unique laws. Women — and not men — were punished in adultery cases. Although, not a capital crime as in the Puritan colony, adultery was dealt with harshly. A convicted female was either flogged or dragged behind a boat until nearly drowned. The same harshness applied to an unmarried woman bearing a child. This too was a very serious offense in Virginia — but not because it was a sexual sin.

As Fischer writes the offense was punishable,

… because it threatened to place a burden of support on the parish poor rolls, and to deprive a master of work that was thought due him….When an unmarried woman gave birth outside of wedlock, a heavy fine was levied upon her. If the fine could not be paid (which was often the case), she was trussed up like an animal, her dress was ripped open to the waist, and she was publically whipped in the sight of a shouting mob until the blood flowed…

Where They Came From

Most of the immigrants inside the Virginia Colony were transported from the south and west regions of England. About 30 percent were skilled laborers or artisans — compared to 60 percent in the Puritan colony. Women outnumbered men by as much as 6-1 in the early years, but few came of their own free will. Seventy-five percent of the servant-immigrant males were between the ages of 15 and 24. Even younger children were stolen from England and transported to Virginia.

Eventually black slaves would be imported to the area, and the institution of slavery would be born. Some historians argue that slavery took hold here instead of in New England because of the hierarchy that already existed in Virginia. Even poor white settlers benefitted from slavery since it meant there was a class of people ‘beneath’ them in the social hierarchy (I may be poor, but at least I’m not a slave.)

Oddest Thing I Learned: Do You Believe In Magic?

Since many of the underlying beliefs — like a women’s subservient role, blood sport, and religious intolerance (the colony drove out Puritans and Quakers) — I have seen firsthand, none of those customs were shocking to me. But, I did find several customs intriguing. For example, I learned that the southern way of speaking was mostly imported from south England. The colonists’ term for coitus  — rogering — I also found a bit unusual, but the oddest thing was the colony’s — rich and poor alike — obsession with magic. They were not concerned, like their neighbors to the north about witches. No one was ever executed in the Virginia colony for witchcraft.

As a colony, people accepted their position on the social ladder because of their belief in luck or magic. This singular core belief went a long way in preventing any significant upward mobility for the indentured class — or any decline in status for the wealthy. The belief minimized any sense of responsibility for determining the direction of their lives or controlling their own fate.

On the whole, they believed that ‘God’ had placed them in their appropriate place on the social ladder.

Categories: American History, Colonial Era, Colonial Period, Family History | Tags: