A Slaveholder's View of the "Poor White Trash"

From a chapter entitled "Poor White Trash," in Daniel R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860)


Southern elite attitudes toward poorer nonslaveholders were often surprisingly critical. This Alabama author's account describes some of the lifestyle patterns that separated those in the upcountry from those living in the wealthy plantation districts. It also suggests why many non-slaveholding whites in the Appalachian mountain areas were less than enthusiastic about Secession. The term "Poor White Trash," the author claims, came from the slaves themselves.

The reader should also notice the criticisms of the free states scattered throughout here. He is particularly hard on Boston and Massachusetts, the center of abolitionist agitation--MF.


"To form any proper conception of the condition of the Poor White Trash, one should see them as they are. We do not remember ever to have seen in the New-England States a similar class. . . .But everywhere, North and South, in Maine or Texas, in Virginia or New-York, they are one and the same; and have undoubtedly bad one and the same origin, namely, the poor-houses and prison-cells of Great Britain. Hence we again affirm, what we affirmed only a moment ago, that there is a great deal more in blood than people in the United States are generally inclined to believe."

"Now, the Poor White Trash are about the only paupers in our Southern States, and they are very rarely supported by either the State or parish in which they reside; nor have we ever known or heard of a single instance in the South, in which a pauper was farmed out by the year to the lowest or highest bidder, (whichever it be,) as is the custom in the enlightened States of New-England. Moreover, the Poor White Trash are wholly rural; hence, the South will ever remain secure against any Species of agrarianism, since such mob violence always originates in towns and cities, wherein are herded together an unthinking rabble. . . ."

"The Poor Whites of the South live all together in the country, in hilly and mountainous regions generally, in communities by themselves, and far removed from the wealthy and refined settlements. Why it is they always select the hilly, and consequently unproductive districts for their homes, we know not. It can not be, however, as urged by the abolitionists, because the slaveholders have seized on all the fertile lands; for it is well known, that some of the most inexhaustible soils in the South have never yet felt the touch of the ploughshare in their virgin bosoms, and are still to be bad at government prices. Neither can it be pleaded in behalf of the Poor White Trash, that they object to labor by the aide of slaves; for, as we have already shown, the Southern Yeomanry, who, as a class are poor, work habitually in company with Negroes, and usually prefer to own a homestead in the neighborhood of wealthy planters. We apprehend, therefore, that it is a natural feeling with Messrs. Rag Tag and Bobtail--an idiosyncrasy for which they themselves can imagine no good reason--why they delight to build their pine-pole cabins among the sterile sand hills, or in the very heart of the dismal solitude of the burr-oak or pine barrens. We remember to have heard an overseer who bad spent some time among the Sandhillers, relate something like the following anecdote of a youthful Bobtail whom be persuaded to accompany him out of the hill-country into the nearest alluvial [rich river flatland] bottoms, where there was any number of extensive plantations in a high state of cultivation, which will aptly illustrate this peculiarity of the class. So soon as the juvenile Bobtail reached the open country, his' eyes began to dilate, and his whole manner and expression indicated bewilderment and uneasiness 'Bedadseized!' exclaimed he at last, 'ef this yere ked'ntry haint got nary sign ov er tree I How in thunder duz folks live down yere? By G-o-r-j! this beats all that Uncle Snipes tells about Carlina. Tell yer what, I'm goin' ter make tracks fur dad's--yer heer my horn toot!' And be did make tracks for dad’s sure enough."

"In the settlements wherein they chiefly reside, the Poor Whites rarely live more than a mile or two apart. Each householder, or head of a family, builds him a little but of round log; chinks the spaces between these with clay mixed with wheaten straw ; builds at one end of the cabin a big wooden chimney with a tapering top, all the interstices being "dobbed" as above; puts down a puncheon floor, and a loft of ordinary boards overhead; fills up the inside of the rude dwelling with a few rickety chairs, a long bench, a dirty bed or two, a spinning-wheel (the loom, if any, is outside under a shed,) a skillet, an oven, a frying-pan, a triangular cupboard in one corner, and a rack over the door on which to hang old Silver Heels, the family rifle; and both the cabin and its furniture are considered as complete. The happy owner then "clears" some five acres or so of land immediately surrounding his domicile and these be pretends to cultivate, planting only corn, pumpkins, and a little garden truck of some kind or other. He next builds a rude kennel for his dog or dogs, a primitive-looking stall for his 'nag,' ditto for old Beck his cow, and a pole hen-house for his poultry. This last he covers over with dirt and weeds, and erects on one side of it a long Slim pole, from the upper branches whereof dangle gourds for the martins to build their nests in-martins being generally regarded as useful to drive off all bloody-minded hawks that look with too hungry an eye upon the rising generation of dung-hills. Being thus prepared for house-keeping, now comes the tug of war."

"But, whatever may be said of the poverty of Rag Tag and Bobtail, of their ignorance and general spiritual degradation, it is yet a rare thing that any of them suffer from hunger or cold. As a class, indeed, they are much better off than the peasantry of Europe, and many a poor mechanic in New-York City even--to say nothing, of the thousands of day-laborers annually thrown out of employment on the approach of winter--would be most happy at any time from December to March, to share the cheerful warmth of the blazing pine fagots which glow upon every poor man's hearth in the South; as well as to help devour the fat haunches of the noble old buck, whose carcass hang in one corner suspended from one of the beams of the loft overhead, ready at all times to have a slice cut from its sinewy hams and broiled to delicious juiciness upon the glowing coals."

"Indeed, the only source of trouble to the Sandhillers is the preservation of their yearly 'craps' of corn. Owing to the sterileness of their lands, and deficient cultivation, that sometimes fails them, running all to weeds and grass. But they have no lack of meats. Wild hogs, deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, opossums-these and many more are at their very doors; find they have only to pick- up old Silver doors; walk a few miles out into the forest, and return home laden with meat enough to last them a week. And should they desire to purchase a little wool for spinning, or cotton ditto, or a little "swat’ning" to put in their coffee and their "sassefack" tea or a few cups and saucers, or powder and shot, salt, meat, or other household necessaries- a week's successful hunting invariably supplies them with enough venison to procure the wished-for luxuries, which they soon possess themselves of accordingly, from the nearest village or country store. Having obtained what they want they hasten back again to their barren solitudes; their wives and daughters spin and weave the wool or cotton into such description of cloth as is in most vogue for the time being; while the husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, betake themselves to their former idle habits--hunting, beef-shooting, gander-pulling, marble-playing, card-playing, and getting drunk. Panics: financial pressures, and the like, are unknown amongst them, and about the only crisis of which they know anything, is when a poor fellow is called upon to "shuffle off this mortal coil." Money, in truth, is almost a perfectly unknown commodity in their midst and nearly all of their trafficking is carried on by means of barter alone. In their currency a cow is considered worth so much, a horse so much, a dog so much, a fit buck so much, a wild-turkey so much, a coon-skin so much, et cetera, et cetera; and by these values almost everything else is rated. Dollars and dimes, or pounds, shillings and pence, they never bother their brains any great deal about."

"The chief characteristic of Rag Tag and Bobtail, however, is laziness. They are about the laziest two-clogged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth. Even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl, worse a deal sight than the most down-eastern of all the Down-Easters while their thoughts and ideas seem likewise to creep along at a snail's pace. All they seem to care for, is, to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor; to shoot for beef; to hunt; to attend gander pulls; to vote at elections; to eat and to sleep; to lounge in the sunshine of a bright summer's day, and to bask in the warmth of a roaring wood fire, when summer days are over, and the calm autumn stillness has given place to the blustering turbulence of hyemal storms. We do not believe the worthless ragamuffins would put themselves to much extra locomotion to get out of a shower of rain; and we know they would shiver all day with cold, with wood all around them, before they would trouble themselves to pick it up and build a fire: for we recollect to have heard an anecdote of a gentleman who was once traveling through a section of country peopled by Sandhillers, on a cold and raw winter’s day, when be chanced to come up with a squad of great strapping lazy bumpkins on the side of the road in a woods, sitting all huddled up and shivering around the smouldering remains of what had once been a fire. The traveler was himself quite chilled, and thought it prudent to stop and warm before proceeding any further on his journey. But imagine his astonishment on asking the miserable scamps why they had suffered their fire to burn so low, to hear them answer, that they "were afeared they mout git too cold pickin' up sticks!" Very humanely he gathered together a pile of dry brushwood lying close at hand, built up in a little while a roaring fire, warmed himself, and again mounting his horse, rode on his way; leaving the great loutish clowns quarreling among themselves, as to which one of them was entitled to the warmest side of the fire!"

"In physical appearance, the Sandhillers are far from prepossessing, Lank, lean, angular, and bony, with flaming red, or flaxen, or sandy, or carroty-colored hair, sallow complexion, awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief; they present in the main a very pitiable sight to the truly benevolent, as well as a ludicrous one to those who are mirthfully disposed. If any thing, after the first freshness of their youth is lost, the women are even more intolerable than the men- owing chiefly to their disgusting habit of snuff-dipping, and even sometimes pipe-smoking. The vile practice of snuff-dipping, prevails sometimes also among the wives and daughters of the Yeomanry [that is, respectable nonslaveholders], and even occasionally among, otherwise intelligent members of the Southern Middle Classes, particularly in North-Carolina. The usual mode is, to procure a straight wooden tooth-brush made of the bark of the hickory-nut tree preferred chew one end of the brush until it becomes soft and pliant, then dab the same while still wet with saliva into the snuff-bottle, and immediately stick it back into the mouth again with the fine particles of snuff adhering; then proceed to mop the gums and teeth adroitly, to suck, and chew, and spit to your heart’s content Ah!  It is almost as decent [a]s smoking cigars, and is fully as distingué as chewing tobacco!"

"Being usually addicted to this filthy and disgusting vice, or whatever else one may choose to call it, it is not at all strange that the female Sand-hillers should so soon lose all trace of beauty, and at thirty are about the color of yellow parchment, if not thin and pale from constant attacks of fever. Besides, they are quite prolific, and every house is filled with its half dozen of dirty, squalling, white-headed little brats, who are familiarly know as Tow-Heads–on account of the color of their hair, as well as its texture and generally unkempt and matted condition. In the main the entire family, both male and female, occupy the same apartment at all hours of the day and night just as do the small farmers of the North-west, or the very poor in all large cities. But it is a rare circumstance to find several families huddled into one poor shanty, as is more often the case than otherwise with those unfortunates in cities who are constrained to herd together promiscuously in tenant -houses and in underground cellars On the contrary, each Sandhiller has his own lowly cabin, and whilst it is sad to contemplate the hard necessity which forces father and mother, sons and daughters, all to live in the same narrow room; still it is pleasant to believe, that the sacred nature of the relationship between the parties, casts a veil of modesty over the scene, which is wanting where two or more stranger families are thus promiscuously thrown together in such close contact."

"Of course, intelligence of all kinds is at a low ebb with Messrs. Rag Tag and Bobtail. Few of them can read, fewer still can write, while the great mass are native, genuine Know-Nothings, though always democratic in their political faith and practice. Indeed, puzzled to comprehend for what other purpose the miserable wretches were ever allowed to obtain a footing in this country, we have come to the honest conclusion, that it was providentially intended, in order that by their votes, however blindly and ignorantly cast, they should help to support the only political party which has been enabled thus far to maintain a National organization [that is, the Democrats]. Nor can they be blamed for voting the democratic ticket, live they in the North or the South; for to the democratic party do they owe the only political privilege which is of any real use to them-the privilege of the elective franchise. This fact, indeed, is nearly the sum total of their knowledge of our Government or its history. They remember Washington because he was the Founder, if we may so speak, of the Republic: they remember Thomas Jefferson because he effected the change in the policy of the country, whereby they became sovereign freemen, the voice of each one of them counting one, while that of an Astor or a Girard could count no more: and they remember General Jackson because he whipped the British so bad at New-Orleans, and afterwards, while he was President, dared to " remove the Deposits" in the teeth of opposition from all the moneyed men in the nation [this a reference to his war on the Bank of the US]; and it is said that, in certain very benighted districts of Central New-York and the mountains of East-Tennessee, General Jackson is voted for still at every presidential election."

"In religion, the Poor Whites are mostly of the Hard-Shell persuasion, and their parsons are in the main of the Order of the Whang Doodle. They are also very superstitious, being firm believers in witches and goblins; likewise old-time spiritualists, or, to render our meaning plainer, believers in fortune-telling after the ancient modes-such as palm-reading, card-cutting, or the revelations of coffee-grounds left in the bottom of the cup after the fluid has been drained off. Poor simple souls! They have not yet risen to the supernal glories of table tipping, horn-blowing, and the other modern improvements in the mode of consulting such as have familiar spirits: for, although these boast that they number a million or so of adherents in the more enlightened Free States, we suspect they could hardly drum up in the entire South one thousand fools credulous enough to embrace their miserable dogmas. Yet in scarcely a settlement of Poor Whites will you fail to find some gray-bearded old crone, who professes to be able to tell you all about your past life, as well as to predict what is to be your future career: but she does not charge very exorbitant prices for her disclosures, being well satisfied to receive the small sum of twenty-five cents for each consultation. Whereas, in the enlightened city of New-York, in which are hundreds of professed star-readers, (the united annual incomes of nineteen of these Professors of the Black Art being one hundred thousand dollars and where, it is said, sixteen hundred persons are foolish enough every week to consult such damnable impostors; the regular fee varies from one to five dollars. Besides, this can also be said in behalf of the old women among the Sandhillers who tell fortunes; they never use their pretended gifts for the purpose of entrapping poor but silly girls, into such peculiar institutions as are kept by our virtuous and refined Dawsons: which is more than can be said of one half those dirty dens of superstition which flourish in the very centers of our refinement and civilization, and the proprietors of which dare, with unblushing audacity, to advertise in the daily press the location of their horrid penetralia.

"Another evil which prevails greatly among the Sandhillers. . .is the iniquitous practice of drinking alcoholic beverages to excess. And then, too, such vile stuff as the poor fellows are wont to imbibe. Too lazy to distill honest peach or apple brandy, like the industrious yeomanry, they prefer to tramp to the nearest groggery with a gallon jug on their shoulders, which they get filled with " bust-head," "rot-gut" or some other equally poisonous abomination ; and then tramp home again, reeling as they trudge along, and laughing idiotically, or shouting like mad in a glorious state of beastly intoxication. . . ."

"To so great an extent are Rag Tag and Bobtail addicted to this shameful vice, that, in those Congressional districts in which they mostly abound, as we were once told by a Southern member of' Congress, no person who is temperate and lives cleanly and like a gentleman, and who will not therefore condescend to drink and hurrah with Tom, Dick, and Harry, need ever hope for political preferment. And the character of our informant bore ample testimony to the truthfulness of his assertion; for a more drunken and besotted wretch we should hardly wish to see. He said, that, in certain parts of his district, the "red-eye" was passed around in an old tin coffee-pot, and every man helped himself by "word of mouth" whatever this slang expression may mean. And we may here observe, this accounts for the great dissimilarity in the character of our Southern Congressmen. While these all are more or less innocent of any participation in the corrupt practices of those Forty Congressional Thieves, who have brought such deserved opprobrium upon our National Legislature; and while as a general thing, there is more of good-breeding, of gentlemanly bearing, of chivalric tone and statesmanlike deportment about the Southern Representatives than most others-still, it can not be safely denied that some of them are nothing better than tippling, gambling, and debauched libertines, not a whit more intelligent or honest than the corrupt ward politicians of our large cities; men who never make a speech in our Legislative Halls for any other purpose than Buncombe. Which is true likewise of many Northern Congressmen-especially of those who live in the North-west where lager-beer and corn juice have in a measure usurped the place of wholesome water."

". . . .The Poor White Trash rarely possess energy and self-reliance enough to emigrate singly from the older Southern States to the South-west, but usually migrate by whole neighborhoods; and are thus to be seen nearly every summer or fall plodding along together, each family having its whole stock of worldly goods packed into a little one-horse cart of rudest workmanship, into which likewise are often crowded the women and children, the men walking, alongside looking worn and weary. Slowly thus they creep along day by day, camping out at night, and usually carrying, their own provisions with thin-bacon, beans, corn-meal, dried fruit and the like simple and unassuming fare. 'When they reach a large river whose course leads in the proper direction, they build them a rude kind of flat-bottomed boat, into which, huddling with all their trips, they suffer themselves to drift along with the current down to their place of destination. Having reached which, they proceed immediately to disembark, and to build their inevitable log cabins, squatting at their free will and pleasure on Uncle Sam's domain; for they seldom care to purchase land, unless they can get it at about a "bit" an acre. Owing to this custom of occupying the public lands without making entry of the same according to law, in most of the new Southern States the Poor Whites are almost invariably known as Squatters. When the lands temporarily occupied by them, finally come into market, the Squatters once more hitch up their little one-horse carts, pile in all their worldly store, together with their wives and little ones, and again facing to the westward, go in search of their New Atlantis-which the poor creatures find so soon as they get beyond the limits of civilization; when they "squat" as before, raise their little "craps" of corn and garden truck, shoot bears, deer, and Indians, and vegetate generally like all other nomadic races. And thus will Rag Tag and Bobtail continue to pass further and further westward and southward, until they will eventually become absorbed and lost among the half-civilized mongrels who inhabit the plains of Mexico; unless it should chance that some new life and energy shall be instilled into them during their sojourn on our Western frontier, both by contact with the hardy race of backwoodsmen and hunters who there abound, and the stern necessity of learning to defend themselves against the predatory bands of Camanches and Arapahoes, who are always prowling, around, seeking whom they may scalp and plunder. If such a life fail to work a change for the better in the miserable wretches, we are inclined to think their ultimate absorption by Mexico will prove a happy riddance to us; for they are of so little account at present, that, could every one of them be blotted out of existence tomorrow, neither the South nor the North, nor the commercial world would be any the poorer for their loss. Let us cherish a hope, however, that the experiences of a rough border-life will in time regenerate Rag Tag, and Bobtail, and render them at some future period both useful and ornamental citizens of our great Republic. Homo sum, et humani a me nil alienum puto, said Terence, and so say we: and we congress, moreover, that we feel for the humblest descendant of our common father Adam, a brotherly sympathy. Not, however, of the patent sort, of the popular double-self-acting-backward sort, kind Sir, which leads your worship into the gross errors of socialism, communism, and the like stuff and nonsense [this is a dig at the North], but a rational sympathy which would lead us to give ten talents to the man endowed with sufficient capacity to use ten talents; to give five talents to him who could only manage five; and three talents to another whom five would make a fool of; but not even one talent to the poor imbecile, who, not knowing the value of the gift, would surely wrap it up in a napkin and bury it in the ground, or else throw it away entirely as something worthless and unprized.

"The Poor Whites of the South seldom come in contact with the slaves at all, and thousands of them never saw a Negro; still, almost to a man, they are pro-slavery in sentiment. Unlike the Southern Yeomen, who are pro-slavery because these dread the consequences to the humbler whites of the emancipation of the Negroes, and because also they are intelligent enough to understand what would be the nature of these consequences; the Poor White Trash are pro-slavery from downright envy and hatred of the black man. We presume this feeling must have originated many years ago when the pauper ancestors of the Sandhillers were first "laid on shore," as our worthy ancestors expressed it like all other "goods, wares, and merchandise," and very possibly met with a somewhat supercilious reception at the bands of the powdered and bejewelled body-servants of the grand old cavaliers of those times. The blacks on their part too, reciprocate the feeling of hatred at least and look with ineffable scorn on a "po' white man."

The author then goes on end his chapter by addressing the northern reader in an aside: "Unconsciously to yourself you have been advocating all this time only a new species of agrarianism [Communism or Socialism or some other form of radicalism]. Unconsciously you have been sowing the wind, and sooner or later will surely reap the whirlwind for your pains. Already your laborers, your operatives, your journeymen mechanics and others, secretly moot the question: How it happens they remain so poor, while their employers are constantly growing richer and richer; build their marble palaces, educate their children in idleness and dissipation, and besides spend half their own days tuft-bunting and toad-eating upon the continent of Europe. Already, we repeat, this terrible question is being mooted in secret conclave; and should the time ever come when it shall be mooted openly-when loudmouthed and earnest men, fresh from the people, shall bestride Faneuil Hall [in Boston], bawling for an equal and exact distribution to every mechanic of whatever craft, to every operative of whatever mills, to every laborer of whatever grade-bawling, we say, for an equal and exact distribution to the workmen of the net proceeds combined labor; and denouncing in the same breath pampered capitalists, as so many lordlings growing rich on the earnings of the moiling and toiling poor, reaping where they have not sown, and gathering where they have not scattered; upon what plausible pretext will you, Sir, then seek to gainsay them? You will have none. Dumb and quaking with fear you would be constrained to acquiesce in their logic; for they would only use in their own behalf the identical arguments you have assiduously tried to impress upon their minds for ten years and more, in order to persuade them to interfere in the affairs of their neighbors.

"But you think we are begging the question? You think such a terrible chimera never has troubled the thoughts of the sober citizens of New-England? You feel assured that men and women, little boys and girls, can stand to work from ten to thirteen hours every day, winter and summer, in heat and in cold, making at that only a beggarly pittance which barely suffices to keep body and soul together; and yet never once inquire, honest souls I bow it chances that their employers, who neither toil nor yet do spin, are still reckoned among the merchant-princes of the land, dress in fine broadcloth and spotless linen, and in every other respect fire sumptuously every day? Oh! dear, no; you couldn't begin to think of such a thing. Why should you? Your Reverence is paid from three to five thousand dollars per annum for talking billingsgate religion, maudlin sentimentality, anal a cheap philanthropy, and of course it never occurs to you that what is so profitable to your individual self, is yet sowing broadcast the seeds of many future disasters to the Constitution and the Union. It never occurs to you, O astute politician, that those whom you so earnestly teach how to remedy the sad lot of others, are all the time, although unread in classical lore, revolving over in their minds the sentiment so often quoted from Horace: -Mutato nomine, de te Fabula narratur. [The Latin means something like, change the name, and the story could be about you too--MF] But, we have written that this question is even now agitating the breasts of thousands of the sons of toil in New-England; and what we have written that do we know to be true. For we have heard it discussed in whispers, and under one's breath as it were, within the very shadows of Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument. Nay, within the classic precincts of old Harvard, under the venerable elm trees which there spread so far-reaching their umbrageous boughs, as well as in the shadow alcoves of her magnificent Library; we have heard agrarian utterances from learned schoolmen, and collegians-utterances alike antagonistic to the spirit of our Federal Constitution, and the generally accepted ideas in regard to the laws of meum and tuum [mine and yours]. We have there heard ultra anti-slavery men, when driven to the wall by force of irresistible argument, confess that they equally abhorred capitalists as slave holders; and that the only reason why they did not wage as relentless war upon the rich men of the Free States, is upon the Southern Oligarchs, was owing entirely to the dictates of policy. The time has not come yet, was the plea they invariably set up; but after disposing of the Chivalry, then would come the turn of their own rich men. . . ."