The English Roots of Southern Culture

The Southern states of the USA have been deeply connected to England since their founding, with the British colony of Virginia being the epicentre and progenitor of much of what has gone on to become Southern culture. Virginia hospitality became Southern hospitality, Virginia barbecue became Southern barbecue, Virginia fried chicken became Southern fried chicken, Virginia ham became Southern country ham, and Virginia speech ways formed the roots of the Southern dialect. In each case, England and English culture are the origins of these iconically Southern phenomena. Many of the South’s major cities were founded by the British, of whom the ruling class was predominantly of English extraction:

Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee were established primarily by English and Scotch-Irish settlers, and not only the South’s oldest cities (Richmond, Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah) but its deepest interior settlements (Louisville and Nashville) were founded by people of British descent.

Across the South, the English influence is evident in place names: Norfolk (VA), Portsmouth (VA), Winchester (VA), York (VA), London (KY), Manchester (TN), Birmingham (AL), York (SC), and so on. The significance of the English foundations of the South can also be found in the numerous places named for the Randolph family: the Randolph Counties of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina; Randolph, Mississippi; and Randolph, Tennessee.

The Randolph family traces its roots in the South to the union of William and Mary Randolph, whose ancestries lie in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, respectively. This couple are sometimes referred to as the ‘Adam and Eve of Virginia’, although they perhaps might more accurately be seen as the Adam and Eve of the South.

William Randolph’s children included Isham Randolph of Dungeness – whose daughter Jane would go on to be the mother of Thomas Jefferson – and Elizabeth Randolph – whose daughter Mary was the great grandmother of the legendary Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. The young Thomas Jefferson was educated alongside members of the Randolph family at Tuckahoe Plantation and Jefferson’s younger brother was named Randolph. Thomas Mann Randolph Sr., one of the Randolphs who was raised and educated alongside Thomas Jefferson, was the father of Mary Randolph, author of the seminal Southern cook book The Virginia House-Wife (1824). Mary’s brother Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. married Martha Jefferson, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, and became a Congressman and Governor of Virginia.

The importance of the Randolph family extends well beyond the confines of Virginia and into the Deep South. Holly Springs, Mississippi, for example, was founded in 1836 by Whitmel Sephas Randolph and large numbers of settlers from Virginia. The city has a Randolph Street to this day.

Peter Randolph was born in Virginia and moved with his family to Wilkinson County, Mississippi, in 1819, where he became a planter. Peter Randolph’s son, John Hampden Randolph, moved his family to Iberville Parish, Louisiana, in 1841, where he owned and operated the sugar plantations of Forest Home, Nottoway, Blythewood, and Bayou Goula. Nottoway Plantation House – a Greek Revival and Italianate-styled mansion built by John Hampden Randolph in 1859 – is the largest extant antebellum plantation house in the South.

The Greek revival architectural style – so iconic a feature of the Southern landscape, from mansions to court houses and to more humble buildings – was itself brought over from England. The English-born Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of American architecture‘, emigrated from England in 1795 and introduced the style. Latrobe worked with Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia state capitol, and was the third architect of the US Capitol building. He designed the north portico of the White House and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore. Looking at buildings in England such as these in Worcester, Devizes, and Bristol, alongside buildings in Mississippi such as these in Indianola, Marks, and Greenville, the similarities are clear.

The gardens of the South continue to exhibit the influence of England. According to Southern Living magazine, ‘no plant rivals the azalea in Southern popularity’ and ‘Camellias are among the South’s icons’. Asian azaleas came to the United States via England and the first hybrids were planted in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1848. The Reverend John Grimké Drayton was the first to introduce azaleas to outdoor gardens in the US and was also one of the first to utilize Camellia Japonica as a landscaping plant:

Drayton had seen Romantic-style gardens in England while studying for the ministry and brought them stateside. In the 1840s, he was the first to introduce the now-common azalea to America’s outdoor gardens when he planted it at Magnolia Plantation. Drayton was also one of the first to utilize Camellia Japonica as a landscaping plant, naming his particular varietal after his wife, Julia.

The first Japonica was growing in England some time before 1739 in the greenhouse of Lord Petre. Camellias were brought from the Far East in the early 1700s to Europe, and then to America.

Southern cultural phenomena that originate in England include horse racing, popular in the South since the colonial period. The Kentucky Derby has been run every consecutive year since 1875, and is a key fixture in the calendar of Southern sporting and cultural events. Its origins lie in an 1872 trip to England by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. Clark visited Epsom in Surrey, attending the Epsom Derby, a horse racing event dating to 1870. The Kentucky Derby was initially run at 1 1/2 miles, the same distance as the Epsom Derby. Even the iconic drink of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep, can be traced back to the English colonists of Virginia, who originally made the drink with rum, rather than the bourbon of today.

When it comes to the famous cuisine of the American South, as noted earlier, here we also find a strong English influence. Southern fried chicken has its roots in England, as does Southern barbecue and country ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato pie, pound cake, and so on. Variety meats such as chitlins and pig’s feet – now often associated particularly with black ‘soul food’ – also came to the South from England. Terms such as ‘skillet’, a ‘mess of greens’, and ‘moonshine’ are all of English origin.

Many of the folk beliefs of African Americans (and some rural whites) are derived from English beliefs and practices. Hoodoo items such as the lucky horseshoe, the rabbit’s foot, the lucky coin, and the lucky pin are rooted in the folk beliefs of English settlers and indentured servants. Even the infamous ‘voodoo doll’ made its way to the South from England. As late as the nineteenth century, it was reported that:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it.

Arguably more than any other region of the United States, then, the South has most closely preserved its origins in the England of old. In its speech ways, food, architecture, gardens, culture, and folklore, the South remains deeply English at its core.

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