I think probably the first time I heard the term Cracker was in Gone With the Wind. Maybe it’s a Southern word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used by a Westerner, at least not un-self-consciously. Many people I’ve asked have no idea what it means even though most have heard it.
I read Gone With the Wind in high school, and got the basic meaning from the context and from asking around. A Cracker is a backwoods Southerner; poor, illiterate, and bigoted.
But really I learned about Crackers in a college history class. We had a professor who tried to give us some depth, something more than just events.
One of the things he told us, several times and in several ways, is that those of us from rural Western backgrounds come from a uniquely blended culture. He made it sound special.
Our cowboy culture and country music have roots in the rural South, as indeed we do ourselves in many cases, but our politics have been shaped by 100 years of Yankee schoolmarms. In short, our ancestors didn’t lose the Civil War, so we have a variant of rural Southern culture but with a dash of New England liberalism and without the chip on our shoulders.
Do I need to say it? Of course, this is a generalization. There are exceptions. Back then I thought my Utah Mormon background made me one of the exceptions. Nowadays, I don’t buy that that for a minute.
My professor was really talking about Crackers, although it would not have been politic to call them that.
After college, as a genealogist, I learned to recognize Crackers as being the descendants of 18th century Ulster Scot immigrants. They love God, guns, and now Trump.
Fischer developed this idea further. His idea was that immigrants from northern Britain (“the Borderlands”) 1715-1775 settled in America’s “Backcountry”, becoming one of the four British folkways that contributed to American culture. Crackers.
I have quite a bit of Ulster Scot ancestry, so I’ve been almost endlessly interested in the topic. Barry McCain posted an article yesterday. I always sit and pay attention when it’s him. For this article, I have three take-aways:
- A nice summary: “They were basically a semi nomadic group who were excellent hunters, kept free range cattle and pigs, and lived in the backcountry. They were normally of Ulster ancestry, but not exclusively so.” And, “The original Crackers are also associated with free range cattle and lived in the backcountry.“
- McCain thinks the word “Cracker is the anglicised form of Creachadóir”, which in Ulster and Scots Gaelic means a “raider and freebooter”, but is “also associated with the free range cattle drovers in Ulster.” Same thing to the Elizabethan English, he says. I think he’s likely right about this. Until now I’ve accepted the theory Cracker is an anglicized form of Cracaire. They’ll talk your ear off. McCain considers this idea but he thinks the Gaelic usage is too recent.
- Contrary to my impression (and contrary to Wikipedia), McCain says the word Cracker is not derogatory. In fact, it’s a term of pride. He says: “It means you are indigenous to the South, ancestors from Ulster or northwest Britain, have roots in the Uplands or Backcountry, are independent, self-reliant, you act in an honorable way, are good with weapons, hunting, fishing, and are a man who knows how to do things. As the Southern Crackers settled Texas and the Southwest they became the Cowboy, a cultural continuum of their unique lifestyle.”
I hope it’s true the word Cracker is no longer offensive, but I’m skeptical.
- Everett Dick, The Dixie Frontier: A Social History of the Southern Frontier from the First Transmontane Beginnings to the Civil War (1948, 1964).
- David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989).
- Barry McCain, The Cracker, McCain’s Corner (July 13, 2019).