Backcountry Sex Ways:The Border Celebration of Sensuality

On the subject of sex, the backsettlers tended to be more open than were other cultures of British America. Sexual talk was free and easy in the backcountry more so than in Puritan Massachusetts or Quaker Pennsylvania, or even Anglican Virginia. So too was sexual behavior.

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 shirt 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 purl 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."81

The backsettlers showed very little concern for sexual privacy in the design of their houses or the style of their lives. "Nakedness is counted as nothing," Woodmason remarked, "as they sleep altogether in common in one room, and shift and dress openly without ceremony . . . children run half naked. The Indians are better clothed and lodged."82 Samuel Kercheval remembered that young men adopted Indian breechclouts and leggings, cut so that "the upper part of the thighs and part of the hips were naked. The young warrior, instead of being abashed by this nudity, was proud of his Indian-like dress," Kercheval wrote. "In some few places I have seen them go into places of public worship in this dress."83

Other evidence suggests that these surface impressions of backcountry sexuality had a solid foundation in fact. Rates of prenuptial pregnancy were very high in the backcountry higher than other parts of the American colonies. 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:

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.84

Another factor was a scarcity of clergy to perform marriages in the backcountry. But there was also a different explanation. Rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy had long been higher in the far northwest of England than in any other part of that nation. The magnitude of regional differences was very great. Rates of bastardy in the northwest were three times higher than in the east of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Regional disparities persisted from the beginning of parish registers to the twentieth century. Historian Peter Laslett notes that "in early Victorian times Cumberland . . . had the highest recordings [of bastardy] in the country." Westmoreland was also very similar. High rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy in the backcountry were not the necessary consequences of frontier conditions. Puritans also moved onto new lands in the northern colonies and continued to behave in puritanical ways. The same continuities appeared among the Quakers when they moved to the frontier. The sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England....85

Tanistry and the Elderly
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