Backcountry Beginnings
Jessie and Wayne Lance, Co-Editors of DOLOP Family History

Editor's Note: Most of the information in this account was drawn from an excellent book on the cultural history of the United States by David Hackett Fischer: Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. We highly recommend that every DOLOP obtain a copy and read this book if you want to gain a better understanding of why we are the way we are.


As we Poteete children were growing up in Taft and Bakersfield, we did not have to be around Mother and Daddy and our other relatives very long before some mention was made of Union County, Blairsville, or Ivy Log. Early on we realized that the Georgia backcountry was an important point on the map for our parents, and they often spoke of their former home, if not with longing, at the least with nostalgia. As we traced the history of the Poteetes, Chapmans, Davenports, and other branches of our family, we have become more aware of how Georgia, North and South Carolina, and the surrounding area was one of the major places of settlement for the early immigrants to America.

And what a country in which to settle! Corrugated ridges and valleys; vast forests of deciduous trees and evergreens; and fertile grassy areas. Dogwoods and mountain laurel blooming in the spring, morning mists in the summer, a spectacle of color in the fall, and an austere beauty unique to the winter. On summer afternoons the distant hills were masked in a shimmering haze that gave the mountains their names: Great Smokey, Blue Ridge, Purple Mountains. No wonder our ancestors sought out this land in which to settle in on family farms and remain rooted to the land for generations.

Some of the anecdotes given by Guy Davenport and Dale Elliott about the Poteetes, Chapmans, and Davenports present convincing evidence of the similarities between our ancestors and the descriptions of the backcountry people presented by Professor Fischer in his cultural history of the United States. We begin to gain new insights into some of the patterns of speech of members of the William Lowery-Opla Chapman Poteete Family, the way members of our clan relate to one another, the foods preferred, and we also saw a definite resemblance in the physiognomy portrayed. Even a photograph of the old Poteete house in Georgia provided a good match to the drawing of border houses in Fischer's book. Compare the facial features of the men illustrated in Albion's Seed with the physiognomy of some of our relatives.

Verbal descriptions of the North British borderers who settled the Appalachian highlands described the average physiognomy as being tall, lean and sinewy with hard, weather-beaten, angry features. The strong emotions that were cultivated in this society left indelible marks upon them. Strength of character, force of will, courage and cruelty show forth predominantly in the above features of Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun. These vices and virtues had been nourished by the environment of the British borderlands and the American backcountry.(Fischer, pp. 643, 647, 695).

Note the likeness of the log house to the photograph of the old Poteete house found in our DOLOP family history.

"The log house did not spring spontaneously from the American forest. It was a type of vernacular architecture that had been carried out of Europe by Scandinavians, Germans and especially North British borderers. Log-building was common to all of these ethnic groups, but the idea of the cabin was brought from the borderlands. The choice of materials changed in the forests of the New World, where log walls and wooden roofs replaced stone and thatch. But the cabin plans and proportions remained very much the same. Many other forms of log architecture also appeared in America–solid New England garrison forts, fragile Swedish log houses, dovetailed Finnish plank buildings, and big German Blockhausen–but the classic American log cabin came from North Britain." (Fischer, p. 659)

Just exactly who among our ancestors came over from North Britain is yet to be determined. We cannot ignore the fact that our parents, and their parents before them, grew up in an area of the U.S. where the fabric of their lives was woven from threads peculiar to those first settlers who arrived in this land from the north of Britain. Union County, Georgia is in all of Lowery's and Opla's ten children, and their children and grandchildren carry the genes and the rich cultural heritage which make our family distinctive, and very special to each one of us.

Following is a brief explanation of how these backcountry settlers fit into the broader picture of our country's beginning:

"During the very long period from 1629 to 1775, the present area of the United States was settled by at least four large waves of English-speaking immigrants. The first was an exodus of Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts during a period of eleven years from 1629 to 1640. The second was the migration of a small Royalist elite and large numbers of indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia (ca. 1642-75). The third was a movement from the North Midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley (ca. 1675-1725). The fourth was a flow of English-speaking people from the borders of North Britain and northern Ireland to the Appalachian backcountry mostly during the half-century from 1718 to 1775" (Fischer, p. 6).

It is this fourth wave that concerns us. While not all of our immigrant ancestors may actually have been among these folk arriving during 1718 to 1775, we know that our recent ancestors in the 1800s grew up among the descendants of those fourth-wave people. Many of the immigrants who settled in the backcountry of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, came from humble origins, but they were not poor in spirit.

"This combination of poverty and pride set the North Britons squarely apart from other English-speaking people in the American colonies. Border emigrants demanded to be treated with respect even when dressed in rags. Their humble origins did not create the spirit of subordination which others expected of "lower ranks." This fierce and stubborn pride would be a cultural fact of high importance in the American region which they came to dominate." (Fischer, p. 615).

Briefly explained, the term "Border People" meant those peoples who lived in counties near the borders of England and Scotland, also those lands bordering the Irish Sea in Ireland, Wales and England. In these lands from the 16th to the 18th century there was perhaps fifty consecutive years that did not know war and every manner of human maliciousness practiced upon mankind. These people were victimized and made the pawns of kings, rapacious land holders and war lords, and were brutalized and impoverished beyond description.

The forming of clans according to blood relationships provided a bulwark for them in a world of treachery. Distrust of governments and authorities of any kind shaped their political and religious attitudes for generations to come.

This accumulation of societal traumas resulted in a massive surge of emigration to America where the already settled Americans felt so jarred by these uncouth, intractable peoples that they formed ways to encourage them to settle the dangerous "back parts" of the colony which was deemed fit only for the very young and foolhardy. The past experiences of the North Britons equipped them very well for this kind of environment and they rapidly became the dominant English-speaking culture from the Appalachian highlands on into much of the old Southwest.

We should not get the idea that this was an entirely homogeneous group of people who settled in the backcountry of southeastern United States.

"We are a mixed people," a border immigrant declared in America during the eighteenth century. "We are a mix'd medley," said another. So they were in many ways. They were mixed in their social rank, mixed in their religious denominations, and most profoundly mixed in their ancestry, which was Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish and Scottish in varying proportions. They were also very mixed in their place of residence–coming as they did from England, Scotland and Ireland."

"But in another way, these immigrants were very similar to one another. No matter whether rich or poor, Anglican or Presbyterian, Saxon or Celt, they were all a border people. They shared a unique regional culture which was the product of a place in time." (Fischer, p. 621).

We will take a brief look at just a few of the ways which made our ancestors distinctive from other groups in the United States. The reader is referred to Professor Fischer's book for many more examples from all areas of family life among the people of this section of our country.

Backcountry Speech Ways. The characteristic speech of the southern highlands is derived from the Scotch-Irish dialect, and has retained much of its uniqueness over the past 200 years.

"This southern highland speech has long been very distinctive for its patterns of pronunciation. It says whar for where, thar for there, hard for hired, critter for creature, sartin for certain, a-goin for going, hit for it, far for fire, deef for deaf, pizen for poison, nekkid for naked, eetch for itch, boosh for bush, wrassle for wrestle, chaney for china, chaw for chew, poosh for push, shet for shut, ba-it for bat, be-it for be, narrer for narrow, winder for window, widder for widow, and young-uns for young ones." (Fischer, p. 652).

It is not difficult for us to recall some of our relatives using these patterns of pronunciation. In fact, on rare occasions, some of us may even use backcountry colloquialisms. I have often wondered how the Southerners obtained their distinctive drawl; this was answered to my satisfaction in a hotel lobby in Tangier where I thought I heard the voice of Grace (Elliott) Purvis behind me. The English tourist who spoke like Grace had lived all her life in an around Cambridge, England.

Backcountry Family Ways. "The family ways of the backcountry, like its speech and building ways, were also brought from the borderlands of North Britain and adapted to a new American environment with comparatively little change." (Fischer, p. 662). The nuclear family was a strong one, with great cohesiveness. Most families were large, among the largest in British America back in the 1700's. Analysis of the 1800 census demonstrates that the "....fertility ratios in the southern highlands were 40 percent higher than in the Delaware Valley, and higher also than on the northern frontier." (Fischer pp. 666-67). A family with ten children was not atypical; in fact it was the norm.

Relationships based upon birth and marriage between and among nuclear families were also very strong, and long lasting. In some instances this was carried to the extreme of clans entering into feuds with other clans. Children grew up knowing and having intense ties to their aunts, uncles and cousins.

Gender Ways. Roles of men and women were well defined. This extended to expectations in dress and hair styles. Males were expected to be dominant and females to be dependent within the family. At times this led to "....a great aching silent distance that kept them apart." (Fischer, p. 679). This aspect of male domination even carried over to the placing of gravestones with women identified primarily as wives of their husband. (For an example, see the photograph of the gravestone for John Hudgins and for "Elizabeth, wife of John Hudgins"). The onset of age, however, set aside the gender dominance of men in the cases of some elderly women. These mountain grannies survived through decades of grueling labor and mind-shaping experiences and thereby became a force to be reckoned with in their communities. (Note the story of Lively Thomas Davenport related by Guy Davenport-See DOLOP Family History book.).

In one sense there was an expectation of equality: that was in matters of work. Women were, like men, workers! They worked together in the fields, women often tended the livestock, and some women helped with the heavy labor as well as tending the household. As time progressed, the relationship between husbands and wives was tempered by evangelical Christianity, but nevertheless, the differences were distinct.

Child Rearing Ways. Boys were raised in such a way as to be proud and with a stubborn independence. Some observers of backcountry families in the previous two centuries felt that parents were too permissive in disciplining their boys, in that male children were allowed to be loud and active. "At an early age, male children were given their own miniature weapons–an axe, a knife, a bow, even a childish gun." (Fischer, p. 689). Girls on the other hand, were raised to have the domestic virtues "...of industry, obedience, patience, sacrifice and devotion to others." (Fischer, p. 690).

Corporal punishment was freely administered when it seemed necessary.

Food Ways and Cooking. One of the staples of the backcountry people was the heavy reliance on breadstuffs "..........variously called 'clapbread', 'haverbread', 'hearth bread', 'griddle cakes', and 'pancakes'. (Fischer, p. 728). No meal was considered complete without some type of hot bread. No wonder Opla cooked so many biscuits and batches of cornbread! Pork was a favorite meat, and many vegetables appeared on backcountry tables.

Freedom Ways. "The idea of 'natural freedom' was widespread throughout the southern back settlements......The natural liberty of the borderers was an idea at once more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions, than were the other cultures of British America." (Fischer, p. 777). People from this culture could be fiercely independent, skeptical of government institutions, and convinced that they, and any person who wanted to, could achieve success on their own.

As we look at our immediate family, and the families of our children, sometimes we see evidences of these backcountry ways coming through. And from these glimpses of our past being carried into the future we take a certain amount of satisfaction, and may, at times, even feel that indeed there is yet hope for future generations!