South Carolina – Origin of the Term Sandlapper
Sandlapper is a nickname for South Carolinians. Since the term is very old, its original use had long been forgotten. Where did such an expression come from, and what exactly did it once mean?
- Sandlapper as a Regional Appellation within SC - Does this name belong to all South Carolinians?
- Possible Origins of the Term Sandlapper - With "true" or "false" verdicts
- Definitions of "Sandlapper" - From various American dictionaries
- Historical Quotations about Sandlappers, Sand-Hillers, and Clay-Eaters - Prepare for the worst!
- References and Special Thanks
1. Sandlapper as a Regional Appellation within SC
Editor's Note: Not all South Carolinians consider themselves Sandlappers. Many think this nickname only applies to folks from certain regions of South Carolina.
For example, Sandlapper is our state's official magazine, but as its publishers quickly found out, many Upstate readers were less than pleased by that choice of a name. They "complained that any word connoting sand sounded too coastal." Oddly enough, when I asked my grandfather (who grew up on James Island near Charleston) if he considered himself a Sandlapper, he exclaimed with indignation, "Certainly not! I'm a Geechee!"
With all this confusion, I decided I better get some help. Dawn Mullin, the Reference Librarian at the South Carolina State Library, was one of the many helpful experts around the state who patiently answered my Sandlapper questions. I began our conversation by saying I needed help with our state nickname, and she corrected me quickly. Sandlapper, she said, doesn't apply to everyone in South Carolina, only to those from the Sand Hills – a distinct geographic area which covers about 12% of our state, including much of the Midlands. Dawn is from Sandy Run near Lexington, and she notes her hometown's name is well suited. The clay there is interspersed with plenty of sand, leftover from the days when this part of South Carolina was its coast.
Others agree that the name is not widespread, but differ on to whom it belongs. From 1943-1983, an English professor at USC named Claude Neuffer published the journal Names in South Carolina. The journal compiled input from folks around the Palmetto State regarding the origin of names common to South Carolina. In 1967, Neil Hester (originally of Mullins in Marion County, which is in South Carolina's Pee Dee) sumitted this info on "the sobriquet Sandlapper":
"As you say, the term Sandlapper never was widely circulated in the state. I remember it chiefly as a colloquial nickname for South Carolinians from my native area of the state and it originally seemed to refer to folks from a sandy region. I can lay claim to being a genuine Sandlapper by virtue of my birth 69 years ago at Mullins in Marion County in the heart of the South Carolina coastal plain. This area is known for its sandy soil favorable to the growth of bright leaf tobacco and the long-legged anopheles mosquitoes of its black water rivers and creeks. In fact, there was a point of the Little Pee Dee River near Mullins that was called Sandy Bluff, a favorite fishing and recreation area.
We suspect that many people outside of the Sand Hills Region have become familiar with "Sandlapper" by way of our state magazine, which bears the name. Some South Carolina schoolchildren also sing a song called Sandlappers. The song was written by Nelle McMaster Sprott, a music teacher from Winnsboro, which is in the heart of the Sand Hills. It goes like this:
"Offhand, I'd say the term Sandlapper probably was used more in sandy eastern South Carolina than in other parts of the state."
We are good sandlappers,
Yes, we're good sandlappers,
And we're mighty proud to say
That we live
Yes, we live
In the very best state
Of the USA!
2. Possible Origins of the Term Sandlapper
- Geography: South Carolina is well known for its sand – and not just along the sea. The Sand Hills Region, which covers much of the Midlands, is a mix of clay and sand. The sand is left over from the days when, millions of years ago, the center of our state was actually its coast. The Upstate also has its fair share of "sandy" places – Sandy Springs (Anderson County), Sandy Flat (Greenville County), Sandy River (Chester County), and Sand Creek (Laurens County), just to name a few.
Verdict: This explanation is partially true – it definitely explains the "sand" part of our name. However, since it does not address "lapper," it is not fully adequate.
- Revolutionary War Service: There are many stories that tie this term to South Carolina soldiers in the Revolutionary War. One tale suggests that "Sandlapper" was a British taunt used to deride men who dove into the sand seeking cover from enemy fire. Another alludes to our guerrilla warfare skills, noting that we often crept around with our heads and mouths near the ground. The British mocked us for this too, but the joke was on them of course. After we won, we supposedly took up the name as a badge of honor.
A similar legend was inspired by the battle at Fort Moultrie. The fort's walls are made of palmetto logs packed with sand. We heard that when the British fired cannonballs into the walls, sand would spray out and stick to the soldiers' lips, which were moist. This is a great story – certainly the best of them all – but sadly it just doesn't seem to be true. Hoping for an affirmation, we even called Fort Moultrie's own historian, Rick Hatcher. We hate to say this, but he actually laughed at us – in a very friendly way of course! (We first learned about this theory in Sandlapper magazine; one of their readers suggested The New Simms History of South Carolina as a source. Published in 1940, this textbook was used by generations of SC students. We found a copy of it, however, and were not able to locate any mention of either this story or the word "Sandlapper" in general.)
Verdict: False. Despite the fact that South Carolina was one of the most influential colonies in the American Revolution, there does not seem to be any proof for a "Sandlapper" connection. If you know of something we have missed, feel free to send it our way! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- George Washington: Closely related to the Revolutionary War theory is the notion that our nation's first president was the source of our Sandlapper sobriquet. At least one popular website states, "Most historians agree that it was President George Washington himself who – during his historic visit to South Carolina in 1791 – affectionately sealed the term 'Sandlapper' as the official nickname of the state's residents."
While it is true that Washington visited our state in 1791, we have not been able to locate any evidence that he dubbed us Sandlappers. The general may have been impressed by our military service, but he was less than impressed by the conditions he saw on his journey from Columbia to Camden. In fact, the only reference to sand we can find comes from his diary, in which he describes this stretch as "the most miserable pine barren I ever saw, being quite a white sand, & very hilly."
- Pellagra: In our initial article, we mentioned pellagra as a possible theory for why people might eat sand or clay. This was a mistake on our part, and we apologize. We were confused by a source we found in a journal called Names in South Carolina by the late USC English professor Claude Neuffer. In it he wrote, "George Washington, once travelling between Camden and Columbia, observed what he called the most miserable pine barren where the small, gaunt sand-hillers, whose skin was the color of the sand they lived on, scratched life from the dirt in a race with pellagra."
Reading this, we misunderstood the connection between "sand-hillers" (often synonymous with sandlappers) and pellagra. Pellagra is caused by a deficiency of niacin and protein. Geophagia may also be caused by a deficiency of nutrients, but that deficiency is more likely to be iron. Anemia may be related to hookworms, which can be ingested when eating clay, furthering the cycle.
Verdict: False. (Incidentally, Neuffer's statement is only partially right. The second half of his paraphrased quotation comes not from Washington but from renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park. In 1856, Olmsted published a book called A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. There he wrote, "The Sand-hillers ... are small, gaunt, and cadaverous, and their skin is just the color of the sand-hills they live on." Normally Neuffer is an excellent and reliable resource, and we know of nothing else by him that is inaccurate.)
- Geophagia: Please read Sandlapper Mystery Solved! to find out how our practice of eating clay earned us our unique nickname. Here are some additional resources to help you learn about the science and culture of geophagia:
Modern-Day Clay Eaters - Article published by The Augusta Chronicle in 1999
Clay Eating Past and Present - The New Georgia Encyclopedia takes a closer look at this regional phenomenon
Geophagia: The History of Earth-Eating - PDF - Excellent worldwide overview
Information about Pica Disorders - Explains that "Pica may also be a symptom of iron deficiency anemia secondary to hookworm infection." Hookworms can be ingested along with clay and were a common infliction in South Carolina during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Verdict: We believe this is the true origin of our state nickname.
3. Definitions of "Sandlapper" and "Clay-eater"
- Sandlapper n. One who eats dirt; by extension, a low-class or countrified white person. Chiefly South Atlantic. Derogatory. Compare to: Clay-eater.
Dictionary of American Regional English (Joan Houston Hall, 2002)
- Sand-hiller, Sand-lapper n. A "clay-eater."
An American Glossary (Richard Hopwood Thornton, 1912)
- Clay-eater n. A poor White, especially a native of North or South Carolina or Georgia. [The literal eating of clay by such people in order to supplement their otherwise meagre diet.] [Mid-19th Century, US.]
Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (Jonathon Green, 2000)
- Clay-eater n. In black and white usage, not necessarily biased, a reference to someone from South Carolina or Georgia, especially a poor white person or farmer, or any southern rustic. Also known as a "dirt-eater." The word has also been used as an epithet for a group of mixed-race people in South Carolina. The name probably derives from clay-eating, or dirt eating (more technically known as geophagia), practiced by some southern black people and poor white people. Earliest reports claimed that black slaves ate clay (dirt eating occurs in Africa); later reports noted consumption of soils by black and white females and young children. In those southern subcultures where the practice occurs, clays, obtained from digs or highway cuts, are identified as food and pan-heated and baked, salt and vinegar sometimes added before baking.
The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (Philip Herbst, 1997)
4. Historical Quotations about Sandlappers, Sand-Hillers, and Clay-Eaters
These quotes show that in the early days, being called a Sandlapper was no compliment. All are about people from the South Carolina-North Carolina-Georgia Sand Hills Region. Notice how the various terms – sandlappers, sand-hillers, clay-eaters, and clay-hillers – are used interchangeably.
- 1836 – "He is some miserable overseer – a sand-lapper from Goose Creek." (William Gilmore Simms, Mellichampe)
- 1848 – "The thing is whispered even among the sand-hillers of South Carolina." (John Gorham Palfrey, US Representative from Massachusetts, Congressional Globe)
- 1854 – "The piebald caricature he calls a State – a thing of lean and famished 'sand-hillers' and poor white folks, slaves and slave-holders." (Benjamin F. Wade, US Representative from Ohio, Congressional Globe)
- 1854 – "He was a little, dried-up withered atomy – a jaundiced 'sand-lapper' or 'clay-eater,' from the Wassamasaw country." (William Gilmore Simms, Scout)
- 1855 – "Fry was leading off with the fattest and yellowest sand-lapper of a woman I ever saw." (William Gilmore Simms, The Forayers)
- 1856 – "The sand-hillers ... are small guant, and cadaverous, and their skin is just the color of the sand-hills they live on." (Frederick Law Olmsted, Slave States)
- 1865 – "A strange specimen of the feminine gender came in just before we were called to breakfast. She was a regular piney-woods sand lapper with three tallow-faced bloodless looking squalid children. She stood up boldly with her back to the fire and entered freely into the general conversation. She had a respectable quid of the weed (ie, chewing tobacco) in her mouth. This she mastigated freely and upon turning to the fire ejected the juice with a genuine masculine grace." (Unpublished journal of a faculty member from the Medical College of the South Carolina, excerpt printed in Sandlapper magazine)
- 1866 – "The notorious clay-eaters ... are the lowest representatives of the United States ... little more than mere animals ... strange, undeveloped [and] repulsive.... For the most part, however, they are long-lived and rarely ill, realizing the old notion that dirt is extremely healthy." Read entire description here. (The New-York Times)
- 1875 – "In Congress on Feb. 10, 1875, a black representative from South Carolina had kind words for many whites, whom he described as 'noble-hearted, generous-hearted people.' Others he spoke of as 'the class of men thrown up by the war, that rude class of men I mean, the "tar-heels" and the "sand-hillers," and the "dirt eaters" of the South – it is with that class we have all our trouble." (Jack Claiborne and William Solomon Price, Discovering North Carolina: A Tar Heel Reader, Published 1991)
- 1879 – "The people we saw at the stations along our route were melancholy illustrations of the evils of the rule of such an oligarchy. There was no middle class visible anywhere – nothing but the two extremes. A man was either a 'gentleman,' and wore white shirt and city-made clothes, or he was a loutish hind, clad in mere apologies for garments. We thought we had found in the Georgia 'cracker' the lowest substratum of human society, but he was bright intelligence compared to the South Carolina 'clay-eater' and 'sand-hiller.'" (John McElroy, Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons)
- 1936 – "He had dismounted from his horse and stood over a half dozen jugs and demijohns ... while two sad looking 'sand-lappers' and a small covered wagon stood by." (Smith-Sass, Carolina Rice)
- 1942 – "Before the Civil War, crackers were often called 'sandlappers,' because their children 'contracted the habit of eating dirt.' This 'habit,' now known to be a symptom of hookworm infection, has by no means disappeared." (Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country)
- 1960 – "A picture of the Watts children came to her, ricketty-jointed and ragged, sand-lappers for sure." (Vinnie Williams, Walk Egypt)
- 1979 – "Referring to sandlapper and clayeater ... H. L. Menchen wrote that eating sand or a white, aluminous clay is a pathological aberration known as geophagia. The practice 'is encountered only in persons of low mentality and is usually accompanied by theological delusions of an extravagant character.' Since early in this century, however, when Public Health Service employees began a campaign to discourage the practice, clayeater has died along with the hookworms, and sandlapper has become an unusual and distinctive term of pride that William Gilmore Simms and other Nineteenth-Century authors would no longer understand. As the editor of the Sandlapper wrote in an early issue, the term now refers to the entire state and is no longer used in a derogatory sense." (Claude Neuffer, Names in South Carolina)
5. References and Special Thanks
From The South: Southern Journeyings and Jottings, printed as Correspondence of the New-York Times, April 7, 1866
During my present journeyings I have encountered a number of the notorious clay-eaters of this State, and have felt interested enough in their peculiar diet to talk to them, and make inquiries respecting their mode of life.
They generally reside in Hertford and Chowan counties, and there are many in South-Carolina and Georgia. They are the lowest representatives of the United States I have seen – little more than mere animals – totally uneducated, and have not generally been ten miles from the spot where they were born. They live for the most part in wretched cabins, tilling a few feet of wretched soil, and sometimes in caves or pits in the ground; have no idea beyond the immediate present; and are in everything the grossest materialists.
They talk a strange kind of gibberish, which is half the time so unintelligible that it must be conjectured by the content and by gestures. Their complexion is a dirty yellow, quite the hue of the clay they eat; their persons are very thin and lank generelly (sic), and their habits of the most filthy and repulsive character. Some of them, however, are troubled with dropsy, and die of the disease, supposed to be superinduced by their tellural pabulum. For the most part, however, they are long-lived and rarely ill, realizing the old notion that dirt is extremely healthy.
They are particularly fecund, and usually have from ten to twelve children, all nearly the same size – white-haired, white-eyed, unkempt, unwashed, and shudderingly unconventional. They seem not to have any theological notions, though they have acquired the art of swearing with a proficiency almost equal to that prevailing in cultivated society. Three of them never heard of the Bible, and another, a boy, declared "there were seven Gods, and that his 'grandpap' was two of 'em," which may be as rational as much of the theology of the present day, and certainly is as unintelligible.
The clay they eat, and for which they have a particular fondness, is of yellowish hue and sweetish taste, abounding in the vicinity, and serving, with corn-bread and a little bacon, for all their requirements. I have seen them eat it with gusto, as if it was a piece of meat or boiled potato. Sometimes, it is said, they have nothing else for days, and contrive to subsist in a manner that they no doubt consider very comfortable.
Strange, undeveloped, repulsive creatures they.
Do they and the Platos and the Dantes and the Shelleys of the race represent the same species? Darwin's development theory might well apply to them. First, a Digger Indian; then a clay-eater; then a shoulder-hitter; then a Ward politician; and so on, up to the philosophers and poets.