Wednesday, February 5, 2014

300 Year Old Riddle Solved?

A 1775 cartoon of Boston Yankees

After 300-plus years of defying scholarly debate and research, The answer to a life-long obsession by me and many others has finally come to a close. Without going further than I have to with details and other ideas about the origination of why New Englanders are called Yankees, I will forward the most popular assumptions first and conclude with the actual answer to this debate. This question has actually lured learned scholars from around the world, as it did me for many years.

You read it right folks, around the world. You wouldn't think that this question of why New Englanders are saddled with, often-times, the negative connotation of a Yankee would be so popular, so universally, but it has sparked many debates and fallacies, not to mention ludicrous assumptions, and yet not to be determined. Well consider it determined!

I would like to start with the route that I have taken for the past 20-plus years, without an adequate answer, and end with one particular paragraph that blew the whole dilemma wide open, resulting with the answer. It took tenacity and an eye for details that brought me to my conclusion, with the help of many MANY unsubstantiated references that I was able to discount.

There have been many schools of thought regarding the word Yankee, but one(with what I thought was)textbook explanation with a twist that has led every single historian, linguist and researcher down the wrong path. Which could have been avoided with a little digging and a little common sense. Let me explain why.

Almost all encyclopedic references, in all research, for the word Yankee has been summarily denoted as beginning with the Dutch. From Jan Kaas(literally meaning John Cheese) to Janke(a diminutive of Jan, or John).There is even an explanation with a combination of these, stating that Jan Kaese means John Cheese(which of course is incorrect) and is seen in a poem by 16th century poet Roger Ascham. A snippet of this particular poem from 1570 reads;

Of thou be thrall to none of thises,
Away good Peek goos, hens John Cheese.

Although the words John Cheese is shown in this portion of a poem someone posted online, there are some problems here. It only shows that the name John Cheese was used in the 16th century without actually helping our cause, but this also has a twist. And this twist is the largest reason I am completely discounting this as irrelevant. It hinges on the fact that Roger Ascham became fatally ill in 1568 and died in 1569. PLUS, after having searched his works, I find the above lines nowhere in his works. I consulted The Whole Works of Roger Ascham and only found an item or two that came close. These were letters Roger wrote to a John Cheke(pages 236 and 328).
Some say that Jankaase(pronounced as Yankees because the 'J' in Dutch is pronounced as an English 'Y') was not only a slang term for the Dutch but as a slang term for anyone resembling(in practice)the Dutch, much like other slangs for differing nationalities like Dago, the French Frog, German Kraut, and so on.

Another avenue almost all researchers have followed(yup, me too) was the supposed fact that the name Yankee was a derogatory nickname given to the Dutch by the Germans, Flemish and anyone else who came in contact with Dutch pirates, of which there were many sailing the oceans during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also referenced that the English colonists here in America referred to Dutch settlers by the moniker Yankee because of either ethnic association or because of their trading practices throughout this country in the early days. Over time, it warped into a word of tribute to the cunning New Englander, much the same way 'cunning' was the immoral thread that the Dutch sewed the relationship with the Indians when buying land, protection and friendship.

It is known that the Dutch were extremely greedy when they dealt with the Indians in the Connecticut Valley, up into New York and into French Canada. Remember what the Dutch paid the Indians for New York don't you?

Take, for example, an observation by Jasper Danckaerts, dated October 18, 1679 and found on page 262. He saw how the Dutch inhabitants of Long Island dealt with the Indians unfairly:
"I must here remark in passing, that the people in this city, who are mostly traders in small articles, whenever they see an Indian enter the house, who they know has any money, they immediately set about getting hold of him, giving him rum to drink, ... They do not rest until they have cajoled him out of all his money, or most of it... And these miserable Christians are so much the more eager in this respect, because no money circulates among themselves, and they pay each other in wares, in which they are constantly cheating and defrauding each other."
Jasper Danckaerts

Use of Yankee to refer to someone from New England is seen in 1765, from the poem Oppression, A Poem by an American.

"The source supreme, and center of all hate.

"If I forget him, then forget me Heaven !"

Or like a W (ILKES) , may I from right be driven.

From meanness first this PORTSMOUTH Yankey (d) rose,

And still to meanness, all his conduct flows ;

This alien upstart, by obtaining friends,

From T (o) WN (SEN) D S clerk, a M (A) LD (o) N member ends,

Would Heaven that day was dated in record,

Which shin d propitious, on one so abhorr d;

That day, which saw how threats and gold could bribe..."

It is mentioned, and probably obvious, that in "Portsmouth Yankey", the authoress was not only referring to herself, but to either Portsmouth, England or Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Also cited in hundreds of research papers is the fact that the second time the word Yankee was referred to was in The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series,
an archive of British government documents, dated 1683. The sources say it is contained as such;

"They sailed from Banaco; chief commanders, Vanhorn, Laurens, and Yankey Duch."

Two problems arise here as well. If this sentence were to be found, it would have referred to a sailor/pirate by the name of Captain John Yankey, a well-known pirate of the Atlantic Ocean. The biggest issue I have, though, is the fact that nowhere in these papers is the above sentence found, absolutely nowhere!


Then there are two references of the term Yankee being used by General James Wolfe in 1758 and the great (then Captain)Horatio Nelson to Captain William Locker in 1784. He is said to have used it as such;

1758 letter-My posts are now so fortified that I can afford you two companies of Yankees, and the more because they are better for ranging and scouting than either work or vigilance. determined not to suffer the Yankies to come where the ship i
1784: Adams letter. "We hve curtains, it is true, and we only in part undress, about as much as the Yankee bundlers."(This is a great sentence. To learn more abut bundling in Puritan days, refer to my article on Bundling.)        
To give you a sense of the personal "mingling" of the Dutch and English colonists that may have given credence to past guess-work on trying to solve this Yankee dilemma, here is a very brief understanding of where the Dutch were in colonial New England and beyond.

The Dutch, as some of you are aware, established a settlement at present-day Manhattan in 1624. But before that, in 1621, the Dutch republic of Holland granted land encompassing the Delaware River on the south, the Connecticut River on the north, including Delaware, New Jersey and much of Connecticut. In the 1630s, they went up the Connecticut River to lands claimed by the English. In present day Albany, the Dutch "parleyed" with the Iroquois in order to keep the peace and to acquire more land, which didn't last long. Corruption and immoral trading practices were making the Indians distrustful, so they held back trading. The Dutch decided they wanted any and all land they could get, so they carried brutal campaigns against the "River Indians", at the same time creating tension between these Indians and the European settlers as well.

By 1640, the Indians wanted revenge. They sacked the Staten Island settlement of the English, mistaken them for Dutch. (Of course there were Dutch in the area and most likely 'encamped' with the English). After the killing of a "Hollander" by the Sagamore's son(a warrior), the Dutch now wanted revenge. The fighting dragged on and on, and all because of the ruthlessness, lies, deception and dishonesty of some of the Dutch traders, including the West India Company, who outfitted these settlers.

To make a long story shorter, the English declared war against the Dutch, resulting in New York, New Jersey and other land being reverted back to New England control.

To put it simply, the term Yankee is said to have been used by everyone to refer to anyone they didn't like. Every researcher's opinion, up to this point, has declared that Germans called the Dutch Yankees, the Swedes called the English Yankees, and on and on and on.

Take this into consideration with the above name calling. The province of New Netherland was estimated to contain only one-half Dutch, with Germans, Swedes and the Finnish making up the rest of the population of between 3,000 and 3,500 by 1665. There was also about 2,000 English inhabitants(from New England) around New Netherland, with at least half of the villages around New Amsterdam being of English stock.

By about 1650, both the Dutch and English were at each others throats because they each deemed each other competitors in the trade industry. This resulted in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first being from 1652-1654. Land around this area teetered back and forth between these two feuding factions during these wars, with the land being brought under the control of the British by 1674.


It is also said that the term Yankee was used by the British nationals and naval personnel, not the British colonists. These English sailors called the English settlers Yankees because many of the sailors of the colonies had Dutch names and were seen to be cavorting with them. People tend to forget that those sailing on behalf of the British government were vastly separate from those of the crown who escaped England to settle here. Therefore, there was derision between these two groups, ending in those who were in the British Navy to poke fun of and trying to humiliate the colonists by comparing them to the dastardly Dutch pirates and traders. Remember that the largest port in New England was at New York. I will tell you, however, that this explanation would have been my No. 2 choice.

The biggest question about this whole Dutch explanation remains unexplained however. How did a slang term for the Dutch come to mean New Englanders? It is thought that we didn't care for this word in the 17th and early 18th centuries but came to embrace it during and after the Revolutionary War.

                                                      A "cunning" Yankee Peddler

It is said by researchers that us Yankees were so cunning that we took the word Yankee and called ourselves such just to teach others a lesson.......You have got to be joking!!!! Not only is this foolish but entirely wrong! I don't believe that these New Englander's were referred to as Yankees by anyone intentionally by any nationality. It was a mistake, although I am proud of the moniker of being frugal, cunning and thrifty, regardless of where it came from. My explanation?

I would like to preface my following explanation with the following. It was, and still is among some linguists, a long held belief of another origin of the word Yankee. It has been told and retold that the Native Americans of Massachusetts were the progenitor of Yankee. Trying to pronounce English, or the French equivalent 'Anglais', it came out sounding like "Yengee", converting to Yankee over time. Although not too far-fetched, there are just as many researchers, scholars and especially linguists that have disregarded this. I think all these scholars jumped the gun however, and not thought 'outside the box'. Let me explain.


Consider The Riddle Solved!
The poem The Yankey in London was written by Royall Tyler(born 1757 and died 1826) in 1809 when he was over 50 years. Royall lived in Boston and died, with his wife, in Brattleboro, Vermont. He was a Federalist, served as Windham County State's Attorney, Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court and as Chief Justice. He was Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Vermont, Windham County's Registrar of Probate and above all(and very relevant to this story) the aide to General John Sullivan in the American Revolution. Can you think of anyone else with such credentials in order to complete a research? Certainly not me!

                                                                 Royall Tyler


Royall was with Gen. Sullivan when Sullivan was commander in Quebec, although failing in the invasion of Canada. The original settlement of the Iroquois was in upstate new York, expanding to most of the Northeast region and eastern Canada. By 1675, the Iroquois claimed west from the north shore of Chesapeake Bay to the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, north along the Illinois River the the end of Lake Michigan, east across Michigan and finally through Northern New England. Because there were not enough of this tribe to physically inhabit all this land, they did, however, settle predominantly in upstate New York.

Courtesy of

The Sullivan Expedition, the trail of which is shown above, was a massive campaign against the Iroquois in New York and led by General Sullivan, destroyed many Indian settlements.

It was in this region of the Sullivan Expedition that one band of the 'Praying Indians' lived. So called because they were converted to Catholicism (and prayed often) in the Ontario and Quebec region. The correct name for this band was the Caughnawaga(or Kahnawake) Indians. One of the Caughnawaga villages was an offshoot of the Mohawk nation near Fonda, New York. This, today, is the only completely excavated Iroquois village in the America. There are also "Praying Indian" settlements throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.

                                         Praying Indians. Courtesy of the Natuck Historical Society

They were converted by the Reverent John Eliot(of New England) around 1650. The conversion turned their demeanor from warrior-like to farmers, builders and peace loving people. They also intermarried with both whites, blacks, Dutch, German or whoever desired them. By the beginning of the Revolution, they were(in all intents and purposes) "Americanized".

Now you may be asking why, because of Sullivan's Expedition, did these Americanized Indians join on our side in the Revolutionary War when they were just pummeled by an American general? Simply put, because the Iroquois was known for aiding the British against our colonies. It didn't matter, it you were any part of the Iroquois nation, regardless if you were peace loving or joined only by name, you were an enemy of America. Some of these Praying Indians even served with Washington, with an estimated 5,000 aiding America's cause.


The reason I give you all this information? Because Royall Tyler in his poem entitled Yankey In London, pages 75-76, writes;

"I learned afterwards that this bookseller was considered, the respectable part of the trade, as the mere Curll of his day--ever prepared to falter, and ever ready to defraud. A friend, to whom I related this anecdote, said,"sir, did you not know he was from Yorkshire?" It seems they consider the Yorkshiremen as very subtle, if not dishonest. I was rather chargrined at this opprobium, because, you know, Governor Endicott, with most of our English ancestors, came from that respectable county.

The term Yankey is but a corruption of Yorkshire, being simply the Indian pronunciation. The natives of this country hearing the white men, during their early habitancy, frequently speaking of Yorkshire, styled them yankeys. To be satisfied of this, I once requested a Cognawagha Indian to pronounce Yorkshire: he immediately replied--"oh, Ya-ankah, you--you be "Ya-ankah." So that you perceive, if the Yorkshire bookseller had attempted again to flatter me into a bad bargain......"

I wanted to show (you who may think that Royall would not have had contact with the Iroquois or Praying Indians)that he had many opportunities to interact with these Indians. Though this would not have changed my judgement of him in giving a true origination of Yankee regardless(see below).

So it is not an Indian word for "English" or the French equivalent "anglais" that the Indians were trying to pronounce(as written above), but of the word "Yorkshire", with whom all Native Americans had the accompaniment of during the early colonization of America and Canada. It is extremely likely this is the basis for the word Yankee. Bear in mind, as well, that when these same Indians referred to us as such, their intentions were not demeaning, they were simply trying to pronounce an English word with NO intentions other than as an address. Any detrimental acknowledgement of the word Yankee came from other sources, of which I have ideas, but will wait to express them after some research. It is very easy to see how all European settlers were considered Yankees by the Native Americans with this explanation, and much easier than trying to understand how 'Jankaas' referred to New Englanders.

Now I know many of you, even amateur etymologists, may be sounding out 'Yorkshire' both on your own and as it is written by Royall, and concluding I am out of my mind. Let me give you a fresh perception however. This is the earliest reference to the word Yankee, with a direct origin, anywhere written. Although many people in the 18th and 19th centuries may have wondered about the origin, nobody ever wondered about this in written form during this time. There is not one document anywhere in the world that predates 1809 stating or questioning the origin of  the word Yankee. Certainly it is referred to in texts and manuscripts, but that is where it ends. It is only into the mid-19th century that questions arise as to its origination. And by then, the origin had been forgotten as with many other beginnings. We are blessed to have this one attribution by Royall.

I do believe in Royall entirely, but.....
The only argument there ever will be with regards to this is the English word the Indian may have been trying to pronounce. If it wasn't Yorkshire, then the word English would be the "runner-up". I highly doubt that Mr. Tyler is mistaken however. Either way, the word Yankee derived from the Native Americans trying to pronounce Yorkshire, or at the very least, English.

I put my entire faith and belief in Royall, who grew up in Boston and was over 50 years of age in 1809(and who knew of the word "Yankey" even as a child)over someone who is conjecturing as to the origin over 100 years later based on assumption alone.

When Royall mentions "during their early inhabitancy", he is speaking of the men from Yorkshire, and the date would have been the first half of the 17th century with the great influx of English settlers. And as we have seen, and you can look up anywhere, Yorkshire immigrants were a huge percentage of the early settlers on our shores and in Canada.

I am in complete faith of this because Royall's father(himself born in Boston), or the very earliest his grandfather(also a Bostonian), would have been around when the word Yankee was first uttered on these shores by the white man. He most likely would have had first-hand knowledge about the word Yankee. If it had anything to do with the Dutch, being a Patriot and New Englander, Royall would have had absolutely no problem saying such. What I don't understand is why this manuscript has been ignored for so long. It has not been referenced in one single explanation of the word Yankee. I believe it wasn't known to the right researchers.

To me, The Yankee Chef, this case is closed, the beginnings have been found and unless anyone can further evidence the origination with first-hand documentation predating 1759, and in that first persons hand, that comes out and states that the word Yankee is from whatever other source............
Well, in the words a great lady, the wife of the greatest showman on earth(not P.T. Barnum).........
I humbly "turn out the light".

1 comment:

nehispro said...

I have always enjoyed reading your genealogical and historical posts but this one was an exception. Yes I loved it, it was the best one yet! Although you went on a tad too long, I am glad you were able to nail down the word YANKEE. It has bothered us researchers for many years and although it sounds trivial to many, to us New Englanders, it defines who we are. I am a 6th generation 'Yankee' and have been a history professor for quite some time. You found out things even I have never been able to find. Keep up the great work and I often reference your blog and book to my classes.