Swamp Yankees | What's in a Name?
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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…
At 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.)
The British and even the hated Hessians might be expected to give quarter, but what could be hoped for from savage Indians and Malbone’s raiders? A young boy ran from house to house spreading the alarm while the town folk rushed out to gather by “the great Elm tree” to plan the defense of their beloved town. The bonfires were lit to alert citizens on the outskirts of town of the impending danger. Should the town be defended or should the people run? Most of the available guns and ammunition had been taken by the men when they went “a-soljuring” but pitchforks and farm implements were still available. The debate was hot and heavy with the majority deciding in favor of running.
The lowlands around Thompson Hill are dense swamps today as they were two hundred years ago. There was the place to hide. Without stopping to pick up any sort of supplies the inhabitants of the town, with only a few exceptions, headed off as fast as they could for the “miry” swamp. Poor old Uncle Asa, forced to leave his pint, hobbled along after his sister complaining bitterly about not stopping for his shin plaster. History records his famous words (Uncle Asa apparently suffered from a serious speech difficulty-or possibly was missing his uppers): “Thithter, Thithter, I’ve forgot my thin plathter!”
His stalwart t sister, with an eye over her shoulder for the Redcoats, replied: “Come along, Asa, or you’ll never dress your shins again in this world!”
Sam Cheese had a musket with him into which he shoved bullets as he hurried towards the swamp. (Unfortunately he had no powder.)
Rebekah (Wilkinson) Larned had decided to stay behind with her three small children and her husband’s aged Grandmother. A fire was started in her kitchen fireplace while from the hook on the crane kettles of water were set to boil. Every available iron implement in the house was thrust into the fire to prepare a hot reception for the attackers.