What is a Swamp Yankee?

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What’s in a name? Since I began earlier this year to rehab the 22-foot Sisu named Swamp Yankee, I have been asked by a number of people: “Just what is a Swamp Yankee?”

This seems as good a time as any to try to answer that question, seeing as how the boat shop has been quiet for more than a week; shipwright Charlie Koller is off sailing and I am headed for the mountains.

Work resumes in earnest later this week as we make a big push for a late-summer launch. But back to the phrase Swamp Yankee.

The boat’s name is essentially a tribute to my father, David Sisson, and his forebears — quintessential Swamp Yankees all. They were tough, smart, laconic fishermen, farmers and merchants who grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut and could wrest a living from land, sea and small shops. Best as I can tell, they were an independent, hard-working lot who spoke what was on their minds and didn’t suffer fools. That’s a pretty good shorthand definition of a Swamp Yankee.

My father and his sister.

My father and his sister.

A teenage Swamp Yankee sitting on a dolphin.

A teenage Swamp Yankee sitting on a dolphin.

As a young person I couldn’t articulate the definition of a Swamp Yankee, but it has been clear to me since childhood that I, too, am a member of that tribe, for better or worse.

As schoolchildren of 12 or 13 my classmates and I had to write a family history, a chestnut assignment that is still doled out to students today. My mother saved my “essay” — written on both sides of a single sheet of white composition paper — because, I believe, of one line that particularly amused her.

Of my father, I wrote: “My father is probably from English desent [sic] although he really has never been too interested in finding out. I refer to him as an educated “Swamp Yankee” because his family has been in this country for quite a long time and in some ways my father fits the role of the stereotyped New Englander.”

To which the teacher wrote in the margin: “Are Swamp Yankees uneducated?”

“On my father’s side have been several tough old commercial fishermen and a good number of small merchants.”

The teacher commented: “Betcha they were neither tough nor old when they started.”

David Sisson and tribe in 2007.

David Sisson and tribe in 2007.

My father was a descendant of Richard and Mary Sisson, Quakers who fled England to Portsmouth, R.I., in 1651 to escape religious persecution. As the crow flies, he didn’t stray far from his Colonial roots, nor did he have any desire to do so. He was at home beside the tidal river in South County, R.I., where he owned and operated several businesses with his sister in Watch Hill.

My grandfather, W. Bernard Sisson, of Westerly, R.I., was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) stationed in Quonochontaug, R.I., and Point Judith, where he and his mates launched pulling-boats through the surf to rescue unlucky sailors.

W. Bernard Sisson (center, standing).

W. Bernard Sisson (center, standing).

He died suddenly in 1922 when my father was 2 years old. Tragically, my father’s 5-year-old brother, Billie, was killed the following year when he was hit by a truck. I have photos of my grandmother mourning her husband and son. She is dressed in black, facing seaward, with my father, who is probably 3, held close to her waist.

Mother and son.

Mother and son.

My great-uncle, Capt. Ed Sisson, was a Rhode Island seine net fisherman who was said to have the keen ability to smell fish before he could see them. He died at age 76 working in the surf, hauling in his heavy seine, literally with his boots on.

My great-grandfather, William Sisson, held the distinction of being one of the youngest to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, according to his obituary. At the outbreak of the war he was too young to enlist legally, so he left Rhode Island for New Hampshire, where he added a few years to his age and joined a cavalry regiment under another name. One of his legs was amputated as the result of a severe battlefield wound. He returned to Rhode Island, where he made a living as a commercial fisherman.

William Sisson, the “Older,” portrait of a Swamp Yankee.

William Sisson, the “Older,” portrait of a Swamp Yankee.

Life made these Swamp Yankees tough. They knew hard times — sudden death, war, hurricanes and fires. All of the ones I can remember had the ability to communicate with just a look. As a boy you learned to read their eyes, their brow, the tilt of a head. And they were tart-tongued when they felt they needed to be, but not profane.

Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin addressed the Swamp Yankee question in two columns a number of years ago. My father clipped them out of the paper and saved them. He particularly liked an answer that involved a barn door, which I will explain in a moment.

In his first column, Patinkin concluded that a Swamp Yankee was an “earthy, proud New Englander who dates to the Revolution, but hasn’t made or spent much money since.” Although that’s not inaccurate, it is, perhaps, a bit too narrow; Patinkin heard from his readers, whose responses caused him to write a second column.

Grandmother at the helm.

Grandmother at the helm.

One letter writer referred to a Swamp Yankee as someone who still patches his roof with corrugated tin. Another, the columnist wrote, described this type as a “sort of Rhode Island hillbilly.” A third offered that a Swamp Yankee “is not always right, but is never wrong.”

A letter writer from Jamestown, R.I., told Patinkin that he had asked his grandfather what a Swamp Yankee was. This was the reply: “We are,” the grandfather reported, “a cross between a jackass and a barn door. The jackass accounts for the stubbornness shown in many of us; the barn door has never been described to me. Maybe someone in the next world will have the answer.”

It’s hard to improve on that. At the end of the column, Patinkin concludes: “I think I’m more confused than when I started.”

Making a living from coastal waters.

Making a living from coastal waters.

Other research brought me to a 20-plus-year-old story in Tidings Magazine (now gone, I believe), which was distributed in southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.

In that story, writer Larry Chick quotes Prent Lanphere the “Younger,” of Westerly, observing that there are two types of Swamp Yankees: freshwater and saltwater.

My great-uncle’s seasonal fishing shed.

My great-uncle’s seasonal fishing shed.

“The upcountry variety lives off slab bacon, jonnycakes and boiled potatoes; those along shore seine smelts to eat with their jonnycakes, spear eels through the ice during the winter months, smoke buckies (river herring) and bluefish the remainder of the year.”

Prent Lanphere the Younger was a classmate of my fathers; Prent died late last year at age 92, with the obit explaining that he had gone to “the great duck blind in the sky.” (My father died in 2011 at age 91.)

As I boy, I have fond memories of Prent Lanphere the “Older,” a colorful, wiry charter captain and waterman who did indeed spear eels through the ice, net smelts in the spring and smoke buckies. In my memory he is bouncing a blowfish (northern puffer) on the dock to the delight of summer tourists. Prent would draw them in with the antic, and before you knew it he had them signed up for a half-day fishing trip.

The writer also interviewed three sisters who were the daughters of a large dairy farmer. When the writer asked the three, how do you know you’re Swamp Yankees, one replied: “How do we know we’re Americans? We just are."

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