Nuclear households were large in the backcountry among the largest in British America during the eighteenth century. The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason wrote with his usual mixture of fact and prejudice, ". . . there's not a cabin but has ten or twelve young people in it . . . in many cabins you will see ten or fifteen children children and grand children of one size and the mother looking as young as the daughter."65

Woodmason's account was exaggerated, but other evidence confirms the same general pattern. North Carolina's governor Arthur Dobbs, who had served as surveyor general of Ireland, took his own informal census of household size in the backcountry, and found that of thirty households on Rocky River, near the boundary of North and South Carolina, there were "not less than from five or six to ten children in each family."66

In the first comprehensive census of the backcountry, taken in 1800, fertility ratios in the southern highlands were 40 percent higher than in the Delaware Valley, and higher also than on the northern frontier. An unusually large proportion of backcountry households were intact, with both husband and wife present. Many were also joint households, with more than one nuclear family living under the same roof. As late as 1850 one-third of all households in the southern highlands included members who were not of the primary nuclear group.67

There was no "emergence of the modern nuclear family" in this region, through its first two hundred years. The very opposite was the case. As time passed, clans became stronger rather than weaker in the southern highlands. In the early twentieth century, a mountain woman wrote:

All the children in the district are related by blood in one degree or another. Our roll-call includes Sally Mary and Cripple John's Mary and Tan's Mary, all bearing the same surname; and there is, besides, Aunt Rose Mary and Mary-Jo, living yon side the creek. There are different branches of the Rogers family Clay and Frank, Red Jim and Lyin' Jim and Singin' Jim and Black Jim Rogers in this district, their kin intermarried until no man could write their pedigree or ascertain the exact relation of their offspring to each other. This question, however, does not disturb the children in the least. They never address each other as cousin; they are content to know that uncle Tan's smokehouse is the resource of all in time of famine; that Aunt Martha's kind and strong hands are always to be depended on when one is really ill; that Uncle Filmore plays the fiddle at all the dances, and Uncle Dave shoes all the mules owned by the tribe.68

These clans fostered an exceptionally strong sense of loyalty, which a modern sociologist has called "amoral familism," from the ethical perspective of his own historical moment.69 In its own time and place, it was not amoral at all, but a moral order of another kind, which recognized a special sense of obligation to kin. That imperative was a way of dealing with a world where violence and disorder were endemic. Long after it had lost its reason for being, family loyalty retained its power in the American backcountry.

An example was the persistence of the family feud, which continued for many centuries in the southern highlands. These feuds flowed from the fact that families in the borderlands and backcountry were given moral properties which belonged mainly to individuals in other English-speaking cultures. Chief among them were the attributes of honor and shame. When one man forfeited honor in the backcountry, the entire clan was diminished by his loss. When one woman was seduced and abandoned, all her "menfolk" shared the humiliation. The feuds of the border and the backcountry rose mainly from this fact. When "Devil Anse" Hatfield was asked to explain why he had murdered so many McCoys, he answered simply, "A man has a right to defend his family." And when he spoke of his family, he meant all Hatfields and their kin. This backcountry folkway was strikingly similar to the customs of the borderers.70

Historians of a materialist persuasion have suggested that the feud was a modern invention in the southern highlands. One has called it a "response to industrialism." Another has interpreted it as the product of changes in the means of production. These modern processes would indeed provide many occasions for feuds.71 But they were not the cause of the feuding itself, which had deeper cultural roots. Other historians have argued that southern feuds were mainly a legacy of the Civil War. But feuds occurred in the backcountry before 1861. They were part of the brutal violence of the American Revolution in the backcountry. Strong continuities in family feuding may be traced from the borders of North Britain to the American backcountry a pattern that persisted throughout the southern highlands even into the twentieth century.72


Marriage Customs
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