A Yankee looks upon a horse or any animal simply as a machine out of which to get as much profit as possible at the smallest possible cost and trouble, and also as something which is meant to be ill-used. The way some of them treat their horses is simply atrocious and makes me so savage sometimes that I can hardly control myself. If we had a Yankee on the place here, I know I would kick him till he could not stand, within a week of his coming, for ill-using something. p, 167Despite the fact that the man who wrote this note, James Cowan, was talking about people who lived right here, and despite the fact that my own great-grandparents may well have been among Cowan's neighbors, the truth is, I've got no dog in this fight.
Had he said "A Hollander" rather than "A Yankee," I might have. But the ingrate horse beaters are people he calls "Yankees." In all likelihood he didn't mean my great-grandparents. I've got no idea how my forbearers handled their horses--I know they had them because they appear on their standard homesteading portrait. What's more, I know my great-grandfather, a North Sea sailor, didn't make it as a North American farmer. The path he left all over the upper Midwest makes clear he didn't set down the roots immigration brochures promised. At best, he was a tenant farmer; at worst, something of a failure.
But Mr. Cowan's ire has been raised by other Americans, among whom Cowan doesn't count himself. James Cowan was landed British gentry, one of hundreds who live in northwest Iowa in the 1880s, upper-class Brits--"pups," they called themselves--who left England and Scotland to learn farming in an area only recently inhabited by white men and women. For the most part, they were here to waste time, to learn something before returning England. And, oh yes, to make money in real estate. For a time, they owned millions of acres and made millions of dollars.
The James Cowan who spewed hate in that quote above was "upper-class" in an old-world fashion that kept him forever disdainful of the Yankee masses, the human beasts of burden he needed to turn his soil and harvest his grain, but not to drink his blessed tea.
Before Cowan ever got here, he'd likely never put a horse to work breaking ground. The steeds leisurely housed in his country estate were for hunting fox or pulling a carriage. He hadn't worked. He never needed a horse to make a living.
But then maybe he was right. Maybe those grimy yankees he and the Brits needed to help with harvest all too regularly beat-up horses. Maybe the locals were the earthy turds, potato-eaters who didn't know their place. Northwest Iowa looked nothing like Downton Abbey in 1880.
The word "yankee" was, once upon a time, an ethnic slur against Hollanders, who some New Yorkers liked to call "John Cheese," the New Amsterdam Dutch being the very first American cheeseheads. Eventually, the word came to any hyphenated-American from the huddled masses. What James Cowan means here when he designates "Yankees," is 19th century white trash, and certainly not his high-and-mighty Brits.
I may think my own ethnic heritage escaped his indictment, but James Cowan was without a doubt talking more about me and my people than he was himself and his.
I suppose we all need someone to beat up. James Cowan needed Yankees and those untidy Yankees needed the beasts of the field.
Seems to me, the truth of this and every Christmas season is there is a much better way.