Attack of the Cacarootches

johnny-depp-run.jpeg

Okay. Last night my husband, Wendy, and I called it a night around 9:30. An unusual feature of our bedroom is a door leading outside. As I climbed into bed, I heard a ‘thump’ on the aluminum storm door. Odd.

Then another. And another.

“Something’s pounding against that door,” I told Wendy as he finished brushing his teeth.

“I know. I already looked out there. It’s either some bug or a bird.”

Well, there are two doors between whatever it was and me, so I continued playing Words With Friends on my phone. The thumping continued. I was not surprised when my husband investigated further. He’s not good at ignoring aggravating sounds like that.

He opened both doors to have a look and a large bug, with I’m sure an enormous sense of victory, soared into the bedroom. As it zoomed over the bed, I saw it was the dreaded flying cacarootch!

Starting my new book set in colonial South Carolina, I wanted a character to disparage his enemies by referring to them as these undesirable creatures. On Saturday, I looked up ‘cockroach’ on one of my favorite sites, www.etymonline.com.

I learned that in 1624, John Smith wrote, “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.”

Excusing John Smith’s spelling issues, we can see why folklore claims the first syllables, ‘caca,’ refer to poop. It’s that ‘ill-sent’ and shiver of disgust they leave behind. While historically, I could have used the modern-day ‘cockroach,’ who can resist ‘cacarootch’? Not me. It’s in the book.

In the meantime, the vermin soared over my bed, bringing out my true nature. I lay on the pillow with the covers pulled up yelling, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”

If it flew from the room down the hall, would we ever find it? I started to get up and close the bedroom door when Wendy called, “Don’t move.”

I froze as he whacked his camouflage croc a hair’s breadth from my left thigh. The evil intruder had landed right beside me. Severely wounded, he was scooped up by Wendy’s wadded toilet paper and whooshed down the Waterslide to Eternity.

Then I heard it. Thump!

Wendy announced, “There’s a whole swarm of them out there.”

Holy moley! We’ve been in this house almost four years with no cacarootch issues. All I could think about was that commercial with an approaching zombie apocalypse. Foregoing the more usual, subtle approach, these flying fiends have attempted an overt frontal attack. What next?

zombie apocolypse (2)

Land of the Shackled

It is estimated that seventy-five percent of all colonists came to America under bondage. We all know about the horrific slave trade, but white indentured servants and deported convicts made up the rest of new arrivals under the yoke.

These people were scorned by the free English. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Convict Transportation from Great Britain to the American Colonies, “colonists thought that anyone who abandoned family and friends to become a servant in a distant land must be lacking in character.”

These attitudes made it easy to treat these people like chattel; they deserved whatever they got, went the belief.

Because few owners wanted to make a purchase sight unseen, most indentured servants had no specific contract before they left home. It was the ship captain who owned the immigrants until he could sell them for a profit.

According to Gottlieb Mittelberger:

a. All who did not pay their own way were required to stay aboard ship until purchased. The sick were left the longest, sometimes dying in the interim.

b. Adults were indentured for four to seven years, while children aged ten to fifteen were owned until the age of twenty-one.

c. Parents could trade or sell their children to unburden themselves of their own debt, but often did not know where they were taken and might never see them again. Entire families were often separated by being sold to different purchasers.

d. If one’s spouse died at sea, the survivor was responsible for working off both passages. If both parents died, the children had to make good on all debt.

While in servitude, disease and overwork killed off many before their indenture was over. Since the arrangement was temporary, the owners worked these people sometimes to death to “get their money’s worth.” Professor Kent Lancaster was quoted in White Cargo (Jordan and Walsh) as saying, “indentured servants were exploitable for a limited time only and that time could not be wasted on the niceties of holidays.”

Make no mistake. While under indenture, these people were OWNED by their purchasers. They could be beaten, branded, raped, and sometimes killed. If times got hard for the owner, they could be sold to another for the remainder of their time. Many masters left their servants to relatives in their wills. While not the life sentence of black slavery, the treatment was often no better.

Why is none of this in our history books even today? Well, it did not take long for the propaganda to begin. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson minimized the influx of indentured servants and 50,000 convicts by claiming only 4000 criminals, including their descendants, then lived in the United States.

I guess he didn’t want the new nation’s reputation resting on the knowledge that three out of every four Americans started out in chains.

Indentured Servitude: The "Official" Version

“What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive. Let it suffice that I, one of the unhappy number, am toiling almost day and night, and very often in the horses’ drudgery, with only this comfort that: ‘You bitch, you do not half enough…'”    —undelivered letter from indentured servant, Elizabeth Spriggs, to her father, 1756

My main fictional character of The Least of These, Mary Edith Dillon, is the daughter of two Irish indentured servants, Joe and Nancy Dillon. My next book, Aroon, was originally a prequel to The Least of These.
It was intended to follow Joe and Nancy on their journey to America. What was it like for two young people to emigrate here as indentured servants? I quickly found out how little I know about the institution–and how little some want us to know.

History books have little more than a sentence or two, explaining that this was an honorable method for the poor, but hard-working to finance their passages across the Atlantic. The textbook, The American Journey, says “Other men, women, and children came to the colonies as indentured servants. In return for the payment of their passage to America, they agreed to work without pay for a certain period of time.”

Sounds fair.

Walter Edgar doesn’t give it much more coverage in South Carolina: A History. He tells of the Bounty Act of 1761 where the colonial government promised four pounds Sterling ($360) for each white immigrant imported into South Carolina. These immigrants were to be given an additional twenty shillings ($90) as start-up money. Yet a prominent South Carolinian called it “more cruel than the slave trade.”

Edgar, however, like most all other references to indentured servitude, soft pedals it. “Selling their children as servants was simply a means for paying the family’s way to South Carolina,” he writes. Also, “Thrifty and industrious, the Germans of Orangeburg and Amelia turned their townships into the breadbasket of South Carolina.”

A little digging outside the traditional history books, however, tells quite a different story.  I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen that exposes the patriotic spin given to most school history texts. You may be astounded, as I have been, by the omissions, slants, and outright myths perpetrated by texbook writers in an effort to present our past in the best possible light. The distortions we’ve been fed on the lot of indentured servants is another such effort.

In my next post, I will tell the true tale from the mouth of a German immigrant, Gottlieb Mittelberger, who wrote “On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants” in 1754.

A voyage to the dark side.

The Tavern of John McHeath


The Stage Coach Inn was located about
twenty miles from McHeath’s Tavern.

Local history books provided the setting and conflict for my story, The Least of These.

The Revolutionary War was a brutal time in South Carolina when neighbors chose sides, resulting on a whopping one-third of the population as active Loyalists. This created a more true civil war than any in U.S. history. Neighbors destroyed each other’s homes, raped, scalped, and hacked each other to bits. Corpses were even dug up and abused.

A re-created tavern at the Living
History Park, North Augusta, S. C.

Real-life character Tarleton Brown and his young fictional savior, Mary Edith Dillon, sided with the Patriots. I needed a loyal subject of His Highness King George III to act as their foil.

From The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan, I learned the focal point of colonial life in my town was a tavern located on Red Hill, run by a man named John McHeath.

McHeath’s inn was famous for its whiskey. However, taverns were not only where folks went to throw back a few shots. They were often the only community buildings available. They could be used as courtrooms, schoolhouses, and even church services. To prevent drunkenness during these tamer activities, a set of wooden bars would be lowered to block access to alcohol. Even today, 

Note the bar that was lowered for
non-alcoholic activities.

we say, “The bar is closed.”

Taverns were prevalent along main thoroughfares and trading routes in the backwoods. McHeath’s Tavern served as an oasis on the Charles Town-Augusta stagecoach road where travelers stopped for food, drink, or a night’s rest, if needed. Locals showed up to hear gossip, make contacts, or enjoy a game of cards, or patrons might enjoy the occasional brawl or cockfight. I can imagine some gritty political discussions, too.

Inside the tavern at the Historic
Camden Revolutionary War Site
With that, the stage is set. Let the drama begin.

RESEARCH TIP: I learned much of this information from the tavern keeper at the “Living History Park” in North Augusta, South Carolina (http://www.colonialtimes.us/). Re-enactors are a great source of knowledge since they tend to be very passionate about their topic and strive for accuracy to the smallest detail. And like any enthusiast, they love to talk about their interest. 

Also helpful, I found a facsimile of a colonial tavern at the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site of Camden, South Carolina. Since McHeath’s inn is long gone, it helps to have one I can enter, walk around, and get a feel for.

What’s the Big Idea?

Don’t just lay there–do something!
Years ago, I took one of those quizzes in I-can’t-remember-which writing magazine that rated my creativity on par with a zucchini.
Harsh.
Maybe that’s why I like to base my stories on actual historical occurrences. Little known stories from our hometown newspaper and county library have generated interesting ideas for me.
My first book, The Least of These, came from the memoir of nearly-forgotten Tarleton Brown, the local Revolutionary War hero here in Barnwell, South Carolina. Even our esteemed state historian, Walter Edgar, not only omitted him from his tome, South Carolina: A History, but also from his book that focused solely on the American Revolution, Partisans & Redcoats.
In 1843, a veteran of the South Carolina Rangers, Colonel Tarleton Brown, published his memoirs in a short-lived newspaper known as the Charleston Rambler. He described in fascinating detail his Revolutionary War exploits in Barnwell, at that time considered a backwoods, frontier region. No famous battles occurred, but the fighting was fierce and real people suffered.
Tarleton Brown tells the story of the aftermath of 1781’s Siege of Augusta, Georgia, when he decided to “peep” into the fort they overtook. “…[B]ut it was a sore peep to me, as I took small-pox from it.”
Since no one in his family had ever had the disease, he hired Peggy Ogleby to care for him under a large oak tree. “This slut was a Tory, and informed her clan where I was. They said they would come and kill the d—n rebel, but as I had an invisible and Almighty Protector, they had not the power to execute their malicious design.”
A more modern edition of
Tarleton Brown’s memoirs
Apparently in 1843, he was still pretty pissed off about it. Somewhat vague about his method of escape, though.
My husband is an amateur historian and, through some research, discovered a treatise in our library recounting local history. The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan had originally been printed some time between 1912 and 1915.
This source tells a story of Tarleton Brown not found in his memoirs. He had been captured by Tories, it seems, and scheduled to hang. But the captors wanted to celebrate with a few whiskeys first, giving Brown the opportunity to gallop off on the horse to which he was tied.
To me, both these stories seem to leave something out—the likelihood of outside help in Tarleton’s escapes. Why not, then, have an ordinary young girl, very much “under the radar” in the society of the day, become integral in helping this Patriot fight the good fight? This girl would be very poor and considered beneath the consideration of those around her, yet she would be an invisible hero.
This was the seed I planted to “grow” The Least of These, a book I am re-writing for the third time. They say it’s the charm.