Backcountry Family Ways:Border Ideas of Clan and Kin

The family ways of the backcountry, like its speech and building ways, were also brought from the borderlands of North Britain and adapted to a new American environment with comparatively little change. "The conquest of the back parts," writes Carl Bridenbaugh, "was achieved by families.... The fundamental social unit, the family, was preserved intact . . . in a transplanting and reshuffling of European folkways."55

From the perspective of an individual within this culture, the structure of the family tended to be a set of concentric rings, in which the outermost circles were thicker and stronger than among other English-speaking people. Beyond the nuclear core, beyond even the extended circle, there were two rings which were unique to this culture. One was called the derbfine. It encompassed all kin within the span of four generations. For many centuries, the laws of North Britain and Ireland had recognized the derbfine as a unit which defined the descent of property and power. It not only connected one nuclear family to another, but also joined one generation to the next.

Beyond the derbfine lay a larger ring of kinship which was, called the clan in North Britain. We think of clans today mainly in connection with the Scottish Highlands. But they also existed in the lowlands, northern Ireland and England's border counties where they were a highly effective adaptation to a world of violence and chronic insecurity.

The clans of the border were not precisely the same as those of the Scottish Highlands, and very different from the Victorian contrivances of our own time. They had no formal councils, tartans, sporrans, bonnets or septs. But they were clannish in the most fundamental sense: a group of related families who lived near to one another, were conscious of a common identity, carried the same surname, claimed descent from common ancestors and banded together when danger threatened.

Some of these border clans were very formidable. The Armstrongs, one of the largest clans on the Cumbrian border in the sixteenth century, were reputed to be able to field 3,000 mounted men, and were much feared by their neighbors. The Grahams held thirteen towers on the western border in 1552, and bid defiance to their foes. The Rutherfords and Halls were so violent that royal officials in 1598 ordered no quarter to be given to anyone of those names. The Johnston-Johnson clan adorned their houses with the flayed skins of their enemies the Maxwells in a blood feud that continued for many generations.56

The migration from North Britain to the backcountry tended to become a movement of clans. A case in point was the family of Robert Witherspoon, a South Carolinian of Border-Scots descent. Witherspoon recalled:

My grandfather and grandmother were born in Scotland about the [year] 1670. They were cousins and both of one name. His name was John and hers was Janet. They lived in their younger years in or near Glasgow and in 1695 they left Scotland and settled in Ireland in the county of Down . . . where he lived in good circumstances and in good credit until the year 1734, [when] he removed with his family to South Carolina.

When Witherspoon used the word "family" he meant not merely a nuclear or extended family but a clan. His grandparents, their seven children, at least seventeen grandchildren and many uncles and cousins all sailed from Belfast Lough to America and settled together in the same part of the southern backcountry. Witherspoon described their exodus in detail:

We did not all come in one ship nor at one time. My uncles William James and David Wilson, and their families with Uncle Gavin left Belfast in the beginning of the year 1732 and Uncle Robert followed us in 36.57

Here was a classic example of serial migration or stream migration which was common in the peopling of the backcountry. A few clan members opened a path for others, and were followed by a steady stream of kin.

These North British border clans tended to settle together in the American backcountry. An example was the Alexander clan. In North Carolina's Catawba County, the first United States Census of 1790 listed 300 nuclear families named Alexander. Most were blood relations. Similar concentrations appeared throughout the backcountry the Polks of Mecklenberg, the Calhouns of Long Cane, the Grahams of Yadkin, and the Crawfords of upper Georgia, to name but four examples.

These concentrations of kinsmen, all bearing the same surname, created endless onomastic confusion. We are told that in Catawba County, "so numerous were the tribe of the Alexanders that they had to be designated by their office, their trade or their middle name." The most eminent Alexander was called "Governor Nat" to distinguish him from "Red Head Nat" and "Fuller Nat." This became a common custom throughout the southern highlands.58

The clan system spread rapidly throughout the southern highlands, and gradually came to include English and German settlers as well as North Britons, because it worked so well in the new environment. When George Gilmer compiled his classic history of upper Georgia, he organized his book by clans, beginning with the Gilmers and moving to others in order of their kinship with the author. He specifically described these groups as clans, and wrote that their members "called each other cousin, and the old people uncle and aunt. They lived in the most intimate social way meeting together very often."59

The internal structure of the clan was not what some modern observers have imagined. Historian Ned Landsman writes, ". . . among the distinctive features of clan organization was the emphasis on collateral rather than lineal descent. In the theory of clan relationships, all branches of the family younger as well as older, female as well as male were deemed to be of equal importance. This fit in well with the mobility of the countryside, which prevented the formation of 'lineal families' in which sons succeeded to their fathers' lands."60

Admission by marriage was a process of high complexity. "When a Scottish man or woman took a spouse who was not of Scottish descent," Landsman writes, "the whole family could be absorbed into the 'Scottish' community."61 But when the bride had belonged to a rival clan, then the question of loyalty became more difficult. Generally a new bride left her own kin, and joined those of her husband. Elaborate customs regulated the relationship between the wife and the family she had joined by marriage. These customs were highly complex, but by and large they established the principle that marriage ties were weaker than blood ties. One marriage contract in Westmorland explicitly stated that a newly married wife could never sit in her mother-in- law's seat.62

In many cases the husband and wife both came from the same clan. In the Cumbrian parish of Hawkshead, for example, both the bride and groom bore the same last names in 25 percent of all marriages from 1568 to 1704. Marriages in the backcountry like those on the borders, also occurred very frequently between kin.63

Within these family networks, nuclear households were highly cohesive, drawing strength from the support of other kin groups round about them. Landsman writes: "The patterned dispersal of the Scots, rather than isolating individual settlers from their homes and families, served instead to bind together the scattered settlements through a system of interlocking family networks. Rather than a deterrent, mobility was an essential component of community life." The effect was reinforced by exchanges of land, by rotations of children, and by chain migrations.64 The clan was not an alternative to the nuclear family, but its nursery and strong support. The pattern of cohesion was different from the nuclear families of Puritans and Quakers which had exceptionally strong internal bonds, powerfully reinforced by ethical and religious teachings. Among the North Britons the clan system provided an external source of cohesion supporting each nuclear family from the outside like a system of external buttresses.

High Fertility Rates
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