Thursday, January 5, 2012

Swamp Yankees

I'm from a family of Swamp Yankees, and I have proof.

If you're wondering what the heck I'm referring to, you must not be a New Englander.  Here, a Swamp Yankee is the equivalent of a Southern Redneck, or as close to it as I can imagine.  While looking for an "official definition" I turned to Wikipedia, and found this: "The term "Yankee" connotes urbane industriousness, while the term "Swamp Yankee" signifies a more countrified, stubborn, independent and less refined subtype."   That definition seems to be a bit of a euphemism.  Everyone knows that Swamp Yankees are not of Mayflower ancestry nor of good Puritan stock, but descended of the less desirable immigrants who left England, and retreated to the swamps of New England to live as they pleased, unencumbered by society in general. The term "Yankee" seems to be positive, while "Swamp Yankee" is definitely a more pejorative term. 

My proof is the Wilkinson Swamp in Effingham, New Hampshire.  There is even a Wilkinson Brook and a Wilkinson Swamp Road in Effingham.  Descendants of Thomas Wilkinson of Portsmouth lived there, and still live in the area.  We even summered at Lake Balch without even knowing we had cousins nearby.  It was in carefully reconstructing the family tree, with local vital records, that I recently found this branch of the family.  This is an interesting part of New Hampshire, where Route 153 winds into Maine, and then back into New Hampshire, and back in to Maine. Lake Balch straddles both states.  In 2000 Effingham had a total population of 1,200 people. 

Carroll County, New Hampshire
Effingham is located on the Maine border
In my book, the Swamp Yankees are salt of earth types.  They may seem laconic, but are willing to share and befriend anyone, regardless of status or origin.  They may not be the wealthy branch of the family, but they are the most interesting!   No pretentions here. They'll pull up a rocking chair on the front porch and watch the out of staters bid on junk from the barn, and make a profit off of it.  You've seen them, with the bathtubs being recycled as watering troughs for the cow in the pasture, and every car they've ever owned parked in the dooryard just in case scrap parts are needed in the future...

My Dad would have loved to have met this branch of the family.  During summer vacations he used to scour the area around Lake Balch for junk yards, antiques and oddities.  We even ate breakfast regularly in a hardware store, which was of endless fascination to me as a little girl.  It was fun to eat pancakes and look around at bait, tools and toilet plungers. (Mom wasn't so sure it was fun.)  Every week we visited an old barn in Parsonsfield, Maine that was stuffed with things for sale such as musty books, stuffed moose heads and strange farm implements.  My Dad would spend the afternoon wrangling the price down on something odd to bring home. Maybe the guy who owned the barn was a distant cousin?

The Little Red Convertible in 2008, near Lake Balch,
at the old barn full of "antiques" in Parsonsfield, Maine
Through the power of Google I found the following excerpt about a Wilkinson who lived in Effingham.  It is amazing to me how this one little scrap of a story brought the family alive in my imagination:

"The following pages tell of good neighbors and bad, community pillars and local characters, well-to-do folks, and those not so, hard work and memorable fun times; all of these are seen through the eyes of a city boy [Allen Crabtree] transplanted with his family to the wilds of a small New Hampshire town....

There used to be a fella by the name of Henry Wilkinson. Henry had a Model T Ford truck chassis that he'd built a house on. He used to come up over to Clough City and stay in the yard where Charles Edwards lived, spend his summers fishing, and go trapping in the fall. They used the house, but they had their motor home there. Henry was 75 years old and had worked in the Haverhill hospital tool shop. He was born on the Wilkinson Road, and he taught me how to set traps for mink and also showed me how to catch trout in Wilkinson Brook. You could see trout 8, 10, 12 inches long laying in the pools there, and you couldn't get them to bite, but Henry showed me how to fish those holes and catch those fish.

My brother John and I used to walk out there three, four nights a Week to play cards with him and Mrs. Green. Sometimes it'd be ten o'clock before we'd leave, and we used to walk back home. When we came by that big rock where the headless man is supposed to be on moonlit nights, we used to kind of shy through there. We never happened to see that guy, and haven't seen him yet, but we were sure he was there somewhere just waiting to jump us!"

The William Henry Wilkinson from the story was born on 3 January 1850 in Effingham, and died 12 January 1934 in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  He is my second cousin 4 generations removed.  William was the son of Rufus Wilkinson and Catherine Bunker, who had 10 children and at least eight were born in Effingham.  Rufus Wilkinson was the grandson of James Wilkinson (about 1730 - about 1800) and Hannah Mead (1730 - 1759), my 5x Great Grandparents.

William Henry Wilkinson was married three times, in 1870 to Emma Hayden, in 1888 to Estelle V. Saunders, and last in 1922 to Alice F. Tilton.  William had three children with Estelle,  all born in New Hampshire or Maine.  He was a machinist at the Haverhill Water Works and is buried at the Linwood Cemetery.  I previously blogged about a news clipping of William Henry Wilkinson, describing how he owned the first automobile in Haverhill.  This Stanley Steamer as probably also the first car to have an accident in Haverhill, too!  You can read about it at this link:


"Uncle Charlie's Tapeworm and other Effingham Yarns" as told by Allen F. Crabtree, Jr. to Allen F. Crabtree III,   accessed on March 18, 2004


Click here to see the descendants of Thomas Wilkinson, or see the link at the top of the page


Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Heather, I found this story fascinating. Although I am a New Englander, the swamp Yankee term is new to me. Great details involving the area around Balch and as always beaittiful writing. Jen

  2. Another version of swamp Yankee as I understood it was that as land was continued to be divided those that inherited the swamp lands were called that. In other the poor relatives :-)

  3. My mother always claimed - with not a little pride - that we were swamp yankees. I wonder if her grandfather, "The Judge" who sat in New Haven, CT, also felt the same... anyway, it does make for provocative small talk at a party. Sally

  4. If swamp yankees aren't Mayflower descendants, then you can't be one! Swamp yankees are the poor cousins to the Boston Brahmins. Hooray for the swamp yankees (which was going to be my blog's name until I thought better of it).

  5. I'm originally a New Englander (though I've lived in Florida since I was seven), and this is the first time I've come across the term "swamp yankee", heh. I have some Sabin ancestors from Rehoboth, Bristol County, MA, so they should qualify. :-)

    How neat that there is literally a swamp named after your family!