Anthropology Friday: The Crackers of Apalachee, Florida

Remington_A_cracker_cowboy
A cracker cowboy, by Frederick Remington, 1895

About two years ago I reviewed Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl, a middle grade novel about the conflict between newly arrived, dedicated farmers and long-established families of hoe-farmers/ranchers/hunters in the backwoods of Florida. It was a pleasant book based on solid research among the older residents, but left me with many questions (as surely any children’s book would)–most notably, was the author’s description of the newly arrived farmers as “Crackers” accurate, or should the term be more properly restricted to the older, wilder inhabitants?

I had not known, prior to Lenski’s book, that “Cracker” even was an ethnonym; today it is used primarily as a slur, the original Crackers and their lifestyle having all but disappeared. Who were the Crackers? Where did they come from? Do they hail from the same stock as settled Appalachia (the mountains, not to be confused with Apalachee, the county in Florida we’ll be discussing in this post,) or different stock? Or is there perhaps a common stock that runs throughout America, appearing as more or less of the population in proportion to the favorability of the land for their lifestyles?

Today I happened upon Richard Wayne Sapp’s ethnography of Apalachee County, Florida: Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: political moieties in a southern county community, published in 1976, which directly addresses a great many of my questions. So far it has been a fascinating book, and I am glad I found it.

I must note, though, that there currently is no “Apalachee County” in Florida. (There are an Apalachee Parkway and an Apalachee Park, though.) However, comparing the maps and geographic details in the book with a current map of Florida reveals that Apalachee Count is now Suwannee County. Wikipedia should note the change.

So without further ado, here are a few interesting quotes :

Apalachee County, a north Florida county community, nestles in a bend of the Suwanee River. The urban county seat is the center of government and associational life. Scattered over the country-side are farming neighborhoods whose interactional centers are rural churches. Count seat and rural neighborhoods are coupled by mutual exchanges of goods and services: neither are, of themselves, cultural wholes. The poor quality of its soils and the relative recency of settlement (post-Civil-War) give the community its distinctiveness; it never had a planting elite.

Apalachee society is structured along moiety lines: town and country.

EvX: “Moiety” means half; Wikipedia defines it in anthropology as:

a [kinship] descent group that coexists with only one other descent group within a society. In such cases, the community usually has unilineal descent, either patri- or matri-lineal so that any individual belongs to one of the two moiety groups by birth, and all marriages take place between members of opposite moieties. It is an exogamous clan system with only two clans.

Here I think Sapp is using moiety more in the sense of “two interacting groups that form a society” without implying that all town people take country spouses and vice versa. But continuing:

These halves rest on an earlier “cracker” horizon of isolated single-family homesteads. True crackers subsisted by living off the land and practicing hoe agriculture; they were fiercely independent and socially isolated. Apalachee moieties are also related to regional traditions: townsmen as town naboobs in the Cavalier tradition and countrymen as yeoman farmers in the Calvinist tradition. Townsmen promote associational interaction, valuing familism (nuclear), hierarchy in organisations, “progress,” and paternalistic interaction with countrymen. Countrymen value familism (extended), localism, and personalism, interacting on individually egalitarian rather than ordered associational terms. …

The division of governmental offices falls along moiety lines. Townsmen control municipal government, countrymen control the powerful county bodies. Except for jobs, the governmental institution is not a major source of political prizes. The country moiety is the dominant political force.”

555px-Alcohol_control_in_the_United_States.svg
Wet counties = blue; dry = red; yellow = mixed laws. (Currently.)

EvX: There follows a fascinating description of the battle over a referendum on whether the county should stay “dry” (no legal sale of alcohol) or go “wet” (alcohol sales allowed.) The Wets, led by business interests, had hoped that an influx of new residents who held more pro-alcohol views than established residents would tip the electoral balance in their favor. I find this an interesting admission of one of democracy’s weak points–the ability of newcomers to move into an area and vote to change the laws in ways the folks who already live there don’t like.

The Drys, led by local Baptist pastors, inflamed local sentiments against the wets, who were supposedly trying to overturn the law just to make make a hotel chain more interested in buying a tract of land owned by the leader of the Wets. The Wets argued the sale would attract more businesses to the area, boosting the economy; the Drys argued that the profits would go entirely to the wets and the community itself would reap the degradation and degeneration caused by alcohol.

The Drys won, and the leader of the Wets hasn’t set foot in a church in Apalachee county since then.

(Suwannee/Apalachee county finally allowed the sale of alcohol in 2011.)

1000px-United_States_Counties_Per_Capita_Income
Per capita GDP by county (wikipedia)

Does a county’s wet or dry status impact the willingness of businesses to move into the area, leading to depressed economies for Drys? I wanted to find out, so I pulled up maps of current dry counties and per capita GDP by county. It’s not a perfect comparison since it doesn’t control for cost of living, but it’ll do.

In general, I don’t think the theory holds. Suwanee, dry until 2011, is doing better than neighboring counties that went wet earlier (some of those neighboring counties are very swampy.) Central Mississippi is wet, but doing badly; a string of dry counties runs down the east side of the state, and unless my eyes deceive me, they’re doing better than the wet counties. Kentucky’s drys are economically depressed, but so are West Virginia’s wets. Pennsylvania and Texas’s “mixed” counties are doing fine, while Texas’s wets are doing badly. Virginia has some pretty poor wet counties; Alaska’s dry county is doing great.

However, this is only a comparison of currently dry and wet counties; if I had data that showed for what percent of the 20th century each county allowed the sale of alcohol, that might provide a different picture.

Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb, here: differences in local GDP have more to do with demographics than the sale of one particular beverage.

But back to Sapp:

A system of human community derivative of Europe and still basic to the southern United States is the county-community. … The symbolic heart of this traditional community, the county courthouse, has been the central point of political and economic assembly for county residents. Its people lived dispersed in neighborhoods clustered about small Protestant churches, points of assembly in socialization and socializing as well as bastions of moral and spiritual rectitude.

He quotes Havard, 1972, on the traits of the Calvinist-Yeoman Farmer–radical individualism, personalism, personal independence, populism, regionalist traditions, etc–vs the Cavalier-Planter/Town Nabob–social conformity, caste, paternalistic dependency, conservatism, nationalist patriotism.

He wrote that this split fathered two mainstream traditions in the South: yeoman farmer and plantation farmer. The yeoman farmers, he said, opposed governmental centralization and exhibited an aversion to urbanism, industrialization, and the entrepreneurial classes; they were libertarian, egalitarian, and populist. The plantation whigs, identified withdowntown mercantile interests, supported themselves as planters … bankers, and merchants, sat as the “county seat clique,” developed the theme of racial segregation in the post-bellum era, and promoted a cult of “manners” and paternalism. …

However, the Cavalier plantation elite never really settled in Apalachee/Suwannee county, due to its soil being much too poor for serious agriculture.

As a result, not many slaves were ever brought into the county, nor have their descendants migrated to the area. Since the population is mostly white, racial issues appear only rarely in the book, and it is safe to say that the culture never developed in quite the same ways as it did in the plantation-dominated Deep South.

Rather, Apalachee was settled by the Cavalier-Yeomen farmers and the Crackers:

Although the origin of the term cracker is disputed, Stetson Kennedy claims that cracker first applied to an assortment of “bad characters” who gathered in northern Florida before it became a territory of the United States. Deep-South Southerners later applied the epithet to the “poor white folk of Florida, Georgia, and Alababama.” (Kennedy, 1942, p. 59). He further relates:

“Crackers are mainly descended from the Irish, Scotch, and English stock which, from 1740 on, was slowly populating the huge Southern wilderness behind the thin strip of coastal civilization. These folk settled the Cumberland Valley, the Shenandoah, and spread through every Southern state east of the Mississippi. That branch of the family which settled in the Deep South was predominantly of Irish ancestry…

“The early crackers were the Okies of their day (as they have been ever since). Cheated of land, not by wind and erosion, but by the plantation and slavery system of the Old South, they were nonessentials in an economic, political and social order dominated by the squirearchy of wealthy planters, and in most respects were worse off than the Negro slaves. “

This contradicts the history told in our prior ethnography of Appalachia, which claims pointedly that the denizens of the Cumberland are not descended from the “poor whites” of the Deep South, but from Pennsylvanians. I offer, however, a synthesis: both the whites who settled on the Pennsylvania frontier and followed Daniel Boone into the Cumberland and found it pleasant enough to remain in the mountains and the whites who adopted an only semi-agricultural lifestyle in the backwoods and swamps of Florida hailed from the same original British stock and simply took different routes to get where they were going.

Powell, (1969) a white turpentine camp overseer of the late nineteenth century, called the crackers of Apalachee County “wild woodsmen” (p. 30) and mentioned a man who “had lived the usual life of a shiftless Cracker, hunting and fishing, and hard work did not agree with him.” …

[Powel writes:]

“When I speak of villages throughout this county, I use the word for lack of a better term, for in nine cases out of ten, they were the smallest imaginable focus of the scattering settlement, and usually one general store embraced the sum total of business enterprise. There the natives came at intervals to trade for coffee, tobacco, and the few other necessities that the woods and waters did not provide them with. Alligators’ hides and teeth, bird plumes and various kinds of pelts were the medium of barter. They were a curious people, and there are plenty of them there yet, born and bred to the forest and as ignorant of the affairs of every-day life outside of their domain, as are the bears and deer upon which they mainly subsist. A man who would venture to tell them that the earth moved instead of the sun, or that there was a device by which a message could be flashed for leagues across a wire, wold run the risk of being lynched, as too dangerous a liar to be at large. “

There is a section on the importance of guns and hunting to the locals, even the children, which will be familiar to anyone with any experience of the rural South. I know from family tales that my grandfather began to hunt when he was 8 years old; he used to sell the pelts of skunks he’d killed to furriers, who de-stinked them, dyed them black, and marketed them as “American sable” over in Europe.

Truth in Advertising laws decimated the “American sable” trade.

The true crackers, Powell’s “wild woodsmen,” were never numerous, and they rarely participated in the social life of the wider Apalachee county-community. Crackers were born, lived, and died in the woods. They buried their own in family plots far from the nearest church. … Cracker families settled the Apalachee area without recourse to legal formalities. Thus, when the yeomen farmers … eventually purchase legal titles to land, true crackers were forced out and deeper into Florida.

This is a common problem (especially for anyone whose ancestors arrived in an area before it was officially part of the US.) Where land is abundant, population density is low, and there aren’t any authorities who can enforce land ownership, anyway, people will be happy to farm where they want, hunt where they want, and defend their claims themselves. This tends to lead to a low-intensity lifestyle:

Craker subsistence strategy depended on scratch, perhaps slash-and-burn, summer agriculture and year-round food collecting activities: hunting, fishing, and foraging. Because their farming operations were so small, limited to the part-time efforts of an individual family, they had no need of financial credit.

Indeed, their fiercely independent, egalitarian ethos prohibited them from interacting significantly in the rural neighborhoods of the community. …

Few true crackers remain in Apalachee County … A few families still live on the borders of the county. There they exploit the food resources of the rivers and swamps and perhaps scratch-farm a few acres. …

Florida_Cracker_cow_and_calf
Florida Cracker cow and calf source

This is not (just) laziness; areas with poor soils or little water simply can’t be intensively farmed, and if the forage is bad, herd animals will be better off if they can wander widely in search of food than if they are confined in one particular place.

Incidentally, there is a landrace of cattle known as the Florida Cracker, descended from the hearty Spanish cattle brought to Florida in the 1600s. Unfortunately, the breed has been on the decline and is now listed as “critical” due to laws passed in 1949 against free-ranging livestock and the introduction of larger breeds more suited to confinement.

Not only does the law fence off the cracker’s land, destroy his livelihood, and drive him out, it also kills the cracker cow by fencing off its land.

The author notes that “cracker” is a slur and that it has been expanded in the past half-century to cover all poor whites, with an interesting footnote:

One speculates that the driving force behind withholding respectability from the true crackers and the extension of the consequently disparaging term to include countrymen of the small farmer class originated with the townspeople. This idea parallels the hypothesis that townsmen perpetuated and revitalized the issue of racial politics int he twentieth century.

On change:

The technological changes of the twentieth century have enabled social institutions to penetrate the isolation of the crackers and enforce town mores. Cracker homicides are no longer unreported and uninvestigated or allowed to result in clannish feuding… No longer may the children escape the public school regimen. No longer may they escape taxation…

[yet] the cracker and his world view persist. While only a handful of true crackers endure in the county… modern-day imitators erect trailers in remote corners, moving to north-central Florida …. to escape the “rat race.”

I think that’s enough for today; I hope you’ve enjoyed the book and urge you to take a look at the whole thing. We’ll discuss the more recent Cavalier-Yeomen farmers next week.

7 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Crackers of Apalachee, Florida

  1. I recall reading about a little tribe of people, a bunch of mostly white Indian descendants who engaged in logging. When civilization came to California, they didn’t resist – just sell your logs to the mill. No lifestyle disruption needed.

    Anyways, along come the environmentalists, terribly, terribly concerned about a little spotted owl rapidly going extinct. They demanded an end to logging! Being rich, privileged white people, they obviously succeeded, going from strength to strength and victory and victory while complaining about the oppression of Big Capital (they’re Big Capital) and Big Timber (a bunch of country boys).

    Today, the community is an impoverished tiny hovel, full of alcoholism and heroin dependency. Some brave few attempt woodsmanship to feed their families, but Uncle Sam is a jealous master and does not suffer trespassers lightly. The owl is, naturally, still dying. Bigger animals were eating it. And absent the efforts of humans, prey animals spread to invasive levels and wildfires feed on accumulated dead wood. A stunning success!

    It makes me wonder a few things. Are such behaviors convergent evolution, the mere result of populations placed in an ecological countryside niche, or are they the genetic ghosts of quantas of Native American blood? Secondly, while you previously noted hypocrisy makes ideology healthier to humans, I suspect sincerity among the upper middle class was a useful adaptation to avoid court purges and win favor in intra-aristocratic conflict… true believers in ideology are never in short supply. Finally, have you read Seeing like a State? Central governments despise country folk because they’re not legible. You can’t readily parse out bureaucratic information to impose taxation and control. Even as it preaches equality, the Cathedral carries out its class imperative, the same class imperative since time immemorial. Isn’t it convenient?

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    • Interesting story. I don’t think we need to invoke genetic ghosts to get “unemployed people turn to substance abuse,” though. If there’s anything going on, its more likely “similar sorts of people marry each other, which includes similarity for substance abuse risk.”

      I read Slate Star Codex’s review of Seeing Like a State, but haven’t read it myself. Do you recommend it?

      I think social class is much more important to America than most people give it credit for. Social class is ultimately ethnic, either in origin or as a result of assortative mating, but this is difficult to see because different classes look pretty similar and our dominant ideology says that only racial differences are significant.

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      • Less the substance abuse parts and more attitudes relating towards nature and the countryside. Barbarian or frontiersman-ness. Hard to control, avoids waste, lives as human-in-nature rather than human-controlling-nature, independent.

        Yeah, I’d recommend Seeing Like a State. I always like analyses that start from a place of flawed, lazy humans doing something for expedience over ones that start with idealized, efficiency-maximizing rational actors.

        I think, in addition to barriers about talking about biological differences in general, it’s even harder to talk about class-as-pseudo-ethnicity because almost everyone knows a “mutant”. You often see with characteristics that don’t really fit into their birth environment who proceed to class transition with relative ease. You don’t exactly see spontaneous births of white babies to black parents.

        Plus, an honest discussion of class doesn’t jive with the democratic zeitgeist.

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      • Race is just a larger degree of genetic separation than ethnicity. The closer two groups are genetically, the easier it is for an outlier from one group to fit comfortably within the other. There are blacks who feel at home among whites and vice versa (or Caucasians, if we want to use cladistic names,) but the physical differences between the two make it more difficult to blend in. (There are physical differences between the social classes, too, though–an overweight woman will have a hard time breaking into the upper class.)

        We Americans like to be hopeful. We like to think people can rags-to-riches. We are less comfortable asking why someone like Roseanne, who made an awful lot of money as an actress, failed at being socially upper class.

        As for barbarians and nature, barbarians have skin in the game. Kill all of the buffalo or cut down all of the trees, and they die. Also, forbid people from eating buffalo or cutting down trees, and the same thing happens. Government officials just want to make sure the rules are followed; they don’t care if the rules actually work. It’s the people on the ground who have to actually deal with the consequences. Government officials will try to govern their own cities, since they live their. They like living in nice places. It’s much less of a big deal to them if they mess up someone else’s home, far away.

        Which isn’t to say that the rural poor always do a great job of preserving their own resources, or that the gov’t always fucks it up. Just that people usually have a certain interest in preserving their own livelihoods.

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