The Patch did a piece on the origins of the term “Swamp Yankee”. A cousin of mine provided some of the details and history.
(East Haven Patch) — 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.”
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 [my great-great grandfather], 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 [My great-grandfather], 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.
This photo of William Barron, Tom’s great grandfather, shows him on his farm with his third wife and two of his younger children. Barron immigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, and traveled the world extensively before settling in the Branford area. The current Branford East Main Street runs across the former farm land. The new Branford High School was built on the property. Credit: Barron Family Archives
Tom Barron’s father, George, sits on a stool in front of his parents (front row, left) and his grandparents (front row, right). The rest of his siblings surround the parents. There was a difference of 28 years between the eldest (William) and baby George. His grandfather, William Kelsey, sports a beard much like that of great-grandson Tom Barron. Credit: Barron Family Archives
My grandfather, John Harold Barron (Howie) is in the back row directly behind William Kelsey. My family owned the land on which the town’s high school now stands. Also of note my great-grandfather was a member of the Connecticut house of representatives from 1937-1940.