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Swamp Yankees | What's in a Name?

Swamp Yankees | What’s in a Name?
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There are a number of theories as to the origin of the term “Swamp Yankees.” However, the correct one may be based on an amusing incident which occurred in Thompson, Connecticut, during the summer of 1776…

swamp yankeesAt a town meeting in Thompson, Connecticut, an attempt was made (with typical Yankee frugality) to pare the town budget by lowering the amount allocated for Civil Defense. A gentleman stood up and summed up his views on the matter by stating: “Anyway, who’s going to attack Thompson?”

Who would want to attack picturesque little Thompson? The last town in Northeastern Connecticut on the Rhode Island and Massachusetts borders, Thompson Hill (or “Quinnatisset” as it was known to the local Nipmuck Indians) is undoubtedly one of the loveliest hamlets in all New England. It has changed only slightly in appearance since the Revolution. A few “post war” houses were built in the early eighteen hundreds and some newfangled modern homes went up as recently as a hundred years ago. Thompson Hill has no vital industry; in fact there is no industry at all other than a clam cake stand near the post office. Would anyone ever attack Thompson?

In thinking of Civil Defense for Thompson Hill one must, however, consider the “alarm of the great elm” when the inhabitants of this charming little town had their only real war scare.

It was during the summer of 1776. News of the British victories were frightening the already anxious remnant of Thompson’s populace. Nearly all the able-bodied men and boys had left to fight in the war. The town was defenseless. Postmen rode between army headquarters and the local towns as fast as they were able, bringing news. Passing travelers, whose reliability as news reporters left something of a credibility gap, spread tales and rumors which they had heard. Connecticut was about to be overrun by the British! New London and Providence had both been burned to the ground! Every news item regardless of its source was swallowed whole and digested with occasional heartburn by the entire community.

Bonfires were set up on the high hills all over Windham County, ready to be lighted at the first alarm. On Killingly Hill a kettle of burning tar was to be set on the crossties of the liberty pole as a warning signal for the surrounding country.

It was during these days of tension that the warning of the Thompson “attack” came. It began in the neighboring town of Dudley, Massachusetts, where a “saucy” boy launched a verbal assault at a man who was suspected of being a Tory. The “Tory” knocked the boy down, causing loud wailings to ensue. At about the same time a courier from Boston had galloped through Dudley carrying special dispatches. In his haste he did not pause to answer questions. These two little incidents were immediately blown up with the help of a little imagination until it reached Thompson where it was reported that “four men (had been) shot down dead in Dudley Street.”

There stood on the common of Thompson at that time a popular meeting place, Captain John Sabin’s “Red Tavern.” Under an elm tree near the tavern sat lame, old “Uncle Asa” resting his game leg and partaking of a pint. The cry of alarm roused him: “The Tories are coming, the Tories are coming!”

Some inventive soul added that “Malbone’s troops” and the “Paygan” Indians were advancing from the south to meet with the British right smack in the middle of little Thompson. (Malbone was a prominent churchman and Tory from neighboring Brooklyn, Connecticut, who was much feared for his ill-reputed band of freed slaves.)

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5 Responses to Swamp Yankees | What’s in a Name?

  1. Adelina Healy July 21, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    Well, I’ll be darn. Growing up in Southbridge, MA my father would say “hey, you kids have a little “Swamp Yankee in ya! Now I know where it came from. Thank you so much for your article…..I loved it!

    Best regards,
    Adelina Healy
    Dudley, MA

  2. Jane (Goetz) Hulsopple July 21, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Born & raised in the NorthEastern area of Connecticut…. well…. that should say it all! <3
    Thanks for sharing this information to others….
    History Lessons are always the most interesting.
    Keep them coming.
    Sincerely,
    Jane
    (now living in northeastern New York… less then two hour drive from my hometown in Ct.)

  3. Matt July 21, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Our family has worn that monicker with pride for generations. Great read on the source and it was equally amusing to see the family name: WILKINSON used in the missive. I don’t recall any family members up in Thompson, but it isn’t that far away that it couldn’t be family in the story…

  4. Carl Evans July 22, 2014 at 7:09 am #

    My understanding is that the term Swamp Yankees came from the southeast ma iron industry from when they would have to harvest the muck to process out the bog ore. The legion of unskilled labor that would toil waste deep in the swamps to do this is where the term came from. This is where a great portion of the early iron came from in the nation’s infancy.

  5. JC July 22, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    Reminds me of the Frog War of Willimantic.

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