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Image Backcountry Literacy

On the subject of literacy, backcountry folk liked to tell a tall tale about themselves. They bragged that one interior county of North Carolina had so little “larnin” that the only literate inhabitant was elected “county reader.” That story is apocryphal, but in Moore County, North Carolina, a battered book has survived with an inscription on its flyleaf: “David Kennedy his Book he may read good but God knows when.”1

These colorful examples have misled unwary historians into thinking that levels of literacy were uniformly low in the back-country. This was not the case. Throughout the southern highlands as a whole, the pattern was very mixed. Charles Woodmason in 1767 observed of one settlement that “few can read—fewer can write. … these people despise knowledge.” Similar impressions were recorded by many travelers.2 But in other communities a different pattern appeared. In the backcountry settlement of Williamsburg, South Carolina, which was planted by Scots-Irish Presbyterians, historian William Boddie finds that “not more than one man out of the first hundred [signers of] wills and transfers or property had to make his mark.” Further, Boddie discovered that 98 percent of Revolutionary soldiers from Williamsburg were able to write their own names: a remarkably large proportion.3

Rates of literacy varied broadly throughout the backcountry, not only by place, but also by wealth and rank. Many men without property were unable to write; but most large wealthowners could sign their names to wills and deeds. Differences of this sort appeared in many parts of British America, but were exceptionally great in the backcountry. Large variations in literacy also existed from one ethnic group to the next. Several studies have found that German Protestant and French Huguenot settlers were the most literate: more than 90 percent could write their names. Scottish highlanders were the least so among the free population; of highland Scots who made their wills in Cumberland County, North Carolina during the late eighteenth century, 50 percent signed by mark. Between these broad extremes were immigrants from the north of England, the lowlands of Scotland and northern Ireland, of whom approximately 20 to 30 percent signed by mark in the mid-eighteenth century—a level which was very near the average for the region as a whole.4

This pattern of backcountry literacy was similar to that in the borderlands of North Britain in both its central tendency and its variations. Recent revisionist historical research has found that rates of literacy were much the same in the lowlands of Scotland and the northern counties of England.5 On both sides of the border, the proportion of male tenants and craftsmen who signed by mark was in the range of 20 to 30 percent—almost exactly the same as in the backcountry. This was the lower-middling class that produced the majority of emigrants to America.6

Variations by social rank were very great in the borderlands, as they would be in the backcountry. Nearly all the gentry were literate as early as the seventeenth century. But less than 15 percent of laborers could write their names in the lowlands of Scotland and in the north of England as late as 1770. These differences also were carried to America.7

The British borderlands and the American backcountry were also similar in the distribution of books and libraries. A few exceptional individuals and families owned remarkably large libraries. An outstanding example in the county of Westmorland was the Brownes of Troutbeck, a highly literate “statesman” family who owned 2,000 volumes in 1700.8 A few major collections were also to be found in the American backcountry. But in North Carolina before 1783, forty to fifty volumes were thought to be a large library.9 Most estates in probate included at least a few books—primers, prayer books, and practical handbooks on farming and medicine. But by comparison with New England, Pennsylvania and even Virginia, private libraries in North Carolina were remarkably secular. Before 1753, only about one in five titles was religious. In the late eighteenth century, that ratio fell to one in nine—an exceptionally small proportion.10 These back-country libraries tended to be entirely vernacular collections. One survey of more than 500 North Carolina inventories from 1733 to 1783 found not a single work in Latin or Greek. Typical of the backcountry elite was Andrew Jackson, who was said to have read only two books in his lifetime, the Bible and Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield.11

These patterns must be seen in perspective. By comparison with other parts of the world, the backcountry was not illiterate. At a time when 20 to 30 percent of males in the southern highlands were unable to read and write, the proportion of illiteracy in Italy and Spain was 70 to 80 percent.

Even so, the backcountry was an oral culture in which writing was less imporant than the spoken word. The backsettlers maintained an attitude of cultivated contempt for orthography. The future President Andrew Jackson once declared that he could never respect a man who knew only one way to spell a word. He was not entirely joking. This attitude was widely shared in the backcountry, as it had been in the British borderlands, where it was observed that “the spelling even of well-educated people was highly variable,” for a much longer period than in other regions.12

This culture was impoverished in its written literature, but it was rich in ballads and folktales which were carefully handed down from one generation to the next. Samuel Kercheval remembered that a favorite entertainment of the backsettlers during the eighteenth century was the singing of old folksongs. “The tunes were rude enough to be sure,” he wrote. “Robin Hood furnished a number of our songs; the balance were mostly tragical, and were denominated ‘love songs about murder.’” Another popular pastime was what he called “dramatic narration”:

Many of those tales were lengthy, and embraced a considerable range of incident … and were so arranged as to the different incidents of narration, that they were easily committed to memory. They certainly have been handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial.13

One of the earliest recorded folktales was a memoir published in 1859 by H. E. Taliaferro, a native of Surry County in western North Carolina.14 One of these tales told of a backcountryman named Walker who felt the call to preach, and asked his pastor for a license. The following exchange took place:


Do you believe, brother Walker, that you are called of God to preach, “as was Aaron?”


Most sartinly I does.


Give the Church, that is, the bruthering, the proof.


I was mightily diffikilted and troubled on the subjeck, and I was detarmined to go inter the woods and wrastle it out.


That’s it, Brother Walker.


And while there wrastlin, Jacob-like, I hearn one ov the curiousest voices I uver hearn in all my borned days.


You are on the right track, Brother Walker. Go on with your noration.


I couldn’t tell for the life ov me whether the voice was up in the air ur down in the sky, it sounded so curious.


Poor creetur! how he was diffikilted. Go on to norate, Brother Walker. How did it appear to sound unto you?


Why, this a-way: “Waw-waw-ker—Waw-waw-ker! Go preach, go preach, go preach, go preachee, go preach-ah, go preach-uh, go preach-ah-ee-uh-ah-ee.”


Bruthering and sisters, that’s the right sort of a call. Enough said, brother Walker. That’s none ov yer college calls, nor money calls. No doctor ov divinity uver got sich a call as that. Brother Walker must have license, fur sartin.15

This tale was recorded in the Appalachian highlands before 1830, and published in 1859. The man who told it had been born in the eighteenth century, perhaps in the English border country. He spoke a dialect that is still heard among older people in Appalachia. And his contempt for “college-calls,” doctors of divinity, learned professions, and book learning of every kind became an important part of backcountry culture.16

The importance of oral communication in the backcountry created a special form of knowing, in which testimony had a peculiar importance. The power of testimony, in turn, gave a special importance to truth-telling, which was defined in the biblical sense as not bearing false witness—an idea different from other cultures. The memoirs that come to us from this culture spoke often of the problem of truth. Thomas Meriwether in Georgia was remembered as “a man who never prevaricated … he had the greatest reverence for truth, and never violated its spirit, knowingly at least.”17 A lawyer named Thomas Gilmer was described as “a man of good sense, aided but little by reading … he was truthful and upright.”18

This obsession with truth created a curious custom in the back-country—the “lye bill,” as it was called. “If you speak of a libel in a crowd of old Georgia people,” Gilmer wrote, “they suppose that you are using a dandy phrase for lye bill … in old times a writing acknowledging that the writer had told a lie.” These curious documents were entered into the court records of the backcountry.19

An oral culture placed an exceptionally high value on speaking the truth. The penalty for lying or breaking one’s “word of honor” was ostracism from the society, and even from one’s kin. One twentieth-century lawman in the southern highlands reported from long experience that “no matter how hardened a criminal a hillman may be, those who know him insist that his word of honor would never be broken.”

This oral culture also put a high value on memory, which was often strong in proportion to the weakness of the written word. A case in point was George Mathews, a backcountry governor of

Georgia, who was barely able to read and write. “He was unlearned,” an acquaintance recalled:

when he read it was always aloud, and with the confidence which accompanies the consciousness of doing a thing well. He pronounced full the l in “would,” “should,” &c, &c, and ed at the termination of compound words with a long drawling accent. He spelt “coffee,” Kaughphy. He wrote “congress” with a k. When Governor, he dictated messages to his secretary, and then sent them to James Mason Simmons, the Irish schoolmaster, to put them into grammar.

At the same time, Governor Mathews was a highly intelligent man, capable of heroic feats of memory:

His memory was unequalled. Whilst he was a member of Congress, an important document which had been read during the session, was lost. He was able to repeat its contents verbatim.

As sheriff of Augusta County before the revolution, Mathews kept the county tax lists in his head, and “recollected for a long time the name of every taxpayer.”20

The oral culture of the backcountry had an epistemic structure that set it apart from other Anglo-American folkways. It gave great importance to experience, memory, testimony and truth-telling. It also showed an actual antipathy to fixed schemes of grammar, orthography and punctuation. Here again the four folkways of early America did not merely know different things. They also knew them differently.

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