A swamp Yankee is born, not made. Those who aspire to swamperdom may tell you differently, but they’re wrong.
Though definitions of “swamp Yankee” vary from “trailer trash” to “salt of the earth,” they agree on one thing: the swamp Yankee goes back generations to the same part of New England. Mark Patinkin , in his Providence Journal column, defined them as “earthy, proud New Englanders who date to the Revolution, but haven’t made or spent much money since.”
The pushback he got from that column prompted him to write another. In it, he concluded, “I think I’m more confused than when I started.”
“The outside world has never understood the Swamp Yankees,” wrote one denizen of Hope Valley, R.I., a hotbed of swamperdom. “We act dumb to keep our privacy.”
In 1963, Ruth Schell wrote a scholarly essay on swamp Yankees. She concluded the typical swamper is “…a rural dweller—one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it. “
A more disdainful definition comes from the urban dictionary. “Someone whose family has been in America for generations (several of which may actually reside together) but has never gotten off the ground, couch, or smack long enough to build a functional family or become a redeeming member of society.”
An even more scornful description came from the late Walter Stone, longtime Rhode Island state police chief who retired in 1990: “illiterate woodchopper.” (T-shirts were subsequently made with the slogan, “I’m an illitrit woodchoppah.”)
Otis Dyer wrote a book, Swamp Yankee, in which he explains where “woodchoppah” comes from.
Swamp Yankees were usually small dairy farmers who supplemented their income by spending their winters in the swamps, cutting firewood to sell in Providence and Pawtucket and saw-logs to local sawmills.
They also worked as fishermen and shop owners, wrote William Sisson in Soundings:
They were tough, smart, laconic fishermen, farmers and merchants who grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut and could wrest a living from land, sea and small shops. Best as I can tell, they were an independent, hard-working lot who spoke what was on their minds and didn’t suffer fools.
Pete MacPhee, who designs rock ‘n roll posters, motorcycle ads and beer cans, calls himself Swamp Yankee. “A Swamp Yankee to me is a blue-collar guy who marches to the beat of his own drum,” he told The Newport Daily News. (MacPhee once handled the props for a heavy metal band called the Amish Alcoholics – “Spinal Tap but worse,” MacPhee said.)
Where the Swamp Yankee Dwells
Grayson Hugh, an R&B singer-songwriter, wrote a song called Swamp Yankee.
(I ain’t no punk (ain’t no punk)
just a little bit stanky (a little bit stanky)
I got the funk (I got the funk)
I’m a swamp yankee (swamp yankee))
Hugh describes himself as “from the western hills of Connecticut,” but he’s a first-generation American born in Hartford, so no, he ain’t no swamp Yankee.
In a 2003 article in New England Quarterly about President Calvin Coolidge, Kerry W. Buckley called Calvin Coolidge a swamp Yankee because he came from an old family “no longer prominent or monied.”
Another former Massachusetts governor, William Weld, was also described in a newspaper as a swamp Yankee. Perhaps he earned the designation because he liked to brag about his $8 drugstore glasses. But Weld came from Long Island and Coolidge from Vermont, so no, they ain’t no swamp Yankees, either.
The real swamp Yankee comes from the watery lowlands of southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island or eastern Connecticut.
Some argue Massachusetts has only one swamp Yankee county: Bristol. Others make a case for southern Worcester County, too. As for Cape Cod: absolutely not.
Connecticut has four swamp Yankee counties: Middlesex, New London, Tolland and Windham. Four of Rhode Island’s five counties are swamper country: Bristol, Kent, Providence and Washington.
Proud swamper Barry Browning in 2000 argued swamp Yankeeland is smaller than that. According to him, swamp Yankees come from South County – which exists only in the minds of Rhode Islanders. It’s a mythical county along the southern coast of the state.
According to Browning, swampers come from rural parts of South County, such as Perryville, Hope Valley, Richmond, Hopkinton, Exeter, Alton, Woodville, “Tuckertown” and Matunuck. Driving south from Providence, swamp Yankee country it starts past the old Bostich-Textron Plant on Route 2 in East Greenwich.
How the Swamp Yankee Got Started
The origins of the term are also disputed. Some say the name started in Thompson, Conn., during the American Revolution. Townsfolk who feared a British attack hid overnight in the swamp.
According to others, swamp Yankee refers to the descendants of those who fought in the Great Swamp Fight during King Philip’s War. (Not really something to be proud of.)
Still others say they arrived in the Great Puritan Migration, but usually as indentured servants or underpaid crew on the ships. Further, the story goes, the servants got paid at the end of their indenture with swampland.
To add to the confusion, the New York Times reported in 1935 that swampers were Yankees driven out of mill towns by immigrants ( “Out of the Whirlwind,” The New York Times, May 26, 1935 .)
Browning explained in 2006 why the Times might have gotten confused. “The ”great” cotton mill families of South County’s nineteenth century….are inextricably entwined with many old-line South County families who would now consider themselves “Swampers,” he wrote.
Back in the day, he wrote, one would have correctly described swampers as uneducated and poor. “However today I know several who would call themselves “Swampers” who have attended Brown, Wellesley Smith, and other Ivy League colleges,” he wrote. Others, he wrote, serve on bank boards and own over 1,000 acres of land. The ownership and coveting of land is an inherited trait, he noted.
“Swampers” seem to take pride in accumulating ancestral objects, and they practice frugality. They paint the bathroom floor, though they can easily afford ceramic tile.
How To Spot a Swamp Yankee
One way to tell a swamp Yankee is to look in the yard. There’s a big woodpile and a clothesline in it because swampers heat their houses with woodstoves and dry their clothes in the fresh (often winter) air. You might spot an accumulation of shells, evidence of all the quahogs they’ve eaten. You might also spot an accumulation of old vehicles.
The house might be unpainted, but flowers will bloom in the yard. A swamp Yankee might also leave an old washing machine in the dooryard for decades, or recycle a bathtub in the pasture to water the cows. A swamp Yankee might still patch his roof with corrugated tin.
Swamp Yankees wouldn’t buy new clothes because that would be showy and embarrass the family. They drive old pickup trucks or perhaps a Buick Skylark with a rotting muffler.
Eating and Talking
You used to be able to find swamp Yankees at the Swamp Yankee Days festival in Ashaway, R.I. It featured a tractor parade, baked bean-eating competition, a Mr. and Mrs. Swamp Yankee contest and cow chip bingo. To play, you put some well-fed cows out on some grass and lay bets on who will produce a cow chip first.
Ashaway’s annual fest has ended, but you might find a swamp Yankee in an old country store telling lies to another swamp Yankee. Those are disappearing, too.
But if you do happen to find such an emporium, you’ll know if the patrons are swamp Yankees by the way they talk. There’s no “r” at the end of a syllable, and “i” is pronounced “oi.” They can also improvise with added syllables.
Catherine Presley , who grew up in Hope Valley, tried to explain it:
Theyugh in Hope Valley. Ole Ben James would saye to mah brother’s “Whaccha saye bouy!”
We wood goeh dowun to the main street theyugh, to the squayugh and get summuh that theyugh sodey wahtah.
Swampers eat as their ancestors did. Supper might consist of johnnycakes, cube steak and codfish cakes. Or fried eels, baked beans(home made) and johnnycakes. An upcountry swamp Yankee could dine off slab bacon, boiled potatoes and johnnycakes, while a coastal swamper might feast on smoked buckies (river herring), bluefish and johnnycakes.
So, whaccha saye to theyat?
Images: Mattity Swamp By Swampyank – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105080393. Edward Buzzell Delano, Jack, photographer. Mr. Edward Buzzell, Yankee dairy farmer of Slocum, Rhode Island. United States Rhode Island Washington County Slocum, 1940. Dec. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017793117/. Country Store: Lang, Otto, -1940, Artist. The Country Store. , ca. 1890. [Between and 1910] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009616966/. Montville: Montville: Delano, Jack, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Houses and small farms in the Montville, Connecticut area. United States Connecticut Montville, 1940. [Nov] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017748612/.