When America had very recently become the poor man’s pipe dream, it was seen as a vast land, open and free. There were plains that stretched for miles in any direction, uninhabited forests and mountains. It was hundreds of miles across the ocean from Europe and was as mysterious and unknown to most of the established cities there as the core of the earth. A perfect place, then, to send all the felons, vagrants, malcontents, and any other outlaws who were unwanted.
As desperate folk yearning for religious freedom and open land made the voyage across the ocean, criminals and cutthroats were being emptied from England’s prisons to sail alongside them. Most were simply penal emigrants from the debtors’ prisons, caught in a bad situation. In Scotland and Ireland, so-called “crimps,” who were essentially kidnappers, would trick the poorer people into debt using alcohol and false promises, then ship them off to America from debtors’ prison. But there was also a fair share of true criminals; throughout the 1700s, blackmailers, pimps, embezzlers, rapists, and mercenary thugs were being sent by the thousands, far away from Europe and into the shiny New World.
Meanwhile, in Europe, people from all over fled their countries, seeking respite from civil wars, border conflicts, and the Spanish Inquisition. These runaways often brought with them a sense of idleness, of pillaging and scrounging for food since they had no steady work, and they became known as “land lubbers” or “lubbers” by the aristocracy and middle class. Sometime later, the lubbers became known as “crackers,” a nickname that by 1760 had made it’s way to the British North American colonies.
A line taken from a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth explains the crackers:
I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.
The origin and reason for the word “cracker” is in dispute. Most agree that it comes from a British term meaning loudmouth or braggart. There are also other possible explanations; many of these poor, landless white rogues would drive two-wheeled wagons, pulled by a cow or ox, and crack their whips from side to side as they went along; they also ate a good amount of “cracked corn.” Whatever the origin, crackers were known for stealing; their lazy, backwoods ways; and for their wives, who had to work hard to make up for their husbands’ idleness.
Today, the term “cracker” is used in a jocular, self-referential way by Georgians or Floridians, to indicate that their families have long lived in the area. It is also sometimes used as an offensive term for a white person. But the word goes back hundreds of years and has long been morphing into the word it is today.
For more about crimps and crackers, check out this Fold3 topic page created by redclaysreturn087.