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Swamp Yankee is a colloquialism that has a variety of meanings. Generally, it refers to Yankees or WASPs (northeasterners with English colonial ancestry) from rural Rhode Island and nearby eastern Connecticut and southeastern Massachusetts. The term "Yankee" connotes urbane industriousness, while the term "Swamp Yankee" signifies a more countrified, stubborn, independent and less refined subtype.
Ruth Schell's 1963 article, "Swamp Yankee" in American Speech, explains in detail the characteristics and usage associated with the term. She claims that it is used predominantly in Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut and occasionally southeastern Massachusetts, to describe: "a rural dweller—one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it. Swamp Yankees themselves react to the term with slight disapproval or indifference...The term is unfavorably received when used by a city dweller with the intention of ridiculing a country resident; however, when one country resident refers to another as a swamp Yankee, no offense is taken, and it is treated as good-natured jest.".
Schell continues, "[t]he term is most frequently applied to older people and is often preceded by old. Sometimes it is shortened to swampy [or swamper]...[Swamp Yankees] were not among the religious and ambitious Pilgrims who had sailed to America on the Mayflower; but rather they were more often among the undesirables who had left England as the result of some form of misconduct and who retreated to the swamps when they arrived here." The typical swamp Yankee can be found in an old, rural general store...where in the evening four or five of the immediate countryside's swamp Yankees gather and tell stories for several hours. Such a gathering has been jocularly described as a "lying contest...The term swamp Yankee is becoming less known and may be unknown in a few generations....Probably the best reason for its disappearance is the vanishing of the swamp Yankee himself as society moves toward urban and suburban life."
At one time Swamp Yankees even had their own variety of isolated country music, according to an article written by Harvard professor, Paul Di Maggio, and Vanderbilt University professor, Richard Peterson.
Today, the term is still used in Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut and southeastern Massachusetts. In 1993, the playwright, Arthur Miller used the term in his play, The Last Yankee, to refer to a New England carpenter who was a descendant of one of the Founding Fathers. Rhode Island cartoonist Don Bousquet often parodies the "Swamp Yankee" in his cartoons. In a 2003 article in New England Quarterly about President Calvin Coolidge, Kerry W. Buckley describes Coolidge as a "swamp Yankee," defined as "scion of an old family that was no longer elite or monied."
The village of Ashaway, Rhode Island, situated on the Rhode Island/Connecticut border, sponsors a festival known as "Swamp Yankee Days" every September. The festival features traditional fare such as clam chowder, clamcakes and johnnycakes. Additionally, various bands play during the event, and activities include an antique tractor parade, a baked bean eating contest, cow chip bingo, a flea market and assorted activities for kids.
The origins of the term "Swamp Yankee" are unclear. The term "Yankee" originated in the mid-18th century, and the variation "Swamp Yankee" seems to have developed shortly after this period. Several theories speculate that Swamp Yankees were the undesirable, troublemaking New Englanders who moved to the "swamps" of southeastern New England upon arriving in the New World in the 17th century. It is possible that the term also meant that a person was unwanted in an unestablished town for having a relationship with a Native American. Others speculate that the original Swamp Yankees were colonial-era indentured servants who were paid for their service with swamp land from the farmers to whom they were indentured. Still others claim "Swamp Yankees" had relatives that fought in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip's War.
Another theory claims that the term originated during the American Revolution when residents of Thompson, Connecticut fled to the surrounding swamps to escape a feared British invasion in 1776. When the refugees arose from the swamps several weeks later, they were ridiculed and called "Swamp Yankees."
A 1912 Metropolitan Magazine article describes the son of a New England mill owner as a "Swamp Yankee.". In 1935 the New York Times labeled "Swamp Yankees" as those driven out of a New England mill town by immigrants.