Select Page

The Surprising Origin of the Word, Cracker

The Surprising Origin of the Word, Cracker

Generations of Florida and Georgia school children were taught that the term “Cracker” originated on the 19th century frontier of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.  It was said to refer to the bull whips used by livestock drovers as they brought herds of animals from frontier farms to coastal towns.

Sleuthing by Georgia historian, John A. Garrison has traced the term back to Medieval Gaelic and . . . would you believe . . . the plays of William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. However, the first recorded use of the term in Georgia occurred during the French and Indian War.

According to Garrison, linguists now believe the etymology of the modern English word, “cracker” to be the Gaelic word, craic, still used in Ireland, but Anglicized in spelling to crack.  In Ireland it now means “entertaining conversation.”  However, in Late Medieval Gaelic, its meaning was more akin to “blarney.”  It has entered American English in the form of “to crack a joke.”

The English meaning of cracker as a braggart appeared at least as early as the late 1500s, but probably dated to the 1530s when King Henry VIII repeatedly sent armies into Ireland in failed attempts to brutally make it all the island subject to his authority.  In Shakespeare’s King John (1595) is found, “What cracker is this . . . that deafes our ears / With this abundance of superfluous breath?”

The word entered the national vocabulary of the United States in 1884, when the Atlanta Crackers Baseball Team was formed. Throughout their history, between 1884 to 1961, the Crackers were one of most winning teams in professional baseball, even though they were never allowed to play in the major leagues. Over time, Cracker became a nationally recognized pejorative label for white Southerners, even though until recent decades, it was viewed positively by the white Southerners, themselves.

Beginning of the term in the Colony of Georgia

In early 1754, the British Parliament established a new royal charter for Georgia, which included a strong governor (appointed by the Crown), freedom of religion for all Christians and Jews, a separate district court system, plus a democratically elected bicameral legislative body. The charter was intended to be a model for all the other colonies. The “strong executive-three branches of government-bicameral legislature” concept would eventually become the model for the constitution of the United States.  A career naval officer, John Reynolds, was appointed the first Royal governor.

For thirty years, South Carolina and Georgia had argued bitterly over who owned what is now North Georgia. The Cherokees were South Carolina’s “pet Indians,” while the Creek Confederacy had been a steadfast ally of Georgia . . . frequently volunteering to “punish” the Cherokees for any transgressions in Georgia.

During the period of time in 1754, when the “lame duck” government in Savannah was waiting for Reynolds to arrive, the Creek town of Koweta launched a blitzkrieg against the entire Cherokee Alliance.  The purpose was to finally end the 40 year long war between the Cherokee Alliance and Creek Confederacy by re-conquering all territories in the northeast tip of Georgia and Western North Carolina that had originally belonged to the Koweta Creeks.  Georgia’s leaders officially ”looked the other way,” but undoubtedly furnished the enormous amount of munitions that such a major military campaign required.

The Kowetas conquered back all their territories in Georgia and North Carolina.  In the process, they burned about a third of the Cherokees’ villages and executed 32 Cherokee chiefs.  The war had started in 1715, when 32 Creek chiefs were murdered in their sleep, while attending a friendly diplomatic conference with the Cherokees. The devastated Cherokees quickly signed a peace treaty in December 1754, but for the next two centuries would tell stories about “the time in 1754 that they conquered all of North Georgia.”

When Governor Reynolds first arrived, he only heard the South Carolina side of the Koweta story and quickly began treating all the Creeks, not just the Kowetas as enemies of the Crown.  In fact, the Kowetas had been fighting as proxies for the white Georgians, who “needed to keep their hands clean.”

The French and Indian War had just begun. Reynolds arrogant treatment of the Creeks, who greatly outnumbered the whites, almost drove them into the arms of the French.  Then both Reynolds and the governor of South Carolina greatly bungled the relationship with the Crown’s other allies, the Cherokees.

By 1757, the Cherokees were raiding the frontiers of the Carolinas and Virginia.  The only thing that probably protected Augusta, GA from being wiped out by the Cherokees, was the presence of hundreds of Koweta Creek soldiers in Northeast Georgia nearby.  Reynolds was then called back to Great Britain in shame.

Reynolds was replaced by Georgia’s most competent royal governor, Henry Ellis, a Protestant Irish aristocrat.  He quickly settled the land and financial claims of the female Creek leader, Mary Musgrove.  Most long time residents of Georgia’s coast treated the Creeks as equals.  However, recently freed bond servants from the Carolinas and Virginia, particularly those from North Carolina, were causing troubles on the frontier with the Creeks.

The Creeks were accustomed to making frequent trips to Augusta and Savannah through white territory . . . and being considered the same as white travelers . .  often being invited to dine in their homes in return for furnishing the wild game for the dinner table.  However, the newly arrived Carolina bond servants treated them as vermin, and many times as hostiles. Some Creeks were shot in cold blood.

Most of these bond servants were evidently from Ireland, Ulster and Scotland.  Governor Ellis stated, “We would have no problems with the Creeks, if it was not for the constant turmoil created by those Crackers.  If only we could send them back to North Carolina, or better still, to Ireland.”

Ellis was called back to England and given a promotion to be the Colonial Secretary for the new prime minister.  He was replaced by John Wright, but spent several weeks with Wright to acquaint him with the colony.  Undoubtedly, Governor Wright was introduced to the term, Cracker, by the Irishman, Ellis.

In 1763 Governor Wright and British Superintendent for Indian Affairs John Stuart persuaded the Creeks to cede the territory between the Savannah and the Ogeechee Rivers as far north as the Little River. The Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.  This barrier funneled westward migration of the older colonies into the Georgia back country around Augusta.

Those settlers who had the land legally surveyed and recorded Governor Wright called the “better sort,” but he admitted that most were squatters who disregarded all laws. Wright and his friends called those newcomers “crackers.”  The friction between the Creeks traveling to Augusta and these poorly educated squatters worsened.

By the late 1760s, the term was evidently being applied to all Ulster Irish, Irish and Gaelic Scots settlers of the southern back country.  The label is specifically linked to the Gaelic word, craic, that means “to talk incessantly or to boast.  The  Earl of Dartmouth wrote this letter to a British official: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”
 And Now You Know!
The following two tabs change content below.
Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

7 Comments

  1. wakefieldrising@gmail.com'

    I have told the wrong tale for a long time. I stand corrected. Thanks again Richard.

    Dave Turner

    Reply
  2. ab31030@bellsouth.net'

    Your version of cracker makes sense.

    Being a retired teacher, the black students would insist that it meant white people cracking the whip on slaves. I never felt their version was correct in that you had to have some wealth to own and feed your slaves and poor whites were lucky to feed themselves. Not that whites weren’t guilty of racism, jim crow , etc.

    I always felt the term had a much more humble origin. Having Irish and Scotch ancestry, the storyteller part of me knows you have to be right.

    Reply
    • In this case, I am mainly taking the word of the linguists (if you excuse my pun) but the recorded statements of two Georgia governors appear to completely back up the linguists’ interpretation of the past.

      Reply
  3. iwg42@hotmail.com'

    Yep,
    they had to have met some of my kin in SE Georgia. They were known as excellent horse traders merchants and braggarts.
    Thanks Richard for a good laugh at myself and my family.
    Wayne Ivey

    Reply
  4. cmaxcy40@aol.com'

    My grandfather, last name Allen, was born in 1901 and grew up in lower Alabama/panhandle of Florida area. He considered himself a ‘cracker’, but I could never find any evidence that he or his family had been Florida cowboys. He was from Irish stock- this appears to make much more sense!

    Reply
    • That is very interesting Clara. This is one of the first times I have read someone connecting Irish heritage with being labeled a Cracker.

      Reply
  5. asharpbflat@wmconnect.com'

    Very interesting! I am glad you posted contemporary sources. Will share this info. Thank you!

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Richard Thornton Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to POOF via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this website and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 581 other subscribers

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!