Attending NC State University in the late 1970’s, one of my most cherished experiences grew from the opportunity to meet and share time with other students who were enrolled in the various life sciences programs. Whether studying Ag. Engineering or participating in other programs such as the Ag Institute, these young folks were unlike myself. They grew up with a dream and their life plan was already in place before ever enrolling in school.
Coming off family farms or some related industry, these kids had a sense of pride different from the rest of us. Back then, and in reply to anyone who may meet and refer to them as being a redneck, these students were quick to let you know, hell yeah …and don’t forget where your food comes from either!” To them the derogatory label wasn’t even complete as they would proudly show you their “red neck, brown arms and white back.”
It’s from experiences like this where I began to build my way among the wide range of possible life ambitions. And as a part of the making of me, I learned who rednecks really were and began to appreciate their role within our greater society. Such lessons learned from fellow students have remained untested until this last week when I stumbled upon the following entry in the 1820 Chatham County Court Minutes:
William Utley who earlier lived among the neighbors of Joseph Thomas in Wake County is now appointed overseer of a road along Lick Creek in Chatham County. And hugely odd, in parenthesis beside his name, William Utley is identified as “redneck.” Wow! …and in 1820!
Labels have always been used to distinguish or even separate us from one another. For instance, in present day Randolph and Montgomery Counties runs a road called Black Ankle. From a search through the North Carolina Gazateer I found the following description for this most oddly named community. Black Ankle is:
a derisive name for an area in S central Randolph County and NE Montgomery County. Named because bootleggers operating there during Prohibition would start fires over a large area when they were operating a still so that officers of the law could not find the still. They were said to have “black ankles” from walking through the ashes of old fires to start new ones. Name also said to derive from fact that gold miners in the area stood in muck.
Also, in the state of South Carolina could once be found a people known regionally as Brass Ankles. According to Wikapedia:
The Brass Ankles of South Carolina were a “tri-racial isolate” group, as defined by anthropologists, that developed in the colonial era. They lived as free people of color successively in the areas of Charleston, Berkeley, Colleton and Orangeburg counties as they increasingly migrated away from the Low Country and into the Piedmont and frontier areas, where racial discrimination was less. They were identified by this term in the later 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. They had a combination of European, African, and Native American ancestry.
The above examples originate in the late 1800’, but in truth, was such naming taking place even earlier?
Looking back to the 1820 court entry naming William Utley, that document appears much earlier than do the above mentioned examples. Was the label of redneck used to describe people who labored in the sun? Did it refer to race or was there something else at play? Doing another search with the help of Mr. Google, I learned that the term redneck goes back to the 1600’s! From the following short video found on the History Channel, it appears the term originates from a religious war in Scotland. Making its way to America, the term redneck was used to marginalize the Scottish Presbyterians who settled on England’s newly claimed land.
It’s really interesting that the area where William Utley lived in Chatham County served in some ways as the western boundaries of the early Presbyterian strongholds to the east. Is it a coincidence? There were many Scottish in Moore, Cumberland and Richmond Counties. Was William Utley a Presbyterian and if so, why was such label reserved for him without seeing it used to identify others? And, as timing is important, would such a term be used in the early 1800’s to label a person based on events more than a hundred years in the past? To me this is a known unknown.