Backcountry Death Ways:The Border Idea of Nescient Fatalism

In the borderlands of North Britain, death had long been the constant companion of life. Warfare and raiding took a heavy toll of the population on both sides of the border. Communities shattered by violence also suffered much from famine, and their weakened inhabitants became easy prey for epidemic disease. This pattern changed during the eighteenth century, when the toll of epidemics diminished, and the worst excesses of violence were also suppressed. But life remained precarious upon the borders, and death was still its dark companion.

The American backcountry, for all its romantic reputation as a "bloody ground," was healthier than the British borderlands had been. Rates of morbidity were higher in the southern highlands than in the northern colonies largely as a consequence of the malaria which the colonists themselves introduced, and later of other environmental illnesses such as the "milk sick." But rates of mortality were lower than in the Chesapeake country, and below those of North Britain as well.89

Even so, there were dangers enough in the formative years of this region. 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....

The people of this culture were very superstitious about death. They searched the world for signs and portents.... (People of the Cumberland Gap share this belief in portents as well.)

The rituals of dying in the backcountry also differed from those of other English-speaking people, in ways that were connected to these attitudes and to the conditions which produced them. 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.90

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.91

The death watch was followed by a wake in which many folk rituals were performed by family, friends and neighbors:

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 LikeWake (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.93

In North Britain, the corpse was carried to the burying ground while the church bells were rung in a complex rhythm that announced many things about the deceased. The cadence of the bells told the age, gender, estate and reputation. The funeral itself was a great event; guests were "bidden" to attend in large number. The Cumbrian "statesman" Benjamin Browne invited 271 guests to the funeral of his first wife. His own funeral was attended by 258. The service and burial were followed by an elaborate ritual of dining and drinking. Small cakes called "arval bread" were served to the guests. These were taken home by the mourners, as "a parting gift from the deceased."94 Most wills in the border country contained a provision for these presents, which often consumed a large portion of a small estate. The will of a Cumberland statesman named John Wilson declared, "I hereby order that all persons that shall attend my funeral shall be treated with ale and bread according to the custom."95

People of wealth distributed presents to the entire community on a lavish scale. An example was the funeral which a rich Cumbrian gentleman named Daniel Fleming of Rydal Hall arranged for his wife, who died 13 April 1675, two days after having given birth to her fourteenth child. Her grieving husband ordered six quires of paper (150 large sheets) for folding "sweetmeats." He also ordered that the poor of Cumberland should receive four pennies apiece, and for that purpose he set aside the sum of 30 pounds, ten shillings, and four pence enough for 1,831 poor people.96

Daniel Fleming also spent another large sum on ringing, singing, sermons, gravemaking,and a "coffin and clasp." But this was an exceptional event. Coffins were not generally used in this impoverished region. Borderers were buried in cloth sacks. A statue of 1678 required that south of the Scottish border, only English wool could be used. The Scots and Irish preferred linen, but in most respects the customs were much the same.97

These border customs were carried to the American backcountry in the eighteenth century. The same process of death-watching and laying-out was followed. Even the smallest details were observed in the New World. The corpse was laid out on an open board, and touched by the mourners, just as on the border.98 A plate of salt and earth was placed on the body in the back settlements, as it had been in North Britain. One North Carolinian told a folk-lore collector in the twentieth century: "The corpse is stretched on a board. On it is placed a platter of salt and earth, unmixed. The salt is an emblem of the immortal spirit, the earth of the flesh."99

A backcountry funeral was a great event which brought large crowds together. When a North British immigrant named Robert Stuart and his three sons were killed by sulphur vapors in a well that they were digging, their burial attracted a great throng. "They were buried in one ground, where was judged to be a thousand people," one neighbor noted in 1767. This was not an unusual attendance. In the same neighborhood, two years later, an ordinary funeral of a borderer named John Scarborough drew "above a thousand people."100

Death rituals which had long existed in the borderlands of North Britain were preserved in the southern highlands for two hundred years. Even in the twentieth century, folklore collectors were astonished by the continuities which they observed in the death ways of this American region.101

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