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Scalawag – The Fortnightly Word

I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. Every couple of weeks or so, we’ll pause to explore a particular word or phrase. Sometimes it’ll be one we come across on a daily basis, other times it might be something rarely spoken whose meaning is nearly lost to us.

The Word This Week Is “Scalawag”!

The most common definition of “scalawag” is a Southerner who supported Reconstruction. But where did this word come from? What did it mean before the Civil War? What did it have to do with cows and sheep? And what’s a wag have to do with a hanging? All this and more will be answered herein!


Though it seems to have had its first uses in America, seems to have Scottish and English roots. We begin with the Scottish word scallag, a term from the 1700s referring to a farm servant. 1Dictionary of the Scots Language. Next, we combine it with a shortened version of waghalter, a 16th century word for someone likely to be hanged. 2Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s possible that waghalter isn’t the origin of this particular use of “wag,” but I’ve not found anything more convincing.

When combined together, you get scalawag in both form and definition.

H.R. Robinson print depicting the depressed state of the American economy, 1837.
H.R. Robinson print depicting the depressed state of the American economy, 1837.

Earliest Uses

The earliest known use for scalawag comes from Ithaca, New York. This has caused some to conclude that the word itself came from the same locale, and maybe that’s even true. What we do know is that the word appeared as “skallewagg” in newspapers from April 1832.

The Ithaca Chronicle derisively referred to the Anti-Masonic political party as “the scalliwag ticket.” The leader of this party was James Brisbane, a Scottish immigrant who claimed to have coined (or at least defined) the term in question.

This seems all too tidy. The earliest use of the Scottish-derived “scalawag” was against the Scottish immigrant who coined the term itself? It’s not incredibly believable, but this is the closest we can get to anything factual.

Two years later and 100 miles to the west, “scalawag” was defined in Batavia, New York as someone running away from a debt. The local paper, the Republican Advocate, printed the word “Skallewagg” next to the names of people who had defaulted on loans. 3“The Original Scalawag,” Boston Globe, March 10, 2013. Here.


In August of 1839, we see another appearance as well as a potentially broadening definition. In the local section of the City Express from Maumee City, Ohio, was printed a notice of what was then known as a lynching:

Judge Lynch passed through town on Saturday night last. He remained here long enough to give a worthless scalawag a genteel suit, from “head to heels” of tar and feathers. 4Maumee City Express; Maumee City, Ohio; Sat, Aug 3, 1839 – Page 2. Here. Recall that the definition of lynching in the 1830s did not require death.

Through the 1840s and 1850s, the definition seems to have softened a bit. The times when it was used politically, such as in February of 1847, it referred almost playfully to “scalawag politicians.” 5Ypsilanti Sentinel; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Wed, Feb 24, 1847 – Page 2. Here. Mostly, however, it was used as a sort of placeholder for anyone up to no good. Whether they were stealing sweet potatoes or simply a group of poor Bostonians, they might be easily labeled as “scalawags.” 6Kenosha Telegraph; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Fri, Oct 11, 1850 – Page 2. Here and The Athens Post; Athens, Tennessee; Fri, Dec 3, 1852 – Page 3. Here.

In July of 1854, it was defined in the New York monthly, Knickerbocker magazine as one “who was too lazy to work, but picked up a living by petifoggin, and other means more or less equivocal.” 7As printed in The Daily Journal; Wilmington, North Carolina; Thu, Jul 20, 1854 – Page 2. Here.

Gone to the Cows

For over two decades, the definition of “scalawag” remained more or less the same – an untrustworthy person who was either poor or in debt (or a politician, of course). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the definition completely changed.

In late 1855, the New York Times began to use the word in relation to cattle. For instance, a good drove of cattle sold by a farmer “redeemed the character… from the stigma of the scalawags from that town last week….” 8The New York Times; New York, New York; Thu, Dec 13, 1855 – Page 3. Here.

Cattle in cornfield ruined by drought and grasshoppers. Near Carson, North Dakota. July 1936.
Cattle in cornfield ruined by drought and grasshoppers. Near Carson, North Dakota. July 1936.

If this were merely a one-time use, it could be written off as a bit of flourish from the Agriculture editor. But neither was it relegated to this single instance, nor was it the domain of the New York Times.

“Scalawags are in abundance,” read the Brooklyn Evening Star from October 1856, “especially with some Texas cattle.” 9Brooklyn Evening Star; Brooklyn, New York; Mon, Oct 13, 1856 – Page 3. Here. A year later, in the Chicago Tribune, part of an “embarrassing state of financial matters” in cattle prices was blamed on “a few disgusting ‘scalawags.'” 10Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Illinois; Mon, Oct 12, 1857 – Page 1. Here.

But neither was it relagated to cattle. In 1856 and 1857, the New York Tribune and Chicago Tribune both afixed the term to sheep. In the latter case, referring to “nothing but skin and bone scalaways left on the market.” 11New-York Tribune; New York, New York; Thu, Jul 24, 1856 – Page 8. Here. And Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Illinois; Tue, Sep 29, 1857 – Page 1. Here.

The use of “scalawag” in the realm of livestock continued through the 1920s, especially in places like Tennessee and out west in Arizona. Such usage waned over time, though it remained steady as the word was about to make still another, much longer lasting change.

Of the Baser Sort

While those in the Northern cities of New York and Chicago applied the term to cattle, other locations far and away were trying to nail down the original definition.

Sort of says it all, doesn't it?
Sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

According to an 1859 copy of the Weekly Oregon Statesman out of Salem, Oregon, “scalawag” was a “term of reproach, generally applied to “lewd fellows of the baser sort.” They quoted the New York Tribune as their source: “a scalawag is a compound of loafer, blackguard and scamp.” 12Weekly Oregon Statesman; Salem, Oregon; Thu, Apr 14, 1859 – Page 2. Here.

Even in the Illinois legislature they pondered the meaning. That same year, when called upon to define it, a Mr. Church of McHenry county insisted that it was “a classical term, and gentlemen ought to understand it.” He went on to explain that some in his county were “inclined to say that it is synonymous with ‘democrat,’ but I don’t believe it.” This was met with some good bit of laughter. 13Janesville Daily Gazette; Janesville, Wisconsin; Mon, Feb 7, 1859 – Page 2. Here.

The Scalawag as a Carpetbagger

Through the Civil War, the definition seems to have changed not at all. Though the definition we remember most is linked with the conflict, it did not make this change while the war was raging. Instead, the evidence suggests that it didn’t make the final leap to a collaborating Southerner until the fall elections of 1867.

In 1866, the use of the term was minimal, again falling back into the livestock industry almost exclusively. Paging through newspapers of the time, one would be hard pressed to find “scalawag” used in any other capacity.

Fairly anti-semitic illustration of a carpetbagger.
Fairly anti-semitic illustration of a carpetbagger.

Still, some political and social uses made their way into print. The Cedar Falls Gazette out of Iowa claimed that a rumor about President Andrew Johnson “orginated in the fertile brain of some Copperhead scalawag.” 14Cedar Falls Gazette; Cedar Falls, Iowa; Fri, May 4, 1866 – Page 2. Here. It’s clear that the original definition of scalawag was intended, though it’s interesting to note that it was defining someone who would, a year later, be nearly the opposite of a scalawag.

Even in the spring of 1867, but a few months from the election, “scalawag” was used in a Tennessee paper to describe members of the Chicago Board of Trade – hardly a Southern traitor. 15Public Ledger; Memphis, Tennessee; Thu, Mar 28, 1867 – Page 2. Here.

More interesting still was the use of the term in describing what would soon be known as “carpetbaggers” in Wilmington, North Carolina’s Daily Journal:

“It is altogether a mistake to suppose that we indulge in a bad joke when we advise the negroes in the present condition of things to prefer their own color as Senators and Representatives in Congress to imported scalawags or pale-faced renegades. We prefer them a hundred to one, and we do not see why the negroes should do it. We prefer them because, in the first place, we can trust a Southern black man when we cannot trust a white traitor or a Yankee speculator in negro votes.” 16The Daily Journal; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sat, Aug 3, 1867 – Page 3. Here.

The Daily Journal was clearly describing a “carpetbagger” while using the term “scalawag.”

Scalawags and “the Blacks”

The first instance of “scalawag” being used to mean a Southerner collaborating with supposedly Northern (or black) interests is undoubtedly lost. What is certain is that in the months before the definition would change, its use greatly increased.

Cover of Harper's Weekly, November 1867.
Cover of Harper’s Weekly, November 1867.

Though it cannot be pinpointed, one of the earliest (if not the earliest) use of the new definition came in August of 1867, out of Lynchburg, Virginia. In a short article about black citizens running for congress, the local paper seemed to approve of the idea. “The blacks only have to shove a few scalawag whites out of their way, and the field will be clear.” 17As printed in The South-Western; Shreveport, Louisiana; Wed, Aug 28, 1867 – Page 1. Here.

Two months later, in Alexandria, Louisiana, the Louisiana Democrat ran a piece about the vote, which the paper held was a “farce.” They lamented that a “Jayhawker” was elected. This was a setback, but they were undaunted.

They claimed that “The infamous and ignorant set of Jayhawkers, deserters, scalawags and niggers can do naything that will long stand or be long tolerated ever.” This lot “will soon rot and go to the dogs.” 18The Louisiana Democrat; Alexandria, Louisiana; Wed, Oct 9, 1867 – Page 2. Here.

It’s possible that they were simply using the original “scoundrel” definition, but the other examples – Jayhawkers, deserters and black people in general – were specific. It stands to reason that their use of “scalawag” was as well.

The next such use came a few weeks later in November. In Lee County, Alabama, three local goverment officers were thrown out by the Reconstruction government for not allowing black citizens to testify. The Louisville, Kentucky Daily Courier reported that “of course three scalawags succeeded them.” 19The Louisville Daily Courier; Louisville, Kentucky; Mon, Nov 4, 1867 – Page 1. Here.

Three days later, the Augusta, Georgia Chronicle & Sentinel defined radical Reconstructionists as “scalawags, traitors, Yankee emissaries, and negroes.” The election that they described was one where black citizens were voting almost exclusively. The exceptions were noted as: “A few white scalawags were seen to approach the polls during the day, most of them throwing furtive glances to the right and left to see if their presence in the ebony crowd was noticed.” 20The Daily Standard; Raleigh, North Carolina; Thu, Nov 7, 1867 – Page 3. Here.

It’s difficult to believe that this new definition spread so quickly in only a few short months, and likely it did not. Its use in the common parliance probably dated a few months prior to the October print premier. It’s also probable that it had appeared in a widely circulated speech or pamphlet now lost or unavailable.


By the end of the election of 1867, this new definition was solidified across the entire nation. Apart from the livestock reports, this was virtually the only definition used from here on out.

On Christmas of 1867, the Louisville Daily Courier printed a letter from an Atlantan correspondent. In it, he described carpetbaggers in all but name, explaining the poor luck they were havnig in Georgia. They were, he wrote, “beginning to realize even among the scalawags, that blood is thicker than water, and that a Georgian, even though he be a scalawag, has more sympathy with a white man than he can have with the negroes or with any of them [from the North].” 21The Louisville Daily Courier; Louisville, Kentucky; Wed, Dec 25, 1867 – Page 1. Here.

Incidentally, the term “Carpet-Bagger” was in use by the same paper earlier in the month. In the December 7, 1867 issue a headline read: “Be Gone With You Carpet-Baggers!” This was probably not its first use in reference to Northerners coming south for Reconstruction, but it’s use was, like scalawag, on the rise around this time. 22The Louisville Daily Courier; Louisville, Kentucky; Sat, Dec 7, 1867 – Page 4. Here.

The word, new definition in tow, exploded through 1868. 23A search on for the term “scalawag” in 1867 returned 203 hits, many of which dealt with livestock. The same search of 1868 returned 2,055 hits. It maintained its frequency well into the second decade of the 1900s. By then, the definition had again softened, and its use in livestock markets had not yet waned.

When used to mean a Southerner who collaborated with Reconstruction, it was almost always accompanied by the term “carpetbagger,” setting up an almost quaint recollection of Reconstruction times. 24Again, this can be gleened from various searches on and Google Books.

Just why a term at the time more famous for poor quality livestock was specifically selected as the word used to describe those seen as Southern traitors is unknown. What’s certain, however, is that definition has long outlived its use.

Even now, while “scalawag” is seen as hokey and far out of today’s parlance, this is the only definition we recall.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.