What is a Swamp Yankee?

What’s in a name? Since I began earlier this year to rehab the 22-foot Sisu named Swamp Yankee, I have been asked by a number of people: “Just what is a Swamp Yankee?”

This seems as good a time as any to try to answer that question, seeing as how the boat shop has been quiet for more than a week; shipwright Charlie Koller is off sailing and I am headed for the mountains.

Work resumes in earnest later this week as we make a big push for a late-summer launch. But back to the phrase Swamp Yankee.

The boat’s name is essentially a tribute to my father, David Sisson, and his forebears — quintessential Swamp Yankees all. They were tough, smart, laconic fishermen, farmers and merchants who grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut and could wrest a living from land, sea and small shops. Best as I can tell, they were an independent, hard-working lot who spoke what was on their minds and didn’t suffer fools. That’s a pretty good shorthand definition of a Swamp Yankee.

My father and his sister.

My father and his sister.

A teenage Swamp Yankee sitting on a dolphin.

A teenage Swamp Yankee sitting on a dolphin.

As a young person I couldn’t articulate the definition of a Swamp Yankee, but it has been clear to me since childhood that I, too, am a member of that tribe, for better or worse.

As schoolchildren of 12 or 13 my classmates and I had to write a family history, a chestnut assignment that is still doled out to students today. My mother saved my “essay” — written on both sides of a single sheet of white composition paper — because, I believe, of one line that particularly amused her.

Of my father, I wrote: “My father is probably from English desent [sic] although he really has never been too interested in finding out. I refer to him as an educated “Swamp Yankee” because his family has been in this country for quite a long time and in some ways my father fits the role of the stereotyped New Englander.”

To which the teacher wrote in the margin: “Are Swamp Yankees uneducated?”

“On my father’s side have been several tough old commercial fishermen and a good number of small merchants.”

The teacher commented: “Betcha they were neither tough nor old when they started.”

David Sisson and tribe in 2007.

David Sisson and tribe in 2007.

My father was a descendant of Richard and Mary Sisson, Quakers who fled England to Portsmouth, R.I., in 1651 to escape religious persecution. As the crow flies, he didn’t stray far from his Colonial roots, nor did he have any desire to do so. He was at home beside the tidal river in South County, R.I., where he owned and operated several businesses with his sister in Watch Hill.

My grandfather, W. Bernard Sisson, of Westerly, R.I., was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) stationed in Quonochontaug, R.I., and Point Judith, where he and his mates launched pulling-boats through the surf to rescue unlucky sailors.

W. Bernard Sisson (center, standing).

W. Bernard Sisson (center, standing).

He died suddenly in 1922 when my father was 2 years old. Tragically, my father’s 5-year-old brother, Billie, was killed the following year when he was hit by a truck. I have photos of my grandmother mourning her husband and son. She is dressed in black, facing seaward, with my father, who is probably 3, held close to her waist.

Mother and son.

Mother and son.

My great-uncle, Capt. Ed Sisson, was a Rhode Island seine net fisherman who was said to have the keen ability to smell fish before he could see them. He died at age 76 working in the surf, hauling in his heavy seine, literally with his boots on.

My great-grandfather, William Sisson, held the distinction of being one of the youngest to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, according to his obituary. At the outbreak of the war he was too young to enlist legally, so he left Rhode Island for New Hampshire, where he added a few years to his age and joined a cavalry regiment under another name. One of his legs was amputated as the result of a severe battlefield wound. He returned to Rhode Island, where he made a living as a commercial fisherman.

William Sisson, the “Older,” portrait of a Swamp Yankee.

William Sisson, the “Older,” portrait of a Swamp Yankee.

Life made these Swamp Yankees tough. They knew hard times — sudden death, war, hurricanes and fires. All of the ones I can remember had the ability to communicate with just a look. As a boy you learned to read their eyes, their brow, the tilt of a head. And they were tart-tongued when they felt they needed to be, but not profane.

Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin addressed the Swamp Yankee question in two columns a number of years ago. My father clipped them out of the paper and saved them. He particularly liked an answer that involved a barn door, which I will explain in a moment.

In his first column, Patinkin concluded that a Swamp Yankee was an “earthy, proud New Englander who dates to the Revolution, but hasn’t made or spent much money since.” Although that’s not inaccurate, it is, perhaps, a bit too narrow; Patinkin heard from his readers, whose responses caused him to write a second column.

Grandmother at the helm.

Grandmother at the helm.

One letter writer referred to a Swamp Yankee as someone who still patches his roof with corrugated tin. Another, the columnist wrote, described this type as a “sort of Rhode Island hillbilly.” A third offered that a Swamp Yankee “is not always right, but is never wrong.”

A letter writer from Jamestown, R.I., told Patinkin that he had asked his grandfather what a Swamp Yankee was. This was the reply: “We are,” the grandfather reported, “a cross between a jackass and a barn door. The jackass accounts for the stubbornness shown in many of us; the barn door has never been described to me. Maybe someone in the next world will have the answer.”

It’s hard to improve on that. At the end of the column, Patinkin concludes: “I think I’m more confused than when I started.”

Making a living from coastal waters.

Making a living from coastal waters.

Other research brought me to a 20-plus-year-old story in Tidings Magazine (now gone, I believe), which was distributed in southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.

In that story, writer Larry Chick quotes Prent Lanphere the “Younger,” of Westerly, observing that there are two types of Swamp Yankees: freshwater and saltwater.

My great-uncle’s seasonal fishing shed.

My great-uncle’s seasonal fishing shed.

“The upcountry variety lives off slab bacon, jonnycakes and boiled potatoes; those along shore seine smelts to eat with their jonnycakes, spear eels through the ice during the winter months, smoke buckies (river herring) and bluefish the remainder of the year.”

Prent Lanphere the Younger was a classmate of my fathers; Prent died late last year at age 92, with the obit explaining that he had gone to “the great duck blind in the sky.” (My father died in 2011 at age 91.)

As I boy, I have fond memories of Prent Lanphere the “Older,” a colorful, wiry charter captain and waterman who did indeed spear eels through the ice, net smelts in the spring and smoke buckies. In my memory he is bouncing a blowfish (northern puffer) on the dock to the delight of summer tourists. Prent would draw them in with the antic, and before you knew it he had them signed up for a half-day fishing trip.

The writer also interviewed three sisters who were the daughters of a large dairy farmer. When the writer asked the three, how do you know you’re Swamp Yankees, one replied: “How do we know we’re Americans? We just are.”

17 thoughts on “What is a Swamp Yankee?

  1. As a Swamper myself, upon seeing the title of this article, I thought, “here we go again”. Some fool from parts unknown trying to give their version of a “swamp yankee”. Well done and well said! It couldn’t be more accurate or vague (as it is in my own mind). Was a pleasure to read, thanks, Captain Cook.

  2. Great article. I too had a relative with one leg. My grandmothers brother.
    As a kid I was always fascinated by his crutch. You are right people now days
    have no idea what tough is. He sold newspapers on a corner in downtown
    Los Angeles during the depression. I remember him well. Stayed there till he
    could no longer stand. I’m 72 so you can just imagine how long ago it was.

  3. I LOVE THIS ARTICLE. LIVING ALL MY LIFE HERE IN FLORIDA I FISHED HERE ALOT. LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT OTHER FISHERMEN AND HOW THEY LIVED. LOOK FORWARD TO READING MORE ABOUT SWANP YANKEE. FROM FLORIDA CRACKER.

  4. Bill, you and I have had this discussion before. First of all, its a great name for a boat, I will concede, but your definition is ahistorical, almost Disneyesque. Your family adheres to a highly romanticized version of what it means to be a swamp yankee. To get to its true meaning you have to go back to what living in a “swamp” meant in the 18th Century.

    Yes it was a wetland, but in those days, living in a swampy area often meant sickness and death by malaria and malnourishment. The people who lived in the swamps were marginalized folks, not the industrious, clever types to whom you refer and most certainly not to any Quakers.

    I adhere to this definition from Wikipedia:

    “Several theories speculate that Swamp Yankees were the undesirable, troublemaking New Englanders who moved to the “swamps” of southeastern New England upon arriving in the New World in the 17th century. It is possible that the term also meant that a person was unwanted in an unestablished town for having a relationship with a Native American. Others speculate that the original Swamp Yankees were colonial-era indentured servants who were paid for their service with swamp land from the farmers to whom they were indentured.”

    They real swamp yankee communities such as Lakeville, Massachusetts (which could just as well have been named Swampville) remained apart in its culture well into the 1960s and early ’70s. The easiest way to picture Lakeville was to imagine a chunk of the rural south being picked up by a tornado and plopped down amid the industrious towns of Southeastern Mass. It was a place characterized by broken appliances in the front yard, shitkicking music and a love of stock car racing before the sport had really taken hold north of the Mason-Dixon.

    Lakeville speech was peppered with the term “bub,” which is what Lakeville men called each other as in: “Got a ’57 Chevy, bub. Gonna race’r down the Golden Spur, bub.”

    Again the Southern analogy holds true by virtue of the fact that the rest of us grew up referring to Lakeville people as “bubbas,” which by the way is a corruption of brother and suggestive of a blurry familial relationships. Lakeville was always the butt of jokes about inbreeding.

    This, I believe, is the unvarnished, historical meaning of “swamp yankee.”

  5. I’ve had the pleasure to meet the likes of a few Swamp Yankees. They are the fabric of the country. Good article.

  6. Great family story Bill. I feel as though I know them without ever have meeting them. i can’t wait to see the Sisu finished and launched. It would be interesting to know more about this brand that is being resurrected by Eastern I believe.

  7. In 1944 my parents bought a house along the river in Mystic, CT from a John and Edith Sisson. Are they kin? Enjoyed your article very much.

  8. Bill
    This is a priceless tale and so are the pictures. My guess is the early Swampers also met up with the Pequots and while lots of bad stuff was done to the Indians by the settlers I’ve heard the Pequots flayed, scalped and hung a few settlers too between the coast settlements and those on Block Island. See reparations ?

    Bob

  9. I was always intrigued by a comment made by a American mate about my father-in-laws resourcefulness and determination to get his home succesfully built 50 years ago with not much more than a pick, hammer and saw (which he raised his family in and still lives in).
    He said “You know what that is right there? That there is Yankee spirit”!
    Being Australian the comment has always intrigued me and I have become fascinated by all things “Yankee”. Except of course the baseball team, as I am already indoctrinated as a Red Sox fan.
    So being smitten with New England style centre consoles and all things Yankee its no wonder I enjoyed your article so much. Graet read. Very cool name.

  10. I agree with Peter Swanson that your definition of swamp Yankee adheres to a modern-day, highly-romanticized version of what it means to be a swamp Yankee. To me to be a “Swamp” Yankee you need to live in, own or make your living from close connection to the swamp. In addition to the Wikipedia definition I believe some Swamp Yankees own or owned upland and swamp. During hard times they sold off the upland to make ends meet. Perhaps they may have moved down the economic ladder, but they found riches living off the low land with their family. Most are hard working, extremely independent, resourceful individuals that march to a different drummer than what may be considered norm. They live a simple live that is often self-sustaining. Raise and gather their own food, build their own home, and heat it with wood gathered from the swamp. Swamp Yankees may be considered land rich but dirt poor. Again I refer to economic poor. A Swamp Yankee doesn’t need to chase fancy. They’re happy with functional, and when it breaks they fix it themselves with a bit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

  11. Enjoyed your story so much…your family history is amazingly filled with character, courage & strength. Thanks for sharing the photos & story…look forward to seeing you at MIBS next year!

  12. As a Real Yankee From East Greenwich RI I love this story.
    I spent my life off the sea and it has been good to me. At 85 and living in Florida it brings back a lot of good childhood memorys.
    Great story ( thanks)

  13. My father loved nothing more than to tease my mother by calling her the daughter of a swamp yankee farmer – her red hair would almost ignite! We are of the inland variety, from Uxbridge, in the beautiful Blackstone Valley of Massachusetts.

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