Tuckahoe-Cohee Information

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Tuckahoe and cohee were terms used during the 18th and 19th centuries to describe two contrasting cultural groups in the Virginia and Carolina areas of the United States. These slang terms are now considered obscure and obsolete. "Tuckahoe" refers to the low-country, slave-owning plantation owners, with all of their economic, political, social, and English (mostly from Northern and Western England) ethnic traits. The "cohee" were typically non- Anglican, poor, non-slave-owning, hard-scrabble independent farmers, moving into or through the hills and mountainous regions of Virginia and both Carolinas. Both "tuckahoe" and "cohee" were often used as terms of disparagement and derision by the opposing group.


The word "tuckahoe" first appears on a map drawn by Captain John Smith in 1612, providing a Powhatan Indian word to describe an edible plant or fungus utilized by tribes in the tidewater area of the present Virginia and North Carolina (and is unlikely the name of an undocumented Indian tribe). The use of the word to describe the aristocratic, affluent and politically powerful class of low-country Virginia/Carolina planters probably originated in the decades prior to the Revolutionary War (ca 1740-1770). It was during this period that the Great Wagon Road, originating in Pennsylvania, and the Valley Pike, transiting the lower Shenandoah Valley, became a major highway funneling a steady stream of poor, largely Scotch-Irish families south and west into upland Virginia (later into upcountry North and South Carolina and eventually into Tennessee and Kentucky) in search of cheap land. These early up-country settlers shared little of the ethnic, social or religious roots of the low-country, which had been founded and developed by English-Anglican colonists over the previous 100-plus years.

Politically, the low-country governments of Virginia and the Carolinas did little to assist and much to exploit this cohee migration. During the earliest decades, the established Anglican Church refused to recognize Presbyterian weddings and required exorbitant marriage bond fees of the up-country settlers in order to obtain a legally recognized marriage certificate. Failure to obtain legal marriage documentation could have severe consequences when trying to sell land, and during the handling of estates. Similarly, upcountry political representation in colony governments was inhibited, while wealthy low-country aristocrats held dominance in political, military and taxation matters. The stage was set for a major cultural divide, and tuckahoe-cohee antagonism grew from this early social dynamic.

The term "cohee" has been traced to the Scotch-Irish dialect/accent, for "quoth he" used instead of "he said" in normal conversation of the time. It tended to sound like "quo he" which became "cohee" to the lowland Virginia planters. Thus the term "cohee" is tightly associated with the Presbyterian Scots-Irish upland settlers and most powerfully expressed in western Virginia and western North Carolina.

In the Piedmont area of Virginia and the Carolinas, these "northward" families mixed with low-country families migrating westward. First in the Piedmont, later in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountain regions, and still later in the eastern regions of the Mississippi River valley, these two cultures co-existed and competed for political and economic resources. By the middle 19th century, some writers were describing the sectionalism of American politics as the conflict between " yankee", "tuckahoe" and "cohee" cultures representing, respectively, mercantile New England; the slave-owning southern agriculturist, and the western self-reliant pioneer.

Tuckahoe/Cohee cultural comparison

One of the most distinct and enduring differences between tuckahoe and cohee settlers was their view of black slavery as a moral institution. The cohee typically exhibited ambivalence or antipathy toward slavery; while tuckahoe sentiments were overwhelmingly positive toward slavery.

In the late 18th century, lowland society often used "cohee" as a term of disparagement meant to refer to any white back-country settler who was under-educated, rough, and/or poor. Likewise, the poor independent farmer of the upcountry could heap upon any white man raised in tidewater Virginia/Carolina the disparaging term of "tuckahoe" if he exhibited traits of aristocracy, ineffectualness, lack of knowledge of the back-country, or other "effete" characteristics, whether or not he was raised on a plantation.

The tuckahoe, as a cultural group, came to an abrupt and final ending with the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, and the emancipation of the slaves. Without the economic engine of slavery, the large plantations could no longer supply the wealth necessary to support the aristocratic tuckahoe life-style.

After 1865, "tuckahoe" became an historical term, used almost exclusively in the past tense. Without its cultural apposition, "cohee" too lost its original meaning as a social or cultural identity soon after the ending of the American Civil War. Thus, "tuckahoe" and "cohee" quickly evolved into solely self-referential terms describing a family's ethnic and cultural lineage, independent of social class or wealth. A similar pattern developed on the other side of the mountains, in Tennessee and Alabama.

Comparative history

This distinction is interesting to the comparative historian for two reasons. The first is the general tendency of frontier societies to have extreme class structures. The underlying cause seems to be the difficulty of inducing a peasant to pay rent to a lord where land on the frontier is free for the clearing. The two responses are either an egalitarian society of smallholders with no aristocracy to support a high culture, or some system of slavery or serfdom which requires the peasant to pay rent. Usually there is a combination of the two. The simplest pattern is seen in the South where there is a native zone increasingly disrupted by European colonization, an egalitarian frontier zone, a zone of slavery or serfdom, behind which is the originating society where class relations are less extreme. As the frontier moves westward, the third zone moves into land formerly held by the second, a pattern that is clearest in South Carolina. Variations on this theme can be seen in the South, the North, Canada, Iceland, the Drang nach Osten, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. The best place to start the comparative study of frontiers is William Hardy McNeill's The Great Frontier.

The second reason is the fact represented by West Virginia's slogan Montani Semper Liberi. Great landed estates are usually found in relatively flat country. Mountainous areas are usually inhabited by clannish and warlike smallholders of low culture. West Virginia and surrounding areas can be compared to the egalitarian mountain belt that stretches from Switzerland to Afghanistan. The association of mountains and smallholding is an obvious fact of human society, but no one seems to have ever explained the reason for it.

Sources and references

Joseph Waddell, in his Annals of Augusta County Virginia (1885) states:

The Tuckahoe carried himself rather pompously, and pronounced many words as his English forefathers did in the days of Queen Elizabeth. The Cohee was plain and even blunt in his manners, and every now and then gave utterance to words which had come down to him from his Scots-Irish ancestors, and which the Tuckahoe did not understand. Each thought the other spoke a mere jargon.

James Kirke Paulding's Letters from the South, written during an Excursion in the Summer of 1816. NY: James Eastburn (1817) states that the tuckahoe:

…is a gallant, high-spirited, lofty, lazy sort of being, much more likely to spend money than earn it, and who, however he may consume, is not very likely to add much to the fruits of the earth. People are very apt to judge of themselves by a comparison with others, and the Tuckahoe, feeling himself so greatly superior to his slaves, is inclined to hold every body else equally his inferior. This sense of imaginary superiority is the parent of high qualities, and prevents the possessor very often from indulging mean and contemptible propensities. Pride, indeed, is a great preserver of human virtue, which is often so weak as to require the support of some prop less pure than itself. Hence it is, that the pride of family, and the sense of superiority, when properly directed, are the parents of high heroic characteristics, just as when improperly directed they are used for licenses for every series of debauchery, and justifications for every breach of morality and decorum. To minds properly constituted, the reputation of a father is a spur to excellence, a conservator of virtue; but to petty intellects, it is a mere diploma of folly and impertinence. The last think, because they were hatched in the eagles' nest, they must, of necessity, be young eagles, whether they take their lofty flight in regions of the stars or wallow in the puddles with geese and swine. The Tuckahoe of the better sort is a gallant, generous person, who is much better qualified to defend his country in time of war, than to enrich it in a period of peace. He is like a singed cat, and very often takes as much pains to appear worse than he is, as some people among us do to appear better. In short, the Tuckahoe belongs to a class of beings, among whom, in times of great danger, when the existence of a people is at stake, will be found the men who will be most likely to sink or swim with their country. Manual industry seldom produces great men, and it is not often that the best citizens make the bravest soldiers.

Paulding discusses the "Cohee" as hard working family farmers with high levels of self-sufficiency.

Rhys Isaac, in The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982) characterized these two cultures {tuckahoe/cohee} as split between a non-evangelical and evangelical practice of Christianity.

Ernest Sutherland Bates' American Faith: Its Religious, Political, and Economic Foundations (1940) states that Tuckahoe and Cohee

…applied to the residents of Tidewater and Piedmont, and were territorial rather than class designations. There were poor as well a rich "Tuckahoes," and there were rich and poor "Cohees."

Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker's Old South: The Founding of American Civilization (1963) has a chapter titled "Tuckahoe and Cohee" describing the tensions between the two cultures.

Richard B. Drake's A History of Appalachia (2001) has a chapter titled "Backwoods-Cohee Society" and identifies the term "Cohee" as a self-referential word used by "backwoodsmen" who settled the western part of Virginia (now West Virginia) to differentiate themselves from the elite "Tuckahoes".

Elizabeth A. Perkins' Border Life: Experience and Memory in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley (1998) states:

…by the late eighteenth century "tuckahoe" became a common name for an inhabitant of the lowlands of Virginia. The tuckahoe's counterpart was the "cohee," a resident living west of the Blue Ridge. In 1786 a Kentukian wrote to the governor of Virginia that "...we have two sorts of people in this country, one called tuckyhoes, being Generall. of the Lowland old Virginians. The other class is Called cohees, Generally made up of Backwoods Virginians and Northward men, Scots, Irish, & c., which seems, In some measure, to make Distinctions and Particions amongst us.

Perkins continues:

A settler similarly explained to John Shane that "Irish mostly from Pennsylvania country and South Carolina were called Cohees. Mostly Presbyterians. Virginians were called Tuckahoes. You could tell where a man was from, on first seeing him.

Perkins then summarizes:

Braiding together a complex skein of social and cultural identities, the distinction between cohee and tuckahoe transcended wealth, ethnicity, or religion alone; depending on the circumstance, the terms implied any, or all, of these meanings.

Gerald Milnes' "Play of a Fiddle", University Press of Kentucky 1999, ISBN  0-8131-2080-2, pps 67-69. describes tuckahoe and cohee cultures from the perspective of West Virginia, and relates folk songs from each culture describing the opposing culture's foibles in caricature.

David Hackett Fischer's " Albion's Seed - Four British Folkways in America", Oxford University Press 1989, describes the cultural genesis of the cohees in America as "The Flight From North Britain, 1717-1775" pps 605-782. Without ever using the appellation "cohee" he describes the "backcountry" settlers of early America as originating in the borderlands of northern England, southern Scotland, and northern Ireland.