Backcountry Work Ways: Border Attitudes toward War and Work

Where the warrior ethic is strong, the work ethic grows weak. This was so among the borderers and backsettlers, on both sides of the water. A traveler in North Britain remarked that the inhabitants were "indolent in high degree, unless roused to war."134 In the American backcountry, other travelers frequently made similar observations.... Crop farming remained very primitive in Appalachia. It was mainly a system of hoe-husbandry that was also introduced from North Britain. In the 1730s, the tools for each hand in one settlement were "one axe, one broad hoe and one narrow hoe," with very little use of the plow.135 Except for the abandonment of the plow, this system of farming had been followed very generally throughout the English border counties, the Scottish lowlands and northern Ireland. It was introduced to the American backcountry at an early date.136 A traveler in the backcountry noted, "A fresh piece of ground . . . will not bear tobacco past two or three years unless cow-penned; for they manure their ground by keeping their cattle . . . within hurdles, which they remove when they have sufficiently dunged one spot"137

At some seasons of the year, large herds of grazing animals were allowed to browse freely in the forests and canebreaks of the old southwest, and later on the open range of Texas. In 1773, a surveyor for South Carolina described this system in detail. He reported that vast herds of cattle, often more than a thousand animals, were raised in the woods throughout the backcountry between the Savannah and Ogechee rivers. They were tended by "gangs under the auspices of cow-pen keepers, which move (like unto the ancient patriarchs or the modern Bedouins in Arabia) from forest to forest in a measure as the grass wears out or the planters approach them." Once a year, these animals were rounded up, penned and driven to market on the hoof.138

This system of herding had also been practiced in the North British borderlands, and was transferred to the American backcountry. A few important changes were made necessary by the new environment. Sheep, which had been the main support of British animal husbandry, became an easy prey for predators in the American wilderness. They were replaced by swine which were allowed to breed freely on the range, rapidly reverting to the wild species from which they had descended. This process of devolution produced the backcountry razorback, which was more like a wild boar than a barnyard pig. It became so wild that it was hunted with a rifle....


The backsettlers also kept...temporal customs of high complexity. Their culture assigned many fixed seasons for doing things. Their folklore told them, for example:

The flow of life was regulated by many of these rhythms annual, monthly, weekly, even daily. Sunday, of course, was a day of worship. Mondays and Tuesdays were favorite days for visiting Fridays were days for going to market. But Friday and Saturday were thought to be unlucky for new enterprises. President Andrew Jackson, "to the end of his life, never liked to begin any thing of consequence on Friday, and would not if it could be avoided."139

At the same time that these folk rules were kept with great care, the people of the back settlements startled travelers from other cultures by their complaisant attitudes toward the use of time. The proverbs of the backcountry showed a strong spirit of temporal fatalism in a world of insecurity:

These were not a people who took time by the forelock. The folkways of the backcountry differed very much in that respect from the attitudes of New England, the Delaware, and even tidewater Virginia. Of all the inhabitants of British America, the back settlers were the most conservative and the least instrumental in their time ways. By and large the people of the backcountry tended to believe that the rhythms of life were inexorable and ineluctable, and beyond the capacity of mere mortals to change in any fundamental way. In place of the more instrumental attitudes of improving time, or redeeming time, or even killing time, the backsettlers had a fatalistic idea of passing the time letting it happen in its ineluctable way. Here was another striking paradox of backcountry culture. The more these people moved through space, the more rooted they became in time.


Migration and Settlement
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