Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rude Toponymy, Three

Historian Arthur Herman has an interesting take on the early settlement of the backcountry South, and in particular, the naming of places. From How the Scots Invented the Modern World:

From the point of view of the colonial government and locals, they had come at the right time. English emigration to America had fallen off; and non-English settlers such as Germans and Hugenot French had not yet appeared in large numbers. The Scotch-Irish settlements began pushing the frontier further and deeper into the Appalachians. Unlike many of their early English predecessors, they did not expect an easy time of it. Prepared for the worst, they carved a new life for themselves out of the wilderness, taking land from neighbors or natives when it suited them. The habits of colonizing Ireland and seizing arable land from Catholic enemies carried over to the New World. Their insatiable desire for land, and the willingness to fight and die to keep it, laid the foundation of the frontier mentality of the American West….

Across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Tennessee, their extended families spread out – Alexanders, Ashes, Caldwells, Campbells, Calhouns, Montgomerys, Donelsons, Gilchrists, Knoxes, and Shelbys – establishing a network of clanlike alliances and new settlements. They named their communities – such as Orange County (in North Carolina), Orangeburg (in South Carolina), Galloway, Derry, Durham, Cumberland (after the Border county in England), Carlisle, and Aberdeen – after the places and loyalties they had left behind. In North Carolina they founded towns called Enterprise, Improvement, and Progress; and in Georgia and western Virginia, towns called Liberty.

Placenames and language reflected their northern Irish or southern Lowlands origins. They said ‘whar’ for ‘where,’ ‘thar’ for ‘there,’ ‘critter,’ for ‘creature,’ ‘nekkid’ for ‘naked,’ ‘widder’ for ‘widow,’ and ‘young-uns’ for ‘young ones.’ They were always ‘fixin’’ to do something, or go ‘sparkin’’ instead of ‘courting,’ and the young’uns ‘growed up’ instead of ‘grew up.’ As David Hackett Fisher has suggested, these were the first utterings of the American dialect of Appalachian mountaineers, cowboys, truck drivers, and backcountry politicians. The language was also shamelessly intimate and earthy: passersby were addressed as ‘honey’ and children as ‘little shits.’ They dubbed local landmarks Gallows Branch or Cuttthroat Gap or Shitbritches Creek (in North Carolina)….

The Presbyterian Ulster Scots also brought over their burning hatred of Episcopalians (especially since, as British subjects, they had to pay taxes for the established Anglican Church in America). When one Anglican missionary tried to preach in the Carolina mountains, the locals “disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whisky to his congregation.” The missionary, an Englishman, learned to hate his would-be Scotch-Irish converts with a passion. “They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life,” he wrote, “and seem not desirous of changing it.”

Closer to home, Horace Kephart, that observer of Appalachian culture and master maker of lists, cataloged place-names in Our Southern Highlanders:

The qualities of the raw backwoodsmen are printed from untouched negatives in the names he has left upon the map. His literalness shows in Black Rock, Standing Stone, Sharp Top, Twenty Mile, Naked Place, The Pocket, Tumbling Creek, and in the endless designations taken from trees, plants, minerals, or animals noted on the spot. Incidents of his lonely life are signalized in Dusk Camp Run, Mad Sheep Mountain, Dog Slaughter Creek, Drowning Creek, Burnt Cabin Branch, Broken Leg, Raw Dough, Burnt Pone, Sandy Mush, and a hundred others. His contentious spirit blazes forth in Fighting Creek, Shooting Creek, Gouge-eye, Vengeance, Four Killer, and Disputanta….

A sardonic humor, sometimes smudged with "that touch of grossness in our English race," characterizes many of the backwoods place-names. In the mountains of Old Virginia we have Dry Tripe settlement and Jerk 'em Tight. In West Virginia are Take In Creek, Get In Run, Seldom Seen Hollow, Odd, Buster Knob, Shabby Room, and Stretch Yer Neck. North Carolina has its Shoo Bird Mountain, Big Bugaboo Creek, Weary Hut, Frog Level, Shake a Rag, and the Chunky Gal. In eastern Tennessee are No Time settlement and No Business Knob, with creeks known as Big Soak, Suee, Go Forth, and How Come You. Georgia has produced Scataway, Too Nigh, Long Nose, Dug Down, Silly Cook, Turkey Trot, Broke Jug Creek, and Tear Breeches Ridge.

Allowing some license for the mountaineer's irreverence, his whimsical fancies, and his scorn of sentimentalism, it must be said that his descriptive terms are usually apposite and sometimes felicitous. Often he is poetically imaginative, occasionally romantic, and generally picturesque. Roan Mountain, Grandfather, the Lone Bald, Craggy Dome, the Black Brothers, Hairy Bear, the Balsam Cone, Sunset Mountain, the Little Snowbird, are names that linger lovingly in one's memory. …

What matter that the plenteous roughs about us were branded with rude or opprobrious names? Rip Shin Thicket, Dog-hobble Ridge, the Rough Arm, Bear-wallow, Woolly Ridge, Roaring Fork, Huggins's Hell, the Devil's Racepath, his Den, his Courthouse, and other playgrounds of Old Nick--they, too, were well and fitly named.


Anonymous said...

I guess in a lot of ways we still speak "broad lallands" around here.

Those folks also settled McLaurin, now Laurinburg.


GULAHIYI said...

I've not yet read much more of Mr. Herman's book than the passage above. He likely resorts to some generalizations to bolster his hypothesis. That part of the state (Laurinburg, etc.) has always had a distinctly Scottish flavor to me but it seems like a very different migration pattern from what led to white settlement of these mountains.