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Swamp Yankees | What’s in a Name?

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There are a number of theories as to the origin of the term “Swamp Yankees.” However, the correct one may be based on an amusing incident which occurred in Thompson, Connecticut, during the summer of 1776…

swamp yankeesAt a town meeting in Thompson, Connecticut, an attempt was made (with typical Yankee frugality) to pare the town budget by lowering the amount allocated for Civil Defense. A gentleman stood up and summed up his views on the matter by stating: “Anyway, who’s going to attack Thompson?”

Who would want to attack picturesque little Thompson? The last town in Northeastern Connecticut on the Rhode Island and Massachusetts borders, Thompson Hill (or “Quinnatisset” as it was known to the local Nipmuck Indians) is undoubtedly one of the loveliest hamlets in all New England. It has changed only slightly in appearance since the Revolution. A few “post war” houses were built in the early eighteen hundreds and some newfangled modern homes went up as recently as a hundred years ago. Thompson Hill has no vital industry; in fact there is no industry at all other than a clam cake stand near the post office. Would anyone ever attack Thompson?

In thinking of Civil Defense for Thompson Hill one must, however, consider the “alarm of the great elm” when the inhabitants of this charming little town had their only real war scare.

It was during the summer of 1776. News of the British victories were frightening the already anxious remnant of Thompson’s populace. Nearly all the able-bodied men and boys had left to fight in the war. The town was defenseless. Postmen rode between army headquarters and the local towns as fast as they were able, bringing news. Passing travelers, whose reliability as news reporters left something of a credibility gap, spread tales and rumors which they had heard. Connecticut was about to be overrun by the British! New London and Providence had both been burned to the ground! Every news item regardless of its source was swallowed whole and digested with occasional heartburn by the entire community.

Bonfires were set up on the high hills all over Windham County, ready to be lighted at the first alarm. On Killingly Hill a kettle of burning tar was to be set on the crossties of the liberty pole as a warning signal for the surrounding country.

It was during these days of tension that the warning of the Thompson “attack” came. It began in the neighboring town of Dudley, Massachusetts, where a “saucy” boy launched a verbal assault at a man who was suspected of being a Tory. The “Tory” knocked the boy down, causing loud wailings to ensue. At about the same time a courier from Boston had galloped through Dudley carrying special dispatches. In his haste he did not pause to answer questions. These two little incidents were immediately blown up with the help of a little imagination until it reached Thompson where it was reported that “four men (had been) shot down dead in Dudley Street.”

There stood on the common of Thompson at that time a popular meeting place, Captain John Sabin’s “Red Tavern.” Under an elm tree near the tavern sat lame, old “Uncle Asa” resting his game leg and partaking of a pint. The cry of alarm roused him: “The Tories are coming, the Tories are coming!”

Some inventive soul added that “Malbone’s troops” and the “Paygan” Indians were advancing from the south to meet with the British right smack in the middle of little Thompson. (Malbone was a prominent churchman and Tory from neighboring Brooklyn, Connecticut, who was much feared for his ill-reputed band of freed slaves.)

The British and even the hated Hessians might be expected to give quarter, but what could be hoped for from savage Indians and Malbone’s raiders? A young boy ran from house to house spreading the alarm while the town folk rushed out to gather by “the great Elm tree” to plan the defense of their beloved town. The bonfires were lit to alert citizens on the outskirts of town of the impending danger. Should the town be defended or should the people run? Most of the available guns and ammunition had been taken by the men when they went “a-soljuring” but pitchforks and farm implements were still available. The debate was hot and heavy with the majority deciding in favor of running.

The lowlands around Thompson Hill are dense swamps today as they were two hundred years ago. There was the place to hide. Without stopping to pick up any sort of supplies the inhabitants of the town, with only a few exceptions, headed off as fast as they could for the “miry” swamp. Poor old Uncle Asa, forced to leave his pint, hobbled along after his sister complaining bitterly about not stopping for his shin plaster. History records his famous words (Uncle Asa apparently suffered from a serious speech difficulty-or possibly was missing his uppers): “Thithter, Thithter, I’ve forgot my thin plathter!”

His stalwart sister, with an eye over her shoulder for the Redcoats, replied: “Come along, Asa, or you’ll never dress your shins again in this world!”

Sam Cheese had a musket with him into which he shoved bullets as he hurried towards the swamp. (Unfortunately he had no powder.)

Rebekah (Wilkinson) Larned had decided to stay behind with her three small children and her husband’s aged Grandmother. A fire was started in her kitchen fireplace while from the hook on the crane kettles of water were set to boil. Every available iron implement in the house was thrust into the fire to prepare a hot reception for the attackers.

One of the fleeing townsfolk called to the aged Grandmother, “Tell Becky hot irons will never do for the British.” The old Granny, widow of Justice Joseph Leavens, shrank into her chimney corner saying, “If I am to be killed by the Tories tonight, why then I shall be, so I’ll stay with Becky.”

The “Swamp” Yankees settled themselves for the night rather uncomfortably. Today’s children who love to play Indians and catch turtles and pollywogs in the same swamp come home eaten alive by the hardy New England mosquitoes. The poison ivy encountered on the way through the woods to the swamp is also notoriously virulent. There are snakes and snappers as well, abiding in that delightful spot. The thought of a night spent there makes the mind itch.

The little band of Thompsonites, as we have already heard, had neglected to bring food or drink with them. They must have thought longingly of the barrel of freshly brewed beer on tap by the doorstep of Mrs. Elizabeth (Hosmer) Alton. It was kept there all summer for the refreshment of the passing troops. Now the Redcoats would be drinking it.

Aunt Nabby summed up the thoughts of the whole hidden populace of swamp Yankees when she said: “I’d give a wedge of ‘goold’ as big as my foot for one good dram.” They would need more than one good dram to survive the mosquitoes.

Back on the hill, the implements grew hotter and hotter in the Larned home. Becky, who was known for her quick tongue and temper, would stand up to the attackers with hot words, irons and water.

In the home of old palsied Captain Merriam, the Captain spent the night with a pitchfork quivering in his hands holding closed the door to his home.

One poor old bedridden Granny had been forgotten in the flurry of leaving. She hadn’t walked a step in years, but rising to the situation she had managed to get out of bed and crawl to a cupboard where she spent the night hidden snugly away.

Lusher Gay and four of his sons were away with the army at the time of the “attack” but his two remaining sons, Joseph and Theodore, aged fifteen and seventeen, refused to run from their home. While all around them the town was frantic with fear, the boys calmly went about their evening chores, then ‘sat down to a quiet dinner in their big kitchen with their grandmother, mother and sisters. It is recounted that they had their usual evening prayer, then read “comforting words” from the great family Bible.

Night fell on the Gays, asleep in their beds. We can see Rebekah Larned keeping the kettles boiling all night long and the poor old Captain growing extremely tired holding the quivering pitchfork against the door. Then there is the forgotten Granny asleep in her cupboard safe from “Malbone’s raiders.” Perhaps it is best not to think of the night in the “miry” swamp.

The morning light hit first upon the hill, then oozed slowly down into the swamp. Our bitten, drippy, sweaty, itchy swamp Yankees decided that it was safe to come out of hiding. They dragged themselves along while the swamp tugged at their shoes. Uncle Asa’s leg hurt. They were all hungry and tired. The women’s skirts, wet and muddy, slapped against their mosquito-eaten legs. It was a sorry crew that trailed out of the swamp, back through the woods and up to “the hill.” The brave defenders of the town came out to their front steps to watch the swamp Yankees slosh by. We will not dwell on the words of derision which greeted the ears of the bedraggled “swampers” but we will note that accounts of the story tell how laughter spread as the tale was told and retold throughout Windham County reaching at last the soldiers at camp. So perhaps Thompson could safely cut it’s Civil Defense budget. After all-the swamp is still there.

Excerpt from “Thompson’s Swamp Yankees,” Yankee Magazine, July 1969.

Comments
  • My understanding is that the term Swamp Yankees came from the southeast ma iron industry from when they would have to harvest the muck to process out the bog ore. The legion of unskilled labor that would toil waste deep in the swamps to do this is where the term came from. This is where a great portion of the early iron came from in the nation’s infancy.

    Reply
  • Our family has worn that monicker with pride for generations. Great read on the source and it was equally amusing to see the family name: WILKINSON used in the missive. I don’t recall any family members up in Thompson, but it isn’t that far away that it couldn’t be family in the story…

    Reply
  • Born & raised in the NorthEastern area of Connecticut…. well…. that should say it all! <3
    Thanks for sharing this information to others….
    History Lessons are always the most interesting.
    Keep them coming.
    Sincerely,
    Jane
    (now living in northeastern New York… less then two hour drive from my hometown in Ct.)

    Reply
  • Adelina

    Well, I’ll be darn. Growing up in Southbridge, MA my father would say “hey, you kids have a little “Swamp Yankee in ya! Now I know where it came from. Thank you so much for your article…..I loved it!

    Best regards,
    Adelina Healy
    Dudley, MA

    Reply

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