Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Unable to Deliver Under the Circumstances

I have sometimes wondered how it was that David Mull (né Muhle) -- the man who built the log-cabin portion of my house -- came to America from Germany, alone, in 1740, at the tender age of nine.

Now, in the course of researching this book, I believe I have something resembling an answer. Purely speculative, but it fits the historical happenstance.

The question I've been trying to nail down is, How did Appalachia come to be settled? How did it get so poor? Where'd we get rednecks?

David was almost certainly an indentured servant. We are taught in our high-school history lessons that the indentured-servant system, which brought over millions of laborers from Europe over the course of nearly two centuries, resembled the sort of apprenticeship deal that taught young men a craft or trade for centuries in Europe. As Jim Goad puts it in The Redneck Manifesto (with a great deal of smoldering rage in his voice), "After I left history class, I carried away the idea that a cabal of muckety-muck benefactors allowed white people to learn a trade in the New World and were so effusively benevolent that they even paid for their passage across the Atlantic. I pictured Ben Franklin teaching Oliver Twist how to run a printing press, or maybe Tom Jefferson instructing the Artful Dodger in Latin."


Do you know where we get the word "kidnap"? It was a common practice in horrible old London in the late 17th century: "Spirits" -- defined by Richard Hofstadter as people who "waylaid, kidnapped or induced adults to get aboard ships for America" -- rounded up orphaned, destitute, homeless children, knocked them on the head, and delivered them up to shipping companies, who bundled them into holds every bit as horrifying as those carrying enslaved Africans, and delivered them to America. Hofstadter says that in 1731, the year Mull was born, a ship called Love and Unity sailed from Rotterdam carrying 150 German Palatines. Thirty-four of them arrived in Philadelphia.

A German musician named Gottleib Mittelberger was a paying passenger on another such voyage, this one in 1750, ten years after David arrived in America. Thirty-two children died on that trip. Howard Zinn quotes him, in A People's History of the United States:
During the journey the ship was full of pitiful signs of distress -- smells, fumes, vomiting, various kinds of sea sickness, fever dysentery, headaches, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and similar afflictions, all of them caused by the age and the high salted state of the food, especially of the meat, as well as by the bad and filthy water.... Add to all that shortage of food, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, fear, misery, vexation, and lamentation as well as other troubles. On board our ship, on a day on which we had a great storm, a woman about to give birth and unable to deliver under the circumstances, was pushed through one of the portholes into the sea.
If shanghai'ed to America like this, David would have been a Redemptioner; he'd have had to have established his indenture after arriving -- essentially selling himself to somebody while still aboard ship in the Philadelphia port before having a chance to recover from a harrowing voyage -- meaning there was no guarantee he wouldn't have been thrown into a debtor's prison (yes, we had 'em) for failing to pay the shipping company for the privilege of having enjoyed all that ship's biscuit and salted horse.

And he could have been bought and sold, too. Zinn: "An announcement in the Virginia Gazette, March 28, 1771, read: 'Just arrived at Leedstown, the Ship Justitia, with about one Hundred Healthy Servants, Men, Women and Boys.... The sale will commence on Tuesday the 2nd of April.'"

At the age of nine.

Wonder if he wasn't just a tad bitter.

But David was one of the lucky ones. He did survive, he did work out his indenture, he did establish himself as a prosperous farmer, marry, and raise a brood of children. Others weren't so fortunate. Zinn:
In general, the Indian was kept at a distance. And the colonial officialdom had found a way of alleviating the danger: by monopolizing the good land on the eastern seaboard, they forced landless whites to move westward to the frontier [which in those times was Appalachia] there to encounter the Indians and to be a buffer for the seaboard rich against Indian troubles, while becoming more dependent on the government for protection.
And that, my friends, is where we get rednecks.


Will Divide said...


Regarding the post previous, you might also find Nick Tosches' Country and Where Dead Voices Gather useful, two fine, and very quirky, studies of the early underside of pop music. His bio of Dean Martin is also pretty damn great.

Neddie said...


I'm finding a lot of cross-pollination between (particularly) Zinn's People's History and the project you were telling me about this summer at Kenyon. You might want to check it out.

Michael said...

Holy bejeezus, I understand my entire life now!

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Christ, did you read the part in that redemptioner article about what happened if you died en route? Seems if you had any family, they had to work off your debt!

Neddie said...

BSUWG: Here's Jim Goad, quoting Richard Hofstadter: "Water was so scare on the Justitia's 1743 London-to-Maryland jaunt that transported felons resorted to drinking their own urine. Almost a third of the ship's human cargo died at sea. The vessel's commander, like most provisions-embezzling ship captains caught up in the trade, picked the dead convicts clean of their belongings. He claimed that he was "Heir of all the Felons that should happen to dye under his care." "Nice guy," editorializes Goad.

figs said...

Wonder what our elitist-who-talks-like-a-redneck preznit would think about how we used to buy and sell desperate people who couldn't pay their own way...

"The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country." -W

I'm regretting my student loans more than ever.

Anonymous said...


Gotta read "Albion's Seed - Four English Folkways in America" by David Hackett Fischer. More about the Scots Irish (protorednecks)

Linkmeister said...

You might want Kevin Phillips's "The Cousins' Wars," too. He studied the English Civil War, the American Revolutions and the American Civil War and concluded "a single crucible out of which a dominant Anglo-America emerged. In each of these "cousins' wars," maintains Phillips, the catalytic groups were similar: Puritans from Eastern England (East Anglia) in the 1640s; their Yankee descendants in New England in 1775 and 1860."

kathleenmaher said...

I'm never complaining about the Staten Island Ferry again.

Anonymous said...

Am I completely off-base in thinking that the Scotch-Irish experience---massacred out of Scotland, left to marinate in a sea of angry Irish people (justifiably angry, but it should have been saved for the British rather than their co-victims), _then_ sold to America---has a lot to do with the Jacksonian attitude toward the Indians and the redneck attitude toward blacks?

Anonymous said...

"British"-->"English" above.

And speaking generally and over-broadly. Some people react to hardship by becoming saintly; still, I have yet to be convinced that mistreatment is on average a good recipe for mistreaters.

Anonymous said...

"...is not a good recipe...."

Neddie said...


Rednecks are not monolithically Scots-Irish; nor do I believe that my neighbors are racists.It wasn't poor white rednecks who controlled the slave trade; it was wealthy planters. When the indentured-service system became economically unprofitable, and the slave population became self-sustaining through reproduction, the poor whites were sent packing off to Appalachia to become a buffer between the Indians and the plantation operators.

I don't believe they had any say in the Jacksonian persecution of Indians; what kind of power did they have? They were sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and (later) coal miners and Detroit auto workers. Who listens to them?

This displaced boy of Minnesota Presbyterian and Methodist stock has heard far worse racism coming from New Yorkers and Bostonians than from his redneck neighbors, here at the edges of Appalachia.

I don't pretend to know the answers to all these questions, of course; if I had some cogent things to say, you'd hear them. But I do think that we ignore class struggle at our peril. These people have been fucked since feudal days, and they continue to be fucked today. And I also have a very strong suspicion that the "racist" label is imposed from without, by people who need to feel superior.

Look: Could they possibly have made "The Beverly Hillbillies" about any other ethnic group?

Neddie said...

I don't believe they had any say in the Jacksonian persecution of Indians; what kind of power did they have?

I say this in full cognizance of Bacon's Rebellion. The Jacksonian thing happened a full 150 years later.

Neddie said...


But before you think I'm taking you to task for automatically assuming all rednecks are racists and vice versa, let me lay this passage from Jim Goad on you. Goad's distinguishing among the common terms used to denigrate him:

"A redneck, as I define it, is someone both conscious of and comfortable with his designated state of cultural jerk. While hillbillies and white trash may act like idiots because they can't help it, a redneck does it to spite you. A redneck is someone who knows you hate him and rubs that fact in your face. A hillbilly doesn't know he's a clown, and he's happy; a redneck knows he's a villain, and he likes it. In the same way that stubborn mules are often able to make their owners look like asses, the redneck has the troublesome capacity to make ironic sport of the greater public's repulsion/fascination with him."

Kevin Wolf said...

American history is so much uglier than anybody (excepts the likes of Zinn) is willing to admit.

Neddie, I'm going to recommend another book, one I stumbled across at random in the remainder stacks at MIT, but which (despite the musical examples that I can't read) I found a quick yet informative read: Jon Finson's The Voices That Are Gone: Themes In 19th-Century American Popular Song.

I'm not sure it's exactly on point but it helped me understand better certain themes in American music. He covers courtship, death and mourning, technology (a great section on bicycle songs), minstrelsy, Indians, and the formation of the idea of America as a melting pot ("Out of Many, One? Western European Ethnicity").

Been following your thought process so far with much interest, and look forward to reading the book.

sid said...

So let's see... According to Goad, "Rednecks" are just like other rednecks in every way, except they don't like being thought of as rednecks. So, they choose to act like rednecks anyway because they think that helps their cause? And furthermore, they think this makes them worthy of respect over regular rednecks? Do "rednecks" vote republican too, but to spite the powerful?

I buy into the rednecks-as-victim/pawn idea, and I accept that a redneck can be a decent human being and a non-racist. But that Goad quote is pretty far out there.

sid said...

Or is it that "rednecks" like being rednecks because they think being looked down upon gives them power, and this makes them better than other rednecks who are ignorant that they are being laughed at and, therefore, miss the opportunity to act like idiots on purpose?

The irony is that his irony is tragic.

Kevin Hayden said...

I believe the other common term for redneck is Ugly American. And you're right. Any who haven't learned the real history has bought the American exceptionalism sales pitch without recognizing the narrow collective from which any exceptional achievements have really sprung.

Check out the Frontier Nursing Service some time. It's founder thought highly of the nobility of the Scots Irish she served.

Tom said...

I've always thought that Appalachia was settled by people who were willing to live poor in exchange for being left alone, hence its continuing isolation in relatively close proximity to huge population centers on the East Coast. Its geography and attendant difficulty of making a living off the land both encouraged and enabled moonshining and its modern successors, pot farms and meth labs.

WRT race relations... well, it varies. You might want to look up information on the Melungeons, although I think that they were limited mostly to the Cumberland Gap area. It is interesting to note the similarities between the hillbilly stereotype and the minstrel shows--exploiting a group's music while portraying them as clowns.