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Image Backcountry Sex Ways: The Border Celebration of Sensuality

On the subject of sex, the backsettlers tended to be more open than were other cultures of British America. Sexual talk was free and easy in the backcountry—more so than in Puritan Massachusetts or Quaker Pennsylvania, or even Anglican Virginia. So too was sexual behavior.

The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason was astounded by the open sexuality of the backsettlers. “How would the polite people of London stare, to see the Females (many very pretty) …,” he wrote. “The young women have a most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible round their Breasts, and slender waists (for they are generally very finely shaped) and draw their Petticoat close to their Hips to show the fineness of their limbs—as that they might as well be in puri naturalibus—indeed nakedness is not censurable or indecent here, and they expose themselves often quite naked, without ceremony—rubbing themselves and their hair with bears’ oil and tying it up behind in a bunch like the indians—being hardly one degree removed from them. In a few years I hope to bring about a reformation.”1

The backsettlers showed very little concern for sexual privacy in the design of their houses or the style of their lives. “Nakedness is counted as nothing,” Woodmason remarked, “as they sleep altogether in common in one room, and shift and dress openly without ceremony … children run half naked. The Indians are better clothed and lodged.”2 Samuel Kercheval remembered that young men adopted Indian breechclouts and leggings, cut so that “the upper part of the thighs and part of the hips were naked. The young warrior, instead of being abashed by this nudity, was proud of his Indian-like dress,” Kercheval wrote. “In some few places I have seen them go into places of public worship in this dress.”3

Other evidence suggests that these surface impressions of back-country sexuality had a solid foundation in fact. Rates of prenuptial pregnancy were very high in the backcountry—higher than other parts of the American colonies. In the year 1767, Woodmason calculated that 94 percent of backcountry brides whom he had married in the past year were pregnant on their wedding day, and some were “very big” with child. He attributed this tendency to social customs in the back settlements:

Nothing more leads to this than what they call their love feasts and kiss of charity. To which feasts, celebrated at night, much liquor is privately carried, and deposited on the roads, and in bye paths and places. The assignations made on Sundays at the singing clubs, are here realized. And it is no wonder that things are as they are, when many young people have three, four, five or six miles to walk home in the dark night, with convoy, thro’ the woods? Or perhaps staying all night at some cabbin (as on Sunday nights) and sleeping together either doubly or promiscuously? Or a girl being mounted behind a person to be carried home, or any wheres. All this contributes to multiply subjects for the king in this frontier country, and so is wink’d at by the Magistracy and Parochial Officers.4

Another factor was a scarcity of clergy to perform marriages in the backcountry. But there was also a different explanation. Rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy had long been higher in the far northwest of England than in any other part of that nation. The magnitude of regional differences was very great. Rates of bastardy in the northwest were three times higher than in the east of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Regional disparities persisted from the beginning of parish registers to the twentieth century. Historian Peter Laslett notes that “in early Victorian times Cumberland … had the highest recordings [of bastardy] in the country.” Westmorland was very similar. High rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy in the backcountry were not the necessary consequences of frontier conditions. Puritans also moved onto new lands in the northern colonies and continued to behave in puritanical ways. The same continuities appeared among the Quakers when they moved to the frontier. The sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England.5

When prenuptial pregnancy occurred, customary responses in the backcountry differed from other regions. Where Puritans, Quakers and cavaliers launched formal prosecutions for fornication, the back settlers had a merry game and a good laugh. Kercheval remembered that a backcountry custom “adopted when the chastity of the bride was a little suspected, was that of setting up a pair of horns on poles or trees, on the route of the wedding company.”6

Another sort of sexual deviance was very rare in the backcountry. There were not many cases of seduction and abandonment, which was regarded not merely as a violation of a woman’s virtue but of her entire family’s honor. Such an act was thought to be a high crime, and any man who committed it was lucky to escape a lynching. Kercheval could remember but a single instance of this offense, in which reactions were so violent that “the life of the man was put in jeopardy by the resentment of the family to which the girl belonged … this crime could not take place without great personal danger from the brothers or other relations of the victim seduced, family honor being then estimated at a very high rate.”7 Some cases of this sort were settled by cash payments, without intervention of church or court. In 1770, for example, one backcountry diarist noted, “George Johnson made up with

Pegg Wright for ten pounds I hear.” Such a sum was sufficient to preserve the honor of a family, if not the virtue of its wayward daughter.8

The sexual customs of backcountry, like those of the North British borderers, were rigid in this respect. But in others, they were much more relaxed. An example was a sexual game called cockle bread, which were played by nubile girls in Westmorland. It was described by a disapproving Victorian folklorist as a “wanton sport of young wenches,” who would “get upon a Tableboard and then gather-up their knees and their coates as high as they can, and then they wabble to and fro with their buttocks,” singing ‘Up with your heels, down with your head; that is the way to make cockeldy bread.’”9

Here was an earthy and unrestrained celebration of animal sexuality that was distinctly different from the ways of Puritans, Quakers and even cavaliers. Once again we find another strong similarity between the British borderlands and the American backcountry.

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