The Borderers are aggressively interesting. I struggled to find gameable content to mine from the section on Quakers. I had the opposite problem with this chapter. The Borderers were, in many ways, a medieval remnant carried into the modern world. Practices Fischer reports as curiosities or aberrations were perfectly normal... in the fourteenth century.
|Lincoln Park National Gallery of Art|
Part 4: The BorderersTraditionally (and apparently incorrectly) called the Scotch-Irish, the Borderers arrived from a troubled part of the world.
The border derived its cultural character from one decisive historical fact. For seven centuries, the kings of Scotland and England could not agree who owned it, and meddled constantly in each other’s affairs. From the year 1040 to 1745, every English monarch but three suffered a Scottish invasion, or became an invader in his turn. [...] Altogether, two historians of the border write that “until after 1745, the region never enjoyed fifty consecutive years of quiet.”Some of these invasions were remarkable failures. In 1332, after enormous preparations, an English invasion acquired exactly one cow. “This is the dearest beef I ever saw,” the Earl of Surrey said. “It surely has cost a thousand pounds and more!”
Noted historian Dave Barry called Belgium “ ‘The Screen Door of Europe’, constantly getting slammed as various armies went racing through in both directions, often failing to wipe their feet.” The description also applies to the Border country. Settlements were either fortified or temporary. Local control was maintained by warlords. Family loyalty trumped national loyalty in many cases. Families of borderers constantly switched sides, or chose no side at all.
The gentry lived in buildings called peles, stone towers three or four stories high. The ground floor was a windowless storeroom with walls ten feet thick. Stacked above it was a hall for living, a bower for sleeping and a deck for fighting... Poor tenants dealt with danger in another way, by erecting rude “cabbins” of stone or wood or beaten earth “such as a man may build within three or four hours.” The destruction of these temporary buildings was not a heavy loss, for they could be rebuilt almost as rapidly as they were wrecked.But by the 17th century, under a unified crown and a strong central government, the Borders were gradually pacified.
This ordering process was as violent as the world that it destroyed. The pacification of this bloody region required the disruption of a culture that had been a millennium in the making. Gallows were erected on hills throughout the English border counties, and put busily to work. Thrifty Scots saved the expense of a rope by drowning their reivers instead of hanging them, sometimes ten or twenty at a time. Entire families were outlawed en masse, and some were extirpated by punitive expeditions. Many were forcibly resettled in Ireland, where officials complained that they were “as difficult to manage in Ireland as in north Cumberland,” and banished them once again—this time to the colonies. The so-called Scotch-Irish who came to America thus included a double-distilled selection of some of the most disorderly inhabitants of a deeply disordered land.
Migration to America
The borderers entered America principally through the ports of Philadelphia and Newcastle. They moved quickly into the surrounding countryside, and in the words of one official, simply squatted wherever they found “a spot of vacant land.”This reminds me of my old Roman history professor’s description of the decaying Roman empire in Gaul. “One day,” he said, “some strange people settle in an abandoned field a few miles from your house. They keep mostly to themselves, but they trade with you a little. They speak their own language and keep their own customs and after a few months you realize they aren’t leaving.”
It wasn’t an invasion, but the existing colonists felt like it was. The Puritans and Cavaliers sent them to into hostile and difficult territory. The Quakers, bless them, gave tolerance a brave try, but eventually decided the Borderers would be better tolerated somewhere else.
In 1731, James Logan informed the Penns in England that he was deliberately planting the North Britons in the west, “as a frontier in case of any disturbance.” Logan argued that these people might usefully become a buffer population between the Indians and the Quakers. At the same time, he frankly hoped to rid the east of them.The backcountry, the southern highlands and the Appalachian range, was dangerous, unexplored, and occupied. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw Indian nations did not appreciate 250,000 Borderers arriving in their territory. The Borderers, at least in part, seemed to be delighted at the prospect of a good fight. I don’t agree with Scott Alexander’s conclusion, but it is too hilarious not to include. “So the Borderers all went to Appalachia and established their own little rural clans there and nothing at all went wrong except for the entire rest of American history.”
Borderer Place Name WaysPuritans, Cavaliers, and Quakers named their cities and towns after concepts they loved or places they left behind. There are still plenty of Royalist towns in Virginia and proper virtuous names in New England and Pennsylvania. The Borderers... did things differently. They mangled existing names.
High-toned names in general did not flourish in this environment; a place originally called Mont Beau, North Carolina, became Monbo.And named things after their homelands and former settlements.
Immigrants from North Britain also liked to name their settlements after individuals and clans... In North Carolina alone, for example, there are more than 130 place names beginning with Mc or Mac, and many Alexanders, Jacksons, Robertsons, Williamsons, and Grahams. Other examples included Harper’s Ferry, Graham’s Meeting House, Gordon’s Meeting House, McAden’s Church, Craig’s Creek and Jackson River in Virginia; Hobkirk’s Hill and Lynch’s Creek in South Carolina; Bryan’s Station, Logan’s Fort and McAfee’s in Kentucky; McMinnville, Johnston’s Fork, Sullivan and Knoxville in Tennessee.
The names of backcountry places reflected many other aspects of border culture. Its food ways appeared in place names such as Clabber Branch, Frying Pan, Corncake, Whiskey Springs and Hangover Creek. Its religion was evident in settlements called Campground and New Light. The material bias in this culture was evident in the villages of Ad Valorem and Need More, both in North Carolina. The disappointment of dreams was registered in Hard-bargain Branch, Pinchgut Creek, Lousy Creek, Worry, Noland, Big Trouble, Hell’s Half Acre and Devil’s Tater Patch. The violence of this culture appeared in Bloody Rock, Bloodrun Creek, Breakneck Ridge, Brokeleg Branch, Cutthroat Gap, Gallows Branch, Hanging Rock, Killquick, Scream Ridge, Lynch’s Creek, Whipping Creek, Skull Camp Mountain, Scuffletown, Grabtown and See-off Creek, also in North Carolina. Names of that sort were very rare on the New England Frontier.
Other backcountry names showed a spirit of improvisation which differed from naming customs in other regions. Back settlements were called Thicketty and Saltketcher (both in South Carolina), Licking Creek (Tennessee), Big Sandy, Kerless Knob, Tater Knob and Teeny Knob. A relaxed attitude toward naming in general appeared in Aho, whose founders were unable to agree upon a choice, and decided to take the first sound that was made in the new community. Other names in the same vein included Why Not, Odear, Shitbritches Creek, Naked Creek, Cuckold’s Creek, Stiffknee Knob, Big Fat Gap, Ben’s Ridge and Bert’s Creek and Charlie’s Bunion Mountain.
The Borderer Mood
A backcountry gentleman was once heard to pray, “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.” This supplication captured the prevailing cultural mood in the back settlements, which were profoundly conservative and xenophobic. The people of this region were intensely resistant to change and suspicious of “foreigners.” One student of the Appalachian dialect found that “the word foreigner itself is used here [in Appalachia] in its Elizabethan sense of someone who is the same nationality as the speaker, but not from the speaker’s immediate area.” All the world seemed foreign to the backsettlers except their neighbors and kin..As a side note, I’m sure everyone has a friend or player who could use that prayer. The profound xenophobia of the region, and its violent expression, separated it from the other colonies. It was the default attitude of the 14th century, not the 19th.
Anyone from a neighboring district was looked upon as a “‘foreigner.’” Precisely the same outlook long existed in the back-country, where there were many bizarre proverbs on the subject:
- Put the stranger near the danger.
- Let the blame of every ill be on the stranger.
- The bad and no good on the back of a stranger.
- The stranger is for the wolf.
During the Civil War some fought against both sides. In the early twentieth century they would become intensely negrophobic and antisemitic. In our own time they are furiously hostile to both communists and capitalists. The people of the southern highlands have been remarkably even-handed in their antipathies—which they have applied to all strangers without regard to race, religion or nationality.
The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason wrote in disgust, “They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of changing it.” That statement, without its pejoratives, described an instinctive conservatism which was also noted by other travelers and acknowledged by the backsettlers themselves. “We never let go of a belief once fixed in our minds,” wrote an Appalachian woman with an air of pride.
Borderer Marriage Ways
An ancient practice on the British borders was the abduction of brides. In Scotland, Ireland and the English border counties, the old custom had been elaborately regulated through many centuries by ancient folk laws which required payment of “body price” and “honor price.” Two types of abduction were recognized: voluntary abduction in which the bride went willingly but without her family’s prior consent; and involuntary abduction in which she was taken by force. Both types of abduction were practiced as late as the eighteenth century. It was observed of the borderlands and Ulster during this period that “abductions, both ‘under the impulse of passion and from motives of cupidity,’ were frequent.”
Even future President of the United States Andrew Jackson took his wife by an act of voluntary abduction. Rachel Donelson Robards was unhappily married to another man at the time. A series of complex quarrels followed, in which Rachel Robards made her own preferences clear, and Andrew Jackson threatened her husband Lewis Robards that he would “cut his ears out of his head.” Jackson was promptly arrested. But before the case came to trial the suitor turned on the husband, butcher knife in hand, and chased him into the canebreak. Afterward, the complaint was dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff—who was in fact running for his life from the defendant. Andrew Jackson thereupon took Rachel Robards for his own, claiming that she had been abandoned. She went with Jackson willingly enough; this was a clear case of voluntary abduction. But her departure caused a feud that continued for years.
Jackson thought of himself as a gentleman, and took a wife who was appropriate to his rank. She was described as “the daughter of a man of considerable prestige, one of the richest and most distinguished of the western Virginians, but she went into the forest when a young girl, and the result was that she was barely literate, and she smoked a pipe on occasion.”Andrew Jackson, the first Borderer president, emphasized the ideals of the Borderer elite in many ways. "Observers likened him to a volcano, and only the most intrepid or recklessly curious cared to see it erupt. ... His close associates all had stories of his blood-curdling oaths, his summoning of the Almighty to loose His wrath upon some miscreant, typically followed by his own vow to hang the villain or blow him to perdition. Given his record—in duels, brawls, mutiny trials, and summary hearings—listeners had to take his vows seriously." H.W. Brands.
And his parrot was ejected from his funeral for swearing.
Back to weddings. Several uniquely American wedding customs, if bad daytime TV informs me correctly, seem to have come from Borderer weddings.
After the ceremony, there were more volleys [of impromptu gunfire], much whooping, and an abundance of kissing, drinking and high hilarity. Then a dinner and dance would take place, with everyone joining in wild reels, sets and jigs while a fiddler scraped frantically in the corner. Before the wedding dinner, another mock-abduction was staged indoors; the bride was stolen by one party and “recovered” by the other. During the dinner itself the party played still another abduction-game called stealing the shoe. While dinner went on, the young people crawled about beneath the table and some of the groomsmen tried to steal the bride’s shoe while others sought to stop them... Yet another contest was staged at the foot of the marriage bed. After the couple was placed beneath the covers, the bridesmaids took turns throwing a rolled stocking over their shoulders at the bride. Then the groomsmen did the same, aiming at the groom. These games continued well into the night. When the wedding party finally left the chamber, a “cali-thumpian serenade” took place outside—the bells and whistles punctuated by uninhibited gunplay that sometimes caused a back-country wedding to be followed by a funeral.
Even in poor border families, much was spent on weddings. One antiquarian wrote of the borderers, “They intermarry one with another, and will spend all they have in the wedding week, and then go begging.”
After dinner, “each male guest raised the bottle in his right fist and cried: ‘Here’s to the bride, thumping luck and big children!’ " Kercheval explained:
Big children, especially big sons, were of great importance, as we were few in number and engaged in perpetual hostility with the Indians, the end of which no one could foresee. Indeed many of them seemed to suppose war was the natural state of man, and therefore did not anticipate any conclusion of it; every big son was therefore considered a young soldier.
Borderer Sex WaysI love reading the scandalized accounts of Anglican missionaries. They have a way of indignant huffing and glowering that always reminds me of Trollope's Barchester novels.
The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason was astounded by the open sexuality of the backsettlers. “How would the polite people of London stare, to see the Females (many very pretty) …,” he wrote. “The young women have a most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible round their Breasts, and slender waists (for they are generally very finely shaped) and draw their Petticoat close to their Hips to show the fineness of their limbs—as that they might as well be in puri naturalibus—indeed nakedness is not censurable or indecent here, and they expose themselves often quite naked, without ceremony—rubbing themselves and their hair with bears’ oil and tying it up behind in a bunch like the indians—being hardly one degree removed from them. In a few years I hope to bring about a reformation.”Spoiler alert: Charles Woodmason did not succeed.
In the year 1767, Woodmason calculated that 94 percent of backcountry brides whom he had married in the past year were pregnant on their wedding day, and some were “very big” with child. He attributed this tendency to social customs in the back settlements:And by the Borderers themselves. Remember how the Puritans and Quakers prosecuted adultery and premarital sex with divinely-inspired fury, and how the Cavaliers protected the purity of their blood? Not so much an issue here.
Nothing more leads to this than what they call their love feasts and kiss of charity. To which feasts, celebrated at night, much liquor is privately carried, and deposited on the roads, and in bye paths and places. The assignations made on Sundays at the singing clubs, are here realized. And it is no wonder that things are as they are, when many young people have three, four, five or six miles to walk home in the dark night, with convoy, thro’ the woods? Or perhaps staying all night at some cabbin (as on Sunday nights) and sleeping together either doubly or promiscuously? Or a girl being mounted behind a person to be carried home, or any wheres. All this contributes to multiply subjects for the king in this frontier country, and so is wink’d at by the Magistracy and Parochial Officers.
Where Puritans, Quakers and cavaliers launched formal prosecutions for fornication, the back settlers had a merry game and a good laugh. Kercheval remembered that a backcountry custom “adopted when the chastity of the bride was a little suspected, was that of setting up a pair of horns on poles or trees, on the route of the wedding company.”Seduction and abandonment, however, was a terrible crime. It “was regarded not merely as a violation of a woman’s virtue but of her entire family’s honor. Such an act was thought to be a high crime, and any man who committed it was lucky to escape a lynching.”
Borderer Child-Rearing Ways
In childbirth, if not in child-rearing, the Borderers were once again properly medieval.
A world of extreme uncertainty required that the fates should be propitiated with the same care and attention that a suburban mother today studies the latest treatises on infant science. The entire community joined in these precautions, and the old grannies were consulted as urgently as a modern pediatrician:Parents were permissive, even doting. Violence was generally condemned, but frustration and badly controlled tempers let it loose with sudden and shocking intensity.
What a plucking of herbs, what a consulting of signs and omens, both before and after the event! … The baby must wear a strong of corn-beads round its neck to facilitate teething, and later a bullet or coin to prevent nose-bleed. Its wee track must be printed in the first snow that falls, to ward off croup. The first woodtick that fastens itself to the little body is an omen, too; you must kill it on an axe or other tool if you wish baby to grow into a clever workman. If it be killed on a bell or banjo, or any clear-ringing substance, he will develop a voice for singing; if on a book, he will learn to speak “all kind o’ proper words,” all gifts highly esteemed in the mountains.No self-respecting mother neglected this form of prenatal and postnatal care. After the baby was born, parents began the process which the modern world calls socialization. For backcountry boys, the object was not will-breaking as among the Puritans, or will-bending as in Virginia. The rearing of male children in the back settlements was meant to be positively will-enhancing. Its primary purpose was to foster fierce pride, stubborn independence and a warrior’s courage in the young. An unintended effect was to create a society of autonomous individuals who were unable to endure external control and incapable of restraining their rage against anyone who stood in their way.
This problem of promiscuous violence in child rearing was compounded by alcohol. The diary of a school boy in Tennessee described the terror that the entire family felt whenever “papa was groggy.” All the members of the household conspired to dilute his whisky in hopes of diminishing the fury that caused “Papa” to beat and kick even his own infant children.
Youngsters responded by running away, fighting back, or sometimes even trying to murder their parents. In 1805, when one North Carolina mother attempted to control her “large family of children,” they rose en masse and tried to kill her. From an early age, small boys were taught to think much of their own honor, and to be active in its defense. Honor in this society meant a pride of manhood in masculine courage, physical strength and warrior virtue. Male children were trained to defend their honor without a moment’s hesitation—lashing out instantly against their challengers with savage violence.
This method of child rearing was used mainly for boys. The daughters of the backcountry were raised in a different way. Mothers were expected to teach domestic virtues of industry, obedience, patience, sacrifice and devotion to others. Male children were taught to be self-asserting; female children were trained to be self-denying.
Borderer Age WaysAgain, medieval. Some elders received deference and deep respect. Some were abandoned, mocked for their weakness, and cast out of their communities as parasites and burdens.
Emma Miles has left us a memorable portrait of a backcountry granny named Geneva Rogers, “Aunt Genevy” to all the neighborhood. Her ancient profile was deeply lined with a lifetime’s suffering. Her manner was gentle, but she was a force to be reckoned with in the community.And I’m going to include her story in full because it reminds me of my own grandmother who, at the age of nintety-two, still did her New York Times crosswords in pen, maintained her own house and garden without assistance, and fired off scalding emails to spammers, scammers, predators, political candidates, and anyone else she felt was abusing her time and goodwill.
Emma Miles recalled:For ever formidable elder or mountain granny, a dozen old men and women languished in poverty, rejected by their families and their neighbors. Fischer states that this stark duality was, “derived from an ancient custom deeply embedded in the culture of North Britain, where it was called the rule of tanistry.”
For all her gentleness and courtesy, there is something terrible about old Geneva Rogers. … At an age when the mothers of any but a wolf-race become lace-capped and felt-shod pets of the household … she is able to toil almost as severely as ever. She takes wearisome journeys afoot, and is ready to do battle upon occasion to defend her own. Her strength and endurance are beyond imagination to women of the sheltered life. … I have learned to enjoy the company of these old prophetesses almost more than any other. The range of their experience is wonderful; they are, moreover, repositories of tribal lore—tradition and song, medical and religious learning. They are the nurses, the teachers of practical arts, the priestesses, and their wisdom commands the respect of all. An old woman usually has more authority over the bad boys of a household than all the strength of man. A similar reverence may have been accorded to the mothers of ancient Israel, as it was given by all peoples to those of superior holiness. … It is not the result of affection, still less of fear.The authority of these mountain grandmothers was very great, and their wrath was terrible to behold. Emma Miles observed a scene between one of these old women and a backcountry preacher called Elisha Robbins who preached that even his own mother would be eternally damned without baptism in his own small sect. This doctrine brought upon him the full wrath of a mountain granny:
“Lishy,” she shrilled at him, unheeding the crowd, “Lishy Rob-bins, I held you in my arms before you was three hours old, and … you ought to be slapped over for preaching any such foolishness about your mother, and I’m a-gwine to do it!” And forthwith she did. Her toil hardened old fist shot out so unexpectedly that the young preacher went down like a cornstalk. Angry? Of course he was angry, but she was a grandmother of the mountains. There was nothing for it but to pick himself up with as much dignity as remained to him.
In North Britain, from time immemorial, the rule of tanistry (or thanistry, as in thane) had long determined the descent of authority within a clan. It held that “succession to an estate or dignity was conferred by election upon the ‘eldest and worthiest’ among the surviving kinsmen.” Candidates for this honor were males within the circle of kin called the derbfine—all the relatives within the span of four generations. By the rule of tanistry, one man among that group was chosen to head the family: he who was strongest, toughest and most cunning. This principle became an invitation to violent conflict, and the question was often settled by a trial of strength and cunning. The winner became the elder of his family or clan, and was honored with deference and deep respect. The losers were degraded and despised—if they were lucky. In ancient days they were sometimes murdered, blinded or maimed.
Borderer Death WaysO death. O death. Won’t you spare me over for another year.
Settlers and Indians warred constantly upon one another. Bandit gangs roamed the wilderness, and many an unwary traveler disappeared without a trace. Regulators enforced order with vigilante violence as savage as the acts they condemned. Major wars broke out at least once in every generation from 1689 to 1865. These bloody events did not drive death rates as high in the backcountry as in the Chesapeake region, or other places in British America. But they created a climate of danger and uncertainty that kept old border customs alive. Attitudes toward death in the backcountry long remained very much the same as they had been in the borderlands.Death was portrayed in poetry and song as an illegitimate force, a tyrant, a murderer, a stalking dog, a hated foe. Rage, despair, anger, darkness. A force to be bargained with, repelled, studied, driven off, but never evaded.
A woman of the Bell clan who understood this backcountry culture very well, tried to explain the special quality of its fatalism to outsiders:It might be the single malt talking, but I see the seeds of evangelical maltheism, that cruel, self-satisfied allegiance to the “winning side”, in this text.
The fatalism of this free folk is unlike anything of the Far East; dark and mystical though it be … it is lighted with flashes of the spirit of the Vikings. A man born and bred in a vast wild land nearly always becomes a fatalist. He learns to see nature not as a thing of field and brooks, friendly to man and docile beneath his hand, but as a world of depths and heights and distances illimitable, of which he is a tiny part. He feels himself carried in the sweep of forces too vast for comprehension, forces variously at war, out of which are the issues of life and death. … Inevitably he comes to feel, with a sort of proud humility, that he has no part in the universe save as he allies himself, by prayer and obedience, with the order that rules.
Death rituals were also ancient, superstitions, and probably scandalous to any passing Anglican missionaries.
When the last moment came, the dying man or woman was gently lifted from the bed and lowered to the floor, where the spirit was thought to be in touch with the mysterious forces of the earth. Then the corpse was laid upon a board and watched constantly by friends and relations. A platter of salt was mixed with earth and placed on the stomach of the corpse. The salt was a symbol of the spirit; earth represented the flesh.
Everyone in the neighborhood was expected to pay a visit, friend and foe alike. All were compelled to touch the corpse. This practice derived from an ancient belief that when a murderer laid hands upon the body of his victim, the corpse would begin to bleed again. Every “touching” was closely watched, for on the borders foul play was often suspected.
The death watch was followed by a wake in which many folk rituals were performed by family, friends and neighbors:Funerals of dead PCs are often perfunctory. Consider expanding them. PCs are also usually involved in supernatural trouble. Warding and watching a corpse might be wise.
On the death of a person, the nearest neighbors cease working till the corpse is interred. Within the house where the deceased is, the dishes and all other kitchen utensils are removed from the shelves or dressers; looking-glasses are covered or taken down, clocks are stopped, and their dial-plates covered. Except in cases deemed very infectious, the corpse is always kept one night, and sometimes two. This sitting with the corpse is called the Wake, from Like-Wake (Scottish), the meeting of the friends of the deceased before the funeral. Those meetings are generally conducted with great decorum; portions of the Scriptures are read, and frequently a prayer is pronounced, and a psalm given out fitting for the solemn occasion. Pipes and tobacco are always laid out on a table, and spirits or other refreshments are distributed during the night. If a dog or cat passes over the dead body, it is immediately killed, as it is believed that the first person it would pass over afterwards, would take the falling sickness. A plate with salt is frequently set on the breast of the corpse.These customs were recorded in Carrickfergus, northern Ireland, during the eighteenth century. They continued to be kept in Appalachia for two hundred years.
Borderer Religious WaysThe Borderers were initially fiercely Presbyterian. They weren’t religious in the same sense as the Quakers or the Puritans, but their devotion to ancestral practices meant they were just as stubborn and proud as their Cavalier neighbors, even as the Cavaliers of Virginia sent Anglican missionaries to convert the wayward mountain folk. It didn’t go well.
Strong continuities also existed in the religious customs of this culture. The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason learned about their power the hard way. In 1766, he packed his saddlebags with prayerbooks and a pint of rum, and “heavy loaded like a trooper,” rode bravely into the Carolina backcountry to convert the heathen. His self-appointed task was a heavy one, for Wood-mason’s idea of the heathen was as spacious as the land itself, embracing Indians, Africans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, Irish of any denomination, and even Anglicans of “low church” opinions.Oh Charles.
Traveling into the interior of Carolina, Woodmason met a reception which was very mixed, to say the least. Some settlers welcomed him to their cabins. Others drove him away by force. One family of Scottish Presbyterians told him plainly that “they wanted no damned black gown sons of bitches among them,” and threatened to use him as a backlog in their fireplace. Others stole his horse, rifled his clothing, drank his rum and even purloined his prayer books.
After many adventures which might have flowed from the pen of Swift or Fielding, the grand climax came when this missionary fell into an “ambuscade,” and was captured by a gang of old-fashioned border reivers. They carried him captive to a secret settlement where they lived with their women and children. The clergyman prepared himself for Christian martyrdom, but when he arrived at their cabins his treatment suddenly changed. To his astonishment, the reivers began to treat him with “great civility,” returned his property and promised to restore his freedom on one condition: that he preach a hellfire-and-damnation sermon, which he heartily agreed to do.I think that any self-respecting GM should practice preaching a fire-and-brimstone sermon with frothing and hand gestures and thumping of books. It’s great fun.
This isn’t to say that the Borderers only respected theatrics. Many communities sent money back to Scotland and Northern Ireland to recruit college-trained Presbyterian clergy. They fit right in. “One of them infuriated a Quaker by allegedly arguing that ‘the most ignorant College learnt man could open the true meaning of the Scriptures better then the best and wisest of God’s children that had not College learning.’ “
Borderer Magic WaysOh boy. Anyone familiar with The Golden Bough (for good or ill) will recognize elements from this section. I’m including the whole thing; each one is a plot seed.
As recently as 1920 a traveler in the Ozark mountains observed a startling sight. Early on a spring morning as the birds began to sing, he watched in astonishment as a farmer and his wife hurried from their cabin to a new-ploughed field, stripped off their clothing, began “chasing each other up and down like rabbits,” and then copulated on the ground. The couple were known as “quiet, hardworking folk,” who came of good family and went to the local church.
In southwestern Missouri, Ozark ethnographer Vance Randolph collected many similar reports:Witches were everwhere.
A very old woman said that before sunrise on July 25, four grown girls and one boy did the planting. “They all stripped off naked,” she told me, “The boy started in the middle of the field patch with them four big gals a-prancin ‘round him. It seems like the boy throwed all the seed, and the girl kept a-hollering ‘Pecker deep! Pecker deep.’ And when they got done, the whole bunch would roll in the dust like some kind of wild animals. There ain’t no sense to it,” the old woman added, “but them folks always raised the best turnips on the creek.”
- If an old woman has only one tooth, she is a witch.
- If a warm current of air is felt, witches are passing.
- If you are awake at eleven, you will see witches.
- The twitching of an eye is a sign that one is bewitched.
- If there are tangles in your hair early in the morning, the witches have been riding you.
- The howling of dogs shows the presence of witches.
- If your shoestring comes untied, the witches are after you.
- If you see a cross-eyed person you must cross your fingers to ward off the evil eye.
- If you want to keep witches away, lay a straw broom in the doorway.
- To kill a witch, draw a heart on a holly tree, and drive a spike into her heart for nine mornings.
And small wonder, given then number of people who practiced folk magic and minor curses.
- Wet a rag in your enemy’s blood. Put it behind a rock in the chimney. When it rots your enemy will die.
- To work evil upon one, get the person’s picture.
- Take seven hairs from a blood snake, seven scales from a rattlesnake, seven bits of feathers from an owl, add a hair from the person you desire, a bit of nail paring, and cook these for seven minutes over a hot fire in the first rainwater caught in April. Sprinkle the concoction on the clothes of the person to be charmed. It cannot fail.
But these practices had nothing like the urgency that had existed in seventeenth-century New England. No person is known to have been executed for witchcraft anywhere in the southern highlands, though a goodly number were hanged for other crimes. Here was an important difference from the culture of an earlier period.
- To point an index or dog finger of the right hand at a person will give that person bad luck.
This magic contained a vast repertory of practices for any imaginable occasion—for troubles with animals, crops, neighbors, children, weather, illness. It recommended actions for the control of any possible emotion, and for the execution of any imaginable purpose in the world. In the early twentieth century, one group of folklorists collected nearly 10,000 of these prescriptions in North Carolina, from which a few examples might be selected. A few of these prescriptions have been confirmed by science:
- Eating cornbread causes pellagra.
- For scurvy, apply uncooked potatos sliced and soaked in vinegar.
Others were positively lethal:
- To cure snake bite, if no wound is in the mouth, suck out the poison and spit it out; cauterize, cut so as to make the place bleed freely.
- A cure for homesickness is to sew a good charge of gunpowder on the inside of the shirt near the neck.
Many were contradictory:
- To cure a fever, climb a tall tree with your hands (do not use feet), and jump off.
- It is lucky for a bird to come into the house.
- If a bird flies into the house there will be bad luck.
- It is bad luck to kill a cat.
Many charms and potions showed a spirit of extreme brutality:
- For good luck, boil a black cat alive.
- Against epilepsy wear a bit of human cranium.
- A piece of rope by which a person has been hanged will cure epilepsy by its touch.
- For fever, cut a black chicken open while alive, and bind to the bottom of a foot. This will draw the fever.
- The blood of a bat will cure baldness.
- Eating the brain of a screech owl is the only dependable remedy for headache.
- For rheumatism, apply split frogs to the feet.
- To reduce a swollen leg, split a live cat and apply while still warm.
- Bite the head off the first butterfly you see, and you will get a new dress.
These good-luck charms, whatever they may have done for their human users, brought very bad luck to large numbers of back-country cats, bats, frogs, owls, snakes, chicks and puppy dogs. Samuel Kercheval remembered that the first glassblowers in the backcountry “drove the witches out of their furnaces by throwing live puppies into them.” He also recalled that “there was scarcely a black cat to be seen, whose ears and tail had not been frequently cropped off for a contribution of blood.”
- Open the cow’s mouth and throw a live toad-frog down her throat. This will cure her of hollow horn.
Other magical folk-beliefs shaped the manners, dress, diet and appearance of backcountry folks in ways that startled visitors from other cultures:
- Some old people let the nails of their little fingers grow very long, and they called it “a luck nail.”
- It is good luck to put a garment on wrong side out and leave it that way all day.
- It is bad luck to say thank you.
- It is bad luck to bathe on your wedding day.
- A small piece of shit worn in a bag round the neck will keep off disease.
- Water is poisonous during dog days.
- Some of these customs tell us about conditions of life in crowded backcountry cabins.
- When three people wake up abed together, the oldest will die first.
- If two people wash their hands in the same water, they will be friends forever.
- Others were often desperate attempts to control one’s destiny.
- If a woman is pregnant, and drinks some of her own urine, she will miscarry.
- To sit over a pot of stewed onions will cause a miscarriage.
But most were innocent omens and harmless charms.
- To cure sore eyes, kiss a red-head.
- To take away freckles, wash your face in cobweb dew.
- If a butterfly comes into the house, it means a stranger is coming to visit.
- Three drops of your own blood, fed to another, is an effective love charm.
- If you carry a lock of hair of a person, you will have power over that person.
- Get the ugliest person you know to look in the cream jar so you can churn it.
Much of this folklore was brought from Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. But backcountry magic was an eclectic body of beliefs, constantly growing by borrowings from Indians, Africans, Germans, and other cultures. Novel folk practices were continuously invented within this culture. It is important to note that when these “traditional” backcountry prescriptions were recorded in the twentieth century, some were not very old. The people of Appalachia endowed many modern industrial products with magical properties. A particular favorite was kerosene:
- Potatoes should be planted on St. Patrick’s Day.
- Take kerosene for asthma.
- To stop a wound from bleeding, pour kerosene on it.
- To cure a burn use kerosene oil.
- Rub your feet with kerosene and salt for chilblain.
- Take a teaspoonful of sugar wet with kerosene, and it will cure a bad cold.
- Take kerosene as a cure for the colic.
- Kerosene will prevent swelling in a snake bite.
- It is bad luck to leave a kerosene lamp burning until all the oil is burned out.
- Hang up a bottle of kerosene in a tree to prevent blight.
- Umbrellas were also endowed with special powers:
- If you open an umbrella in the house, you will not get married that year.
- If you drop an umbrella, let someone else pick it up, or disappointment will come to you.
- Raising an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
- To put an umbrella on a bed causes disputes.
- The railroad and the motor car acquired a magic of their own:
- If one walks sixteen railroad ties without falling off, any wish made will come true.
When Appalachian children went to school they adopted (and continuously reinvented) a system of scholastic superstition which developed from the culture of their ancestors. Folklorists recorded many of these beliefs in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas:
- [If] a cat cross [es] the road in front of your automobile, make a crossmark on the windshield.
- If you sleep with your books under your pillow, you will know your lesson the next day.
- If you sleep with your book under your head the night before an examination, you will pass successfully.
- Put a willow leaf in the book that you are to pass an examination on, and you will pass successfully.
- If you drop a book, you will miss that lesson unless you kiss the pages at which it opened.
- Never write on the first sheet of a pack of paper. If you do your work will be poor.
- The first lizard that you see running in the spring is a sign that you’ll be smart.
This self-renewing backcountry magic needed none of the institutional apparatus which the Puritans of New England brought to bear upon witchcraft. It did not require any of the intellectual refinement which country gentlemen in Virginia devoted to the study of fortune. The magic of the backcountry was a simple set of homespun superstitions, designed for use by small groups of unlettered people. The magic of the backcountry was remarkably secular in its nature and purposes. It retained vestigial beliefs in the Devil, witches, stars and planets. But mainly it sought to control worldly events by the manipulation of worldly things.
- Put a stick in your book and you can walk a footlog without becoming dizzy.
Borderer Sport Ways
The border sport of bragging and fighting was also introduced to the American backcountry, where it came to be called “rough and tumble.” Here again it was a savage combat between two or more males (occasionally females), which sometimes left the contestants permanently blinded or maimed. A graphic description of “rough and tumble” came from the Irish traveler Thomas Ashe, who described a fight between a West Virginian and a Kentuckian. A crowd gathered and arranged itself into an impromptu ring. The contestants were asked if they wished to “fight fair” or “rough and tumble.” When they chose “rough and tumble,” a roar of approval rose from the multitude. The two men entered the ring, and a few ordinary blows were exchanged in a tentative manner. Then suddenly the Virginian “contracted his whole form, drew his arms to his face,” and “pitched himself into the bosom of his opponent,” sinking his sharpened fingernails into the Kentuckian’s head. “The Virginian,” we are told, “never lost his hold … fixing his claws in his hair and his thumbs on his eyes, [he] gave them a start from the sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint.”
Even after the eyes were gouged out, the struggle continued. The Virginian fastened his teeth on the Kentuckian’s nose and bit it in two pieces. Then he tore off the Kentuckian’s ears. At last, the “Kentuckian, deprived of eyes, ears and nose, gave in.” The victor, himself maimed and bleeding, was “chaired round the grounds,” to the cheers of the crowd.
During the War of Independence, and English prisoner named Thomas Anburey witnessed several backcountry gouging contests. “An English boxing match,” he wrote, “ … is humanity itself compared with the Virginian mode of fighting,” with its “biting, gouging and (if I may so term it) Abelarding each other.” Anburey described “a fellow, reckoned a great adept in gouging, who constantly kept the nails of both his thumbs and second fingers very long and pointed; nay, to prevent their breaking or splitting … he hardened them every evening in a candle.”
Borderer Wealth Ways
Individual patents of a few hundred acres that were sold for small sums. At the same time, huge tracts were granted to a few great landowners with connections in London and colonial capitals. A majority of adult males in the southern highlands owned no land at all. The result was a system of landholding characterized by a large landless underclass of tenants and squatters, a middle class that was small by comparison with other colonies, and a few very rich landlords.
By far the largest individual holding in the backcountry was Granville District in North Carolina, which had been granted to John Carteret, Earl of Granville (1690-1763) in settlement of a proprietary claim. The Granville District was so vast that it was measured not in acres or miles but degrees of latitude and longitude. North Carolina’s Governor William Tryon described it in a letter to the Earl of Shelburne in 1767:
His Lordship’s District contains nearly one Degree of Latitude, and better than five Degrees of Longitude, from Currituck Inlet to … the western boundary. … There is thirteen counties in his Lordship’s District, the two westernmost of which counties contain a tract more than ten times the contents of Rhode island.One county alone (of thirteen) was sixty miles square; another measured 60 by 150 miles. Altogether, Granville District encompassed approximately twenty million acres—and all of it was the property of one Englishman. Granville was able to defend his title, and by the 1760s he was collecting rents from backsettlers who had moved upon his land.
One of the most stubborn myths of American history is the idea that the frontier promoted equality of material condition. This national folk legend is, unhappily, very much mistaken. With some exceptions, landed wealth was always highly concentrated throughout the southern highlands, as it would be in the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas and the far southwest. Inequality was greater in the backcountry and the southern highlands than in any other rural region of the United States.
Borderer Rank Ways
Visitors of exalted rank complained that they were not treated with the same respect as in other parts of British America. The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason filled his journal with angry accounts of “ill treatment” by “insolent” and “impudent” settlers who stubbornly refused to display the deference which he thought his due. He complained that these people were “the most audacious of any set of mortals I ever met with.”Complaints of “audaciousness”, “pride”, “familiarity”, and “contempt” reverberate through the ages.
These attitudes were not invented on the frontier. They had long been characteristic of the borderers. Travelers in this region frequently described the manners of the natives in terms such as “insolence,” “impudence,” “forwardness,” “familiarity,” “unruliness,” “licentiousness” and “pride.” The authorities complained for example that the famous border reiver Sandie Scott was worse than a thief—he was a “proud thief who not only stole from his superiors, but believed himself to be their equal.
Borderer Order Ways
The mother of President Jackson prepared her son for this world with some very strong advice. “Andrew,” said she, “never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anybody for slander, assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself.”
The prevailing principle was lex talionis, the rule of retaliation. It held that a good man must seek to do right in the world, but when wrong was done to him he must punish the wrongdoer himself by an act of retribution that restored order and justice in the world.Mash this idea into the Puritan idea of ordered liberty, then add the Quaker freedom of conscience, and you apparently get a functioning constitution. Not sure how that works.
Vigilante movements began in the southern backcountry during the 1760s.7 Their legitimacy rested upon a doctrine called “Lynch’s law,” which probably took its name from Captain William Lynch (1742-1820), of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and later Pendleton District, South Carolina. Captain Lynch was a backcountry settler of border descent. “Lynch’s Law” began as a formal agreement among his neighbors:
Whereas, many of the inhabitants of Pittsylvania have sustained great and intolerable losses by a set of lawless men … we will inflict such corporal punishment on him or them, as to us shall seem adequate to the crime committed or the damage sustained.Lynch’s law was swift and violent. Its victims were often flogged and sometimes killed without much attention to due process, or even to the evidence. One backcountry gravestone read: “George Johnson, Hanged by Mistake.”
This system of justice captured the two vital principles of back-country order ways—the idea that order was a system of retributive violence and that each individual was the guardian of his own interests in that respect. Even sheriff’s in the backcountry shared the same ideal of retributive violence, and often took the law into their own hands. Alabama’s Tombigbee County, for example, had five justices of the peace in 1810, of whom three were themselves fugitives. Two were wanted on charges of murder, and a third for helping an accused murderer break jail.The Wild West wasn’t, originally, very far west.
Borderer Freedom WaysThe other side of the coin. For all the law-breaking, lynching, and anarchy of Borderer culture, there was also a well developed sense of liberty and freedom.
In 1692, for example, a British borderer named Thomas Brockbank, who had been born and raised in the county of Westmorland, sent a letter to his parents on the subject of natural liberty. “Honored parents,” he wrote, “liberty is a thing which every animate creature does naturally desire, yea and even vegetables themselves also seem to have a great tendency towards it. But man, the perfection of the vast creation, who is endowed with a rational soul, does more eagerly pursue freedom, because he has knowledge and can give a just estimate of the true value thereof.”
A leading advocate of natural liberty in the eighteenth century was Patrick Henry, a descendant of British borderers, and also a product of the American backcountry. Throughout his political career, Patrick Henry consistently defended the principles of minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority in all cases which infringed liberty.Patrick Henry was, in many ways, an inveterate revolutionary. He argued for independence, for freedom, even for hyperbolic regicide. But when it came to organizing the newly independent United States...
In 1788, Patrick Henry led the opposition to the new national Constitution, primarily on the grounds that strong government of any sort was hostile to liberty:
When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose government was founded on liberty; our glorious forefathers of Great Britain made liberty the foundation of everything. That country is become a great, mighty and splendid nation; not because their government is strong and energetic, but sir because liberty is its direct end and foundation. We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful empire.Patrick Henry’s ideas of natural liberty were not learned from treatises on political theory. His idea of a “state of nature” was not the philosophical abstraction that it had been for Locke. Thomas Jefferson said of Patrick Henry with only some exaggeration that “he read nothing, and had no books.” Henry’s lawyer-biographer William Wirt wrote, “Of the science of law he knew almost nothing; of the practical law he was so wholly ignorant that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or simple business of his profession, even of the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court.”
This idea of natural liberty was not a reciprocal idea. It did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement. Deviance from cultural norms was rarely tolerated; opposition was suppressed by force. One of Andrew Jackson’s early biographers observed that “It appears to be more difficult for a North-of-Irelander than for other men to allow an honest difference of opinion in an opponent, so that he is apt to regard the terms opponent and enemy as synonymous.”I feel compelled to point out that Fischer was born in 1935. Albion's Seed was published in 1989.
Borderer Plot Seeds1. The PCs find a wandering priest. Bandits robbed him of everything but his robes. The bandits, if you can find them, point out that the priest was being very annoying.
2. The PCs are rewarded with a cask of cheap whiskey made from the methanol-rich "heads" of distillation. It makes you blind (usually temporarily).
3. One of the PCs writes home about the wonderful land they discovered/cleared/settled/conquered. A few hundred of the PC's closest relatives show up in six months. No matter how bad things are, they write home and call over more settlers.
4. The locals are using a newly discovered magical school, spell, or enchantment for very unusual purposes. "Carrots grown by the light of a spell make you taller," they say.
5. If the PCs try to recruit hirelings, there is a 50% chance twice as many eager and boisterous hirelings will show up (at discounted rates) and a 50% chance they will be run out of town.
6. A cursed PC can be cured by a wise old woman who lives in the hills. Her remedies are surprisingly violent.
7. A PC is challenged to a fight. They expect swords. Instead, sharpened fingernails. Watch out; castration is a legitimate tactic.
8. A spellcasting PC is blamed for a recent outbreak of horn-rot, scumption, witherflake, or dropsy. They are chased out of town. Secretly, locals find them again ask the spellcaster to curse their neighbors.
9. A PC is threatened with violence unless they tell a "great roarin' tale" or "preach o' hell and damnation" or something else appropriate to their class and station. Good excuse for a player to chew scenery.
10. The PCs encounter a wandering baptismal procession heading to a river. It's so beautiful they might be carried away, converted, and wake up a few days later with a foggy sense of peace.
11. The PCs are invited to help the new sheriff track down and murder the old sheriff.
12. The PCs are accused of a minor crime. At the trial, the judge keeps a loaded rifle on his desk and fires warning shots if the PCs, the jury, or the lawyers try anything funny. Sometimes the lawyers shoot back.
13. The King of the Frogs wants the PCs to do something about the locals and their "cures". Throwing a few of them into a furnace should teach them a lesson.
14. The local mine is cursed. The PCs are given a choice; figure out how to un-curse the mine or get thrown in as a sacrifice.
15. The PCs have found a map to an ancient tomb. The entrance is in a local field. The locals are hostile, suspicious, and violent. The land is owned by an immeasurably wealthy and vindictive absentee landlord, whom the locals hate more than strangers.
16. The PCs take a sea voyage to a new land. Their ship is overcrowded and filthy. The other passengers rebel, throw the crew overboard, commit minor acts of piracy, and sail the ship successfully to their destination.
17. At a party, the PCs manage to offend someone. After determining that the PCs have no important connections, the person they insulted flies into a rage and starts bludgeoning them with a cane in front of the other guests. Everyone considers this relatively normal.
18. A small rascally child steals an important magic item and runs into the woods. The parents are amused.
19. The PCs, as neutral parties, are asked to moderate a public debate between two religious leaders. One brings a small book, perfect calm, and a soft voice. The other brings whiskey, guns, and a few hundred of their closest relatives.
20. The PCs are accused of being agents of an enemy faction. The enemy faction is long extinct; the war ended centuries ago. The locals are not entirely convinced.