The Culture of the Borderlanders — from Virginia to Arkansas

Although I would be the first to say that I don’t know much about real estate, I know enough to have a healthy sense of respect for the three word rule: “location, location, location.” Location doesn’t always matter in the same way, of course, but it is the factor that matters most often in the pricing and sale of a home.  Where community locations intersect with persistent historical patterns, we have the kind of data that often turns out to be pertinent to cultural history.

The school of “cultural history” associated with David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed argues that there is a multi-state region in the USA that retains a set of characteristics that were originally brought to the American frontier by “borderlanders” from Northern England and Scotland. Although I would readily admit that this category may not fit the experience of some members of the Cartwright and Starr family, there is enough about this profile that fits that I think it is worth laying out the evidence so that my Cartwright cousins can judge for themselves whether this is apt.

While multiple writers have contributed to this thesis, the two historians that I will be citing are David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard.  In their book Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, Fischer and James C. Kelly describe the “folk migration” that populated the southern end of the Shenandoah River Valley during a sixty year period beginning in 1715 when “more than a quarter of a million people  moved from the borderlands of north Britain and northern Ireland to the American backcountry.” (119)

“Many think of this migration in ethnic terms and call it Scotch-Irish or Celtic. These labels fit some emigrants but not all or even most of them. Many came not from Ireland or Scotland but from the north of England. Most did not speak the Celtic languages but English. They were very mixed in their ethnicity, religion, and place of residence. In many way, however, they shared a common culture, the product of a distinctive region that might be called the borderlands of north Britain.” (119)

“The culture of the borderlanders derived from one decisive fact. For 700 yeas the kings of England and Scotland could not agree who owned this region and fought constantly for its possession. Incessant violence  created a warrior ethic of great intensity, a family life in which the claim became an important unit of protection, a  polity defined mainly by personal loyalty, a system of age relations hat resembled the rule of tanistry (a system of tenure conferred by election upon the strongest), a structure of gender equality common to warrior cultures, an economy that rested on herding and extensive agriculture, a comity that combined high rates of internal migration with strong kin bonding,  a strident prejudice against strangers, a style of impermanent cabin architecture for ordinary folk,  a habit of religion in mobile field meetings, a special type of nescient fatalism common to people who live constantly at risk of violent death, an idea of order dominated by the  rule of lex talionis, and a concept of liberty as ‘natural freedom.'” (119, 121)

“In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, a new system of order was imposed on this region by a process as violent as the world it destroyed. Many people were set in motion by these events — some to northern Ireland, others to America. Most of the borderlanders were extremely poor, but they emigrated in family groups with strong networks for support. . .”

“Much of what Americans think of as frontier culture was adapted from the borderlands of north Britain and northern Ireland in the eighteenth century.” (121)

I would be the first to admit that it is not straightforward how one might go about tracing the ways in which the Cartwright,  Stares (Starr), Elliott and McDaniel clans that settled in Scott County, Arkansas, reflect these patterns. Even so, I am intrigued by the portrait of conflict, movement, and independence painted by Hackett and Kelly.  Should we think of Scott County as part of “Greater Appalachia,” a region marked by the folkways of the Scotch-Irish?  Even if this thesis is overdrawn, given what we know about the life and times of Jess and Millie Cartwright and their forbears, I think it is worth pondering.

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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