A Rowdy Backcountry Household, August 23rd, 1806

By Benjamin Henry Latrobe  (1764–1820)


From “The Journal of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1794-1820 from Philadelphia to New Orleans,” Vol. 3, Edward C. Carter III, editor, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1980, p. 84.


“In my trip to the quarries I have remarked upon the hundreds of half-starved, miserably lodged, idled, besotted and ague and fever-smitten families, that inhabit the country on the Patowmack, and indeed I may say all the country of the slave states below the mountains.


“These people are either tenants to great landholders, or possess little farms themselves, or only inhabit miserable log houses and hire themselves occasionally as laborers.  The river and creeks supply them most amply, in common seasons with shad and herrings at the expense of a little labor and salt.  A few pigs and fowls and a cow are kept with scarcely any expense in the woods.  The pigs furnish bacon. The little labor they do for themselves (and generally they cultivate a little land), gives them as much corn as supports them, and vegetables, that is, cabbage, to their bacon, groceries, and the great source of their whiskey.  To the wretched animals in the form of women with whom they cohabit, they are not always married.  These beasts of burthen are absolutely slaves to their sottish husbands.  They spin a little and make up household cloths, cotton chiefly, and also lindsey, and earn a little whiskey by spinning for more decent wealthy families and neighbors.  This tribe of wretched (I am told they are happy) families is numerous enough and their votes at an election are not unimportant. . . .  “A friend said (to Latrobe): “The ague and fever they don’t mind it half as much as you do . . . But the dripping of their huts, the open state of their log walls, which admit the winter’s blast from every quarter, their wretched food, often scanty, never certain, their constant fighting and quarreling with each other.  The beaten wives, the horned husbands, the filthy diseases of poverty itch-scald heads.  There is always some dry corner under their dripping roofs and if they get wet, whiskey keeps the cold out.  Whiskey is better than a tight wall against a northwestern gale. Whiskey is a substitute for all solid food.  (The ‘friend’ continued: - ED): “And an hour’s labor earns a day’s drunkenness, fighting is an amusement and all quarrels are made up over a glass of whiskey; beaten wives, find more than comfort enough in whiskey; and horned husbands, besides the whiskey, find pleasure in beating their wives. As to itch and all these matters, they care less about than you do a mosquito bite.  What can be said of all this? These dogs are independent of every human being; they are saucy, care not a damn of the best gentleman in the land, own no control, either of morals, manners, principles, law, and have no master but whiskey.”