The Origins of the term Swamp Yankee

The following section represents a select group of definitions from a number of different web sites, restated here for convenience.  We’ve tried to note the reference web site in all of the examples so that you can update or check for more information. 

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Swamp Yankee

THE WORD "SWAMP" used in combination with another word to form a derisive term is well known to students of American language. For example, one leading authority on the origin and use of names has recorded such terms of disdain as "swamp angel" (for a member of a Reconstruction-era anti-black group); "swamp Democrat" (for a rustic follower of Jacksonian politics); and "swamp rat" (for a Southern backwoodsman of the 1860s) -- all expressions familiar over broad regions of the country during various periods in our history. On the other hand, there was also "Swamp Fox," the admiring nickname attached to Gen. Francis Marion, the famed American guerilla leader who gave the British fits when he struck from South Carolina swamps during the Revolutionary War.

But the origin and meaning of "swamp Yankee," a term often applied with mixed tones of disapproval and grudging respect to a type of rural Connecticut character, have stumped even the experts. One reason for such puzzlement may be that the expression has never had very wide distribution. In fact, "swamp Yankees" seem to be almost unknown outside of Connecticut, especially eastern portions of the state, and some areas of adjoining Rhode Island. But within the confines of that region, the term is known by almost everyone who has lived there for any length of time. Newcomers to the area who may have lived previously in every section of the United States have been particularly intrigued by the evocative term, since they have never heard it before moving to the Nutmeg State. Over the years, their questions about the significance and source of "swamp Yankee" have sent historians and linguistic geographers thumbing through notes or reference books -- with rather uncertain results.

There does seem to be some agreement about the kind of person generally tagged as a "swamp Yankee." In doing some personal research on the subject, Hartford Courant columnist John Lacy asked a number of people to explain their understanding of the expression and reported a few responses in an April 30, 1982 feature. A newspaperman who grew up in Rhode Island told Lacy the term was applied to "Anglo-Saxon farmers in South County there." A New London journalist believed it referred to "a Yankee from poor origins, who had to really hack it out of nothing," while a librarian said it described "a person who lived in woodland swamps and who became fiercely independent, stubborn, obstinate and uninformed of what was going on in the outside." Fair enough.

There is also good reason to believe -- because of the curious parochialism of the term -- that "swamp Yankee" was born in Connecticut over two hundred years ago, in the wake of a little known incident which took place in what was then the northern parish of Killingly and is now the town of Thompson. Though the event had certain parallels with the celebrated Windham frog fight episode, unlike the latter situation, there were apparently no storytellers or poets around at the time to spread the legend. Thus, about the only thing that has been handed down from the Thompson incident is the elusive "swamp Yankee" expression. But what an enduring tradition that has been!

They say that the summer of 1776 was a terrible time for the people of New England, generally, and the citizens of Connecticut, in particular. Having made very heavy commitments of men and arms to the Continental forces fighting in the New York City area, the people back home in the towns and villages of the Nutmeg State were shocked when tidings reached them of the disastrous defeat at Brooklyn and the withdrawal of the American army from Long Island.

Eastern Connecticut soldiers in the Continental Line had suffered particularly heavy losses, and in August, General Washington had ordered to the field most of the remaining home militia units to serve as replacements or to help regulars cover the retreat. But for many of these men, too, the fighting around New York City would prove their last, as hundreds were killed, wounded, captured or felled by disease. News of these continuing calamities cast a pall over Connecticut towns when it inevitably reached the folks back home.

As summer passed into fall, each mail delivery brought new word of tragedy home to Connecticut -- and mounting tension. Captain Nathan Hale had been hanged as a spy. Brave leaders like Ashford's Col. Thomas Knowlton and Thompson's Capt. Stephen Crosby were killed in action, leaving a total of fourteen children fatherless and home towns plunged into mourning. Letters from men in the retreating Continental army inevitably carried news of friends or relatives killed, rotting away on British prison ships, suffering from grievous wounds or dying from the diseases rampant in the crowded army camps. To many, it seemed that the American cause was teetering on the brink of disaster.

Along with the bad news arriving daily from the field, the domestic rumor mills were churning out loud alarms. The victorious British, they said, would sweep unmolested through Connecticut, since virtually every able-bodied man between sixteen and sixty was away with the fighting forces, leaving only aged men, invalids, women and children to defend the towns. In Thompson, the word was passed that some fifty slaves owned by Godfrey Malbone, the powerful Tory of nearby Brooklyn, had joined with remnants of the Nipmuck Indian tribe and were coming toward town, burning homes and slaughtering every hapless soul they found on the way. British regulars, even Hessians, people thought, might listen to reason, but only butchery might be expected from heathen blacks and savage redskins!

As fear approached panic on Thompson Hill, two ordinarily innocuous incidents triggered a strange stampede. First, an insolent boy in neighboring Dudley, Massachusetts, was knocked down in a fight with a suspected Tory. At about the same time, a dispatch rider with urgent messages from Boston galloped through town, in too much of a hurry to answer any of the anxious questions shouted at him as he flew by. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere which prevailed at the time, only one conclusion could be drawn: the Tor-ies were coming, the Tor-ies were coming! With no fighting men around, no guns and no ammunition, it now seemed to some of the first families of Thompson that their only salvation lay in flight -- into the great, dismal swamp nearby, where no Tory, or British regular, or black or Indian would dare follow. So, a young boy was quickly sent forth to urge all citizens to head for the marshes.

To be honest, the lad's call to the swamp fell on a few deaf ears. Down at Larned's store, Rebecca Larned, wife of an absent militia officer, who had been left to tend both home and business, refused to flee in the face of the impending invasion. Instead, she built a huge fire in the kitchen, filled the fireplace with kettles of water and every iron tool she could find and said she would stand off the invasion with scalding water and hot iron, if necessary. Her mother-in-law, "Old Granny" Leavens, widow of the first William Larned of Thompson, kept an equally stiff upper lip. Having survived two husbands and several Indian attacks, "Old Granny" was not about to be moved by British, Tories, blacks or Indians. She just lay back in the chimney corner and snorted, "If I am to be killed by the Tories tonight, why then I shall be; so I'll just stay with Becky."

They say that at least one other Thompson family refused to rally in the swamp that day. Joseph Gay, seventeen-year-old son of Deacon Gay, had seen his father and four older brothers called to active duty and leave for the front. Left to protect farm and family, Joseph thought that hot irons, swamps and even muskets were pretty feeble instruments of defense. So when the call came to retreat to the marshland, he calmly harvested through the day, completed his chores and then, having gathered his large family in the kitchen for the usual evening prayers, read them "many comforting words" from the great family Bible, which had always proved their mightiest weapon against adversity. No Gay left the farm that night.

But, according to tradition, with the exception of the Larneds, the Gays and maybe a few other staunch souls, the folks around Thompson Hill heeded the swamp call in unseemly haste, "a most forlorn and panic-stricken company." "You tell Becky Larned that hot irons will never do for the British," the women warned, as they approached the damp and dismal dark. And poor, lame, old "Uncle Asa," hobbling along on legs crippled by gout caused by too much flip-drinking, was heard to complain to the woman assisting him, "Thithter, I've forgot my plathter. My plathter, I say." But she only muttered back, "Hurry up, there Asa, or you'll never dress your knees in this world again." When the pathetic congregation finally reached their destination, they found the swamp so moist and unpleasant that all could join old "Aunt Nabby" in her heartfelt offer to "give a wedge of goold [sic] as big as my foot for just one little dram right now." However, for Nabby and the rest, there would be little comfort of any kind that night.

l Everyone knows, of course, that neither Thompson nor any other Connecticut settlement was invaded by marauding British or their sympathizers in that autumn of 1776. When the sun shone bright on the day after the retreat into the swamp, it burned away the fogs of terror that had blanketed most of Thompson's citizens for weeks. In little groups of two and three, the chastened refugees emerged from their dark hiding place, covered with mud and bramble scratches, and straggled back to their homes and farms. They say, however, that almost none of the fugitives managed to reach home without being bombarded by the laughter and shouted barbs of those who had remained behind.

Look at them swamp Yankees," went one cry. "Swamp Yankees, for a fact," echoed another. And so it went, until the fright and flight and ridiculous sayings of the original swamp Yankees were known all over northeastern Connecticut. And when the stories were repeated in letters to the troops in the field, they brought forth about the only real laughter heard that fall in the grim camps of Gen. Washington's battered army.


from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Philips / ISBN 1-880684-05-5 / $17.95

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