Backcountry Gender Ways:Border Rituals of Love and Violence

In his account of backcountry marriages, Samuel Kercheval recorded another curious custom called the wedding toast. After dinner, as Black Betty passed from hand to hand, 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.

Here was the basis of gender relationships in the backcountry. The first principle was that men were warriors. The second was that women were workers. These ideas had long flourished on the borders of north Britain. When they were combined with the ethics of Christianity, the result was a gender system of high complexity which might best be described as a bundle of paradoxes.

One paradox concerned gender distinctions. In the backcountry, work roles were not as sharply divided by sex as in other English cultures. But at the same time, the people of the backcountry had exceptionally clear-cut ideas of masculinity and feminity in manners, speech, dress, decorum and status.78

Travelers in the backcountry often reported that women and men routinely shared the heaviest manual labor. Both sexes worked together in the fields, not merely at harvest time but through the entire growing season. Women not only tended the livestock but also did the slaughtering of even the largest animals. Travelers were startled to observe delicate females knock down beef cattle with a felling ax, and then roll down their sleeves, remove their bloody aprons, tidy their hair, and invite their visitors to tea. Females also helped with the heavy labor of forestclearing and ground-breaking. William Byrd noted that women in the back settlements were not merely "up to their elbows in housewifery," but also busy with what other English cultures took to be a man's work.79

Those customs have sometimes been explained as a response to the frontier environment. But they did not exist in quite the same way on the Puritan frontier, and the same patterns had long been observed by travelers in the borderlands of North Britain. One anonymous visitor to the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland wrote that wives of even landowners were expected to share equally in the heavy farm work. "These petty landowners work like slaves," one traveler observed in 1766. "They cannot afford to keep a manservant, but husband, wife, sons and daughters all turn out to work in the fields."80

Celebration of Sensuality
Return to Table of Contents