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Essay

Brits and Yanks in Siouxland

By December 30, 2016 2 Comments
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A Yankee looks upon a horse or any animal simply as a machine out of which to get as much profit as possible at the smallest possible cost and trouble, and also as something which is meant to be ill-used. The way some of them treat their horses is simply atrocious and makes me so savage sometimes that I can hardly control myself. If we had a Yankee on the place here, I know I would kick him till he could not stand, within a week of his coming, for ill-using something. 

Despite the fact that the man who wrote this note, James Cowan, was talking about people who lived right here where I live, and despite the fact that my own great-grandparents may well have been among Cowan’s neighbors, the truth is, I’ve got no dog in this fight.

Had he said “A Hollander” rather than “A Yankee,” I might have. But the ingrate horse beaters are people he calls “Yankees.” In all likelihood he didn’t mean my great-grandparents. I’ve got no idea how my forbearers handled their horses–I know they had a team because their horses appear on their homesteading portrait they had taken to prove to Netherlands relatives that they were just fine here on the frontier of this new country. What’s more, I know my great-grandfather, a North Sea sailor, didn’t make it as a North American farmer. The path he left all over the upper Midwest makes clear he didn’t set down the the fancy roots immigration brochures promised. At best, he was a tenant farmer; at worst, something of a failure. Who knows what he did to his horses?

Still, Mr. Cowan’s ire was raised by other Americans, among whom Mr. Cowan clearly doesn’t count himself. James Cowan was landed British gentry, one of hundreds who lived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s, upper-class Brits–“pups,” they called themselves–who left England and Scotland to learn farming in an area only recently inhabited by white men and women. For the most part, they were here to waste time, to learn something before returning England, and, oh yes, to make money in real estate. For a time, they owned millions of acres and made millions of dollars. 

The James Cowan who spewed the hate in that quote above was “upper-class” in an old-world fashion that kept him disdainful of the yankee masses, the human beasts of burden he had to employ to turn his soil and harvest his grain, yankees too coarse, too vulgar to drink his blessed tea. 

Before Cowan ever got to the prairie, he’d likely never put a horse to work breaking ground. The steeds leisurely housed in his country estate were for hunting fox or pulling a fancy carriage. The man hadn’t worked. He never needed a horse to make a living. He was fat-cat rich.

But then, maybe he was right. Maybe those grimy yankees he and the Brits needed to help with harvest beat on their horses all too regularly. Maybe the locals were earthy turds who didn’t know how to behave or what their place was supposed to be. After all, in 1880, northwest Iowa looked nothing like Downton Abbey.

The word “yankee,” some say, was once an ethnic slur against Hollanders, who some New Yorkers liked to call “John Cheese,” thus making the New Amsterdam Dutch the very first American cheeseheads. Eventually, yankee came to mean any hyphenated-American from the huddled masses. What James Cowan means here when he designates “Yankees,” is 19th century white trash, certainly not his high-and-mighty–and rich–Brits.  

Even though I’d like to believe my own ancestors escaped his generalized indictment, James Cowan was without a doubt talking more specifically about me and my people than he was about himself and his. 

What seems all to obvious from Mr. Cowan and most of human history is that we all need someone to beat on. James Cowan needed yankees and those loutish yankees needed the beasts of the field. Somebody’s got to suffer.

Here we are, less than a week after Christmas, and already, forgive me, Lord, for thinking that to be true. Forgive me for not remembering the truth of this and every other Christmas season: that there is–thank you, Jesus–a far better way to live.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

2 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Two side points: When I took my church among Dutch immigrants in Ontario, I would hear the dairy farmers among them complain the odd time about how poorly the “Canadians” treated their animals.
    I don’t believe the “John-cheese” etymology. Or the “Jan-Kees” etymology. I think it’s simply “Janke,” i.e. “Johnny.”

  • abookchick says:

    There IS a better way to live. Thanks for holding the light today.

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