Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South

By Grady McWhiney | Go to book overview

suffered either cultural isolation or serious problems of adjustment when they settled in the Old South. The course of antebellum American history was shaped far more by the differences between Northerners and Southerners than by any likenesses. Their conflict in the 1860s was not as much brother against brother as culture against culture.

What is most remarkable about the Old South's predominant culture, which I call Cracker culture, is how closely it resembled traditional Celtic culture. Most of the habits, customs, and values that British Celts brought with them to the colonial South not only survived but prevailed. To be sure, some residents of the Old South were not part of Cracker culture--specifically, a few planters, some townfolk and professional people, even some slaves--but the overwhelming majority of Southerners were, whether they acknowledged it or not. Some Crackers were rich, others poor, and still others were neither; but they all more or less acted alike and shared the same values. And that is the point: Cracker does not signify an economic condition; rather, it defines a culture.

Scotch-Irish settlers, "in whose dialect a cracker was a person who talked boastingly," brought the term to the South, where during the colonial period it was associated mainly with herdsmen of Celtic origins. "The Cracker was typically a Scotch-Irishman," one scholar noted. In 1766 a colonial official informed the earl of Dartmouth: "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 place of abode." In 1783 a German visiting the Carolina backcountry found longhorn cattle, swine, and slovenly people whom he identified as "Crackers." In 1790 a Spanish official reported the "influx [into Florida] of rootless people called Crackers." He described them as rude and nomadic, excellent hunters but indifferent farmers who planted only a few patches of corn, and as people who kept "themselves beyond the reach of all civilized law."1

Cracker soon became part of the American vocabulary, but it has almost always been used disparagingly to describe the mudsills of the South. Contemporaries and scholars alike usually equated

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1
Delma E. Presley, "The Crackers of Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 60 ( 1976), 102-16; Gary S. Dunbar, "Colonial Carolina Cowpens," Agricultural History 35 ( 1961), 130; Joe A. Akerman Jr. , Florida Cowman, A History of Florida Cattle Raising (Kissimmee, Fla., 1976), 59; Terry G. Jordan, Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching ( Lincoln, Nebr., 1981), 34; Johann David Schopf, Travels in the Confederation [1783-1784] . . . . trans. and ed. Alfred J. Morrison ( new ed., 2 vols., New York, 1968) II:222-23; James A. Lewis , "Cracker--Spanish Florida Style," Florida Historical Quarterly 63 ( 1984), 188, 191. On the nature of the Scotch-Irish, see Leroy V. Eid, "The Colonial Scotch-Irish: A View Accepted too Readily," Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 21 ( 1986), 81-105.

-xiv-

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Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Illustrations xi
  • Preface xiii
  • Prologue xxi
  • I - Settlement 1
  • II - Heritage 23
  • III - Herding 51
  • IV - Hospitality 80
  • V - Pleasures 105
  • VI - Violence 146
  • VII - Moral 171
  • VIII - Education 193
  • IX - Progress 218
  • X - Worth 245
  • XI - Collision 268
  • Appendix - Sources on the Origins of Surnames 273
  • Index 278
  • About the Author 291
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