Anthropology Friday: The Crackers of Apalachee, Florida

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.”

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.)

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 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.


Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 3/4

Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.

In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:

“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”

EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.

““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—

“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.

“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.

“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …

“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.

“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.

“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”

EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.

“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”

On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:

“The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.

“On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British[Pg 357] yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways.—

1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.

2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.

3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation. …

“Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.

“The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.

“The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.”

EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…

“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …

“The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.

“Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland. …

“Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”

“West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.”


EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.