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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Western Man, as Observed by a Lady

An Englishwoman, Mrs. Matilda C. Houstoun, tut-tutted her way through America during the early 1840s and wrote about it in Hesperos (1850). Here are her comments on the locals she observed from the steamboat as she traveled down the Mississippi:
As we descended the river, the state of Arkansas was on our right hand for several hundred miles. The general character of its inhabitants is none of the best, and it is acknowledged to be the refuge and head-quarters of loafers and lawless characters of all kinds. In Arkansaw (as it is pronounced here) are also to be found the most numerous and accomplished professors in the art of using the bowie knife, and also of the ingenious one of gouging. We saw some curious specimens of the 'western men' at several of the wooding places; they are generally tall, lanky, unwashed men, with clay-coloured faces, looking for all the world as though they had been made out of the same mud that dyes the Mississippi waters. Their hair is commonly of a reddish flaxen hue, and hangs in uncombed masses over the coat collars; add to this, an old broad brimmed hat, with the crown half out, and boots of untanned leather, with the pantaloons tucked down in the inside of them, and a 'western man' is before you. These curious and original beings were generally accompanied by two or three dogs, and they are never known to move without a rifle and a bowie knife. 
Here is a subsequent comment on some of the ruffians with whom she shared her boat:
Such characters as these, men essentially 'rowdy,' and 'loafers' by profession, are . .  found in great numbers on the smaller river steamers, particularly on those which are bound for the Red River. These men are looked upon with great suspicion, and are always avoided as much as possible by the respectable portion of the community who happen to be on board; they are to be found (at least I am told so) always in the fore part of the vessel, and are loud and violent in their discourse, never without their cigars or quids in their mouths, and around them is an atmosphere of vice, dirt, and degradation. Another distinguishing mark of these men is, that when not engaged in swearing, boasting, and blaspheming, they are sure to be either whittling on their chair, or picking their teeth with a bowie knife.
The "gouging" that Houston refers to was an unarmed fighting style on the frontier. It was utterly without rules, and featured eye-gouging, scrotum tearing, and the biting off of fingers, noses, and ears; the disfigurement of one's opponent was the object. A less brutal type of fight was called "rough and tumble," and proscribed those techniques. The prevalence of gouging is subject to some academic skepticism; it may have been greatly exaggerated to ├ępater les bourgeois (French for "bug the squares").
There's an excellent article on the subject here: "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry".

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