If you’re looking for a definition for the term Swamp Yankee, you can take your pick of several different meanings. If you are new to the area, you probably have no idea what it is. However, for someone like Tom Barron, whose family has lived in the Branford area for generations, it means someone who is self-reliant, hard-working and responsible.
“I remember my dad, George Barron, used to say, when we were bailing hay, that the fellow whose bale fell off the wagon was the one who had to go pick it up,” he said.
That attitude of responsibility for your actions is typically found among the characteristics attributed to Swamp Yankees, or Swampuhs, as some folks called them. Don Bousquet, a Rhode Island cartoonist, contributed this definition to the Rhode Island Dictionary.
Swamp Yankee or Swampuh
- A term, specific to eastern Connecticut and South County Rhode Island, used to describe an umpteenth-generation farm-bred denizen of that area who is fiercely independent, stubborn, obstinate, and either ignorant or wily (depending on the prejudices of the source). The origin of the name is said to go back to 1776 when almost the entire town of Thompson, Connecticut, hid out in a swamp overnight to escape a British raid that never came.
Tom Barron’s family was definitely part of the farming tradition around Branford. His great grandfather, William, haled from Aberdeen, Scotland. He traveled a good bit of the world before settling on land now crossed by Branford's East Main Street and I-95.
His son, John Barron, carried on farming that land, and with his wife, Luella, raised 10 children. Tom Barron’s father, George, was the youngest member of the family that raised fields of vegetables for farm markets.
When John Barron died, the town of Branford was looking for a bigger parcel of land for a new high school. The family farm was purchased, and a Yale professor bought the house, then moved it piece-by-piece to Lichfield County, where it still stands.
“The first time I heard the term Swamp Yankee," Barron said, "was when my uncle Reggie would bring his family back for summer picnics from his home down in Mississippi. I’d hear my uncle Harold and my dad telling Reggie he was just on old Rebel, and he would come back with ‘you’re just old Swamp Yankees.”
In sharing that memory recently with his cousin, Nancy Roy, Barron started her on a research trip to find out what a Swamp Yankee really was.
“She found pages on the Internet with recipes and music that were specifically related to the term Swamp Yankee,” Barron said.
Researchers began investigating the term in the 1960s and found several plausible explanations. Nearly of them consider the term to mean being of white, Anglo-Saxon heritage and associated with self-sustaining farms.
One of the most enduring centers around what is now Thompson, CT, during the Revolutionary War. The community had been nearly stripped of adult men for Washington’s army. Only women, children and a few old men remained in that isolated outpost. The area had been unsettled ever since the local Indian War when settlers had defeated a large federation of tribes under the leadership of an Indian dubbed King Philip.
In the late summer of 1776, word was passed that some 50 slaves owned by Tory Godfrey Malbone 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 this group.
As fear approached panic, a dispatch rider with urgent messages from Boston galloped through town, in too much of a hurry to answer any of the anxious questions of residents. In the prevailing atmosphere, only one conclusion could be drawn: the enemy was coming. With no guns or men to use them, most of the women decided their only chance of survival was to hide in a nearby swamp.
As it turned out, the enemy raiders were just a rumor. No Tories appeared, and most of the town’s people spent an uncomfortable night in the swamp, only to be laughed at the next day by those who had not run. From there, apparently, comes one possible source of the term.
Several theories speculate that Swamp Yankees were the undesirable, troublemaking New Englanders who moved to the "swamps"of southeastern New England upon arriving in the New World in the 17th century. Others speculate that the original Swamp Yankees were colonial-era indentured servants who were paid for their service with swamp land from the farmers to whom they were indentured. Still others claim "Swamp Yankees" had relatives that fought in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip's War.
Grayford Hugh, an internationally acclaimed musician who has returned to his native Connecticut, remembers hearing that the term was used by the British when referring to General Washington’s less polished troops.
“I was told that the British called them that as they were going through Danbury, where I am, now,” Hugh said.
While he isn’t a Swamp Yankee himself – his father was born in Wales – he used the term in a song he wrote for a 2010 album. It was the title song that he liked so much he named his new record label Swamp Yankee Records. After the song came out, good friends told him it was a real term and that their New London families of immigrant Portuguese and German fisherman had been Swamp Yankees.
When Jason Morse was asked why he’d named his new food company Swamp Yankee Products, he said it was a ‘no brainer.’
“My family dates back to John Moss, one of signers of the original New Haven Colony charter,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, Moss became Morse in an 1800's census, but it’s the same family. He was a distinguished jurist and lawyer.”
While he acknowledges that there are several versions of where the term originated, he said, “Without entering the debate, we use the term because we embody many of the qualities one would expect from a family whose history can be traced back to the early New England colonies.”
Today, Jason Morse is planting peppers in the New Haven area to make tasty sauces and Bloody Mary Mix for sale throughout the country.
The Rotary Club of Chariho, RI, has sponsored the Swamp Yankee Days festival in Ashaway, RI, along the Connecticut border each fall for many years. Antique cars, charitable contests, election of Mr. and Mrs. Swamp Yankee, and specific types of food and music attract crowds to help crafters, vendors and community organizations celebrate ‘The Good Old Days.’
Tied in with the theory of self-reliance and economy espoused by the Swampuhs is the Swamp Yankee Clothesline Company in Wakefield, RI. James King owns the company that makes clothesline poles from recycled products, then sells the kits to encourage people to cut down on energy use by hanging clothes outside.
“I think a Swamp Yankee would say, ‘why waste your money on electricity when the old fashioned way works just as well’,” King said.
He zeroed in on the term because many family members come from Connecticut and Rhode Island. He currently lives in Wakefield and says ‘the woods are filled with Swamp Yankees where I live.’
Athough being less educated is also part of the Swampuh description, Peter Pegnam, a native of Rhode Island who became a journalist and artist, would disagree.
In a recent conversation, he said, "I'm not sure if being a Swamp Yankee is a birthright or a ‘skill’ that one can acquire. I'm a Mayflower descendent, through a direct line that leads back to John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish. One summer when I was in high school, I got a job at Wickford Shellfish, helping quahoggers unload and weigh their daily catches. When work was done, we'd sit around on the dock. They'd talk back and forth, filling my head with a philosophy of life that is not taught in any university.
"They were, I've come to learn, the genuine article – Swamp Yankees. They inhabited a black-and-white world. Unsophisticated? You bet. Stubborn, independent and lacking social graces? Yes again, and proud of it. Frugal? Not just because they had to be, but because it seemed right. Tough? Have you ever tried shell-fishing in the winter? I encountered more wisdom on the docks of the Wickford Shellfish than in any classroom I've ever been in."
Peter is the author of "From Swamp Yankee to Desert Rat: A Hodgepodge Memoir," and now lives in Arizona.
It seems that regardless of where along the shoreline the term is used, everyone seems to have his/her own understanding of what it is. And, while they may differ somewhat, everyone, as they say, ‘knows one when they see one.’