De Camptown Races

Daniel Partner dpmstrel at BAYAREA.NET
Wed Nov 12 01:15:30 UTC 2003

My understanding is that in those days a camptown was a place outside of a town
where vagrants lived -- like a hooverville of the depression or a homeless
encampment today. Maybe the American Dialect Society folks can confirm this.

With that understanding of the word the song is all the more humorous. A
mid-nineteenth century audience would find the idea of a horserace in such a
place to be very funny (also that there would be ladies there is ridiculous).

The urban audiences of the early minstrels would know about camptowns, whereas
they would not know of tiny Camptown, Pennsylvania. This is not to say that
Foster did not remember the Camptown of his school days. So maybe for him there
was a double meaning.

It certainly is interesting that there was a horse race in Camptown, PA,
epecially since the race track was five miles long. The first two lines of the
song reads: "De Camptown ladies sing dis song, doo-dah! doo-dah! De Camptown
racetrack five miles long, Oh! doo-dah day." The length of the track is
mentioned again in the fourth verse: "See dem flyin' on a ten mile heat,
doo-dah! doo-dah! Round de race track, den repeat, Oh! doo-dah day!"

Also, the original sheet music has Camptown capitalized -- an actual place and
not a generic camptown. -- Daniel

Quoting Duane Campbell <dcamp911 at>:

~ On Tue, 11 Nov 2003 08:15:20 -0800 dpmstrel at writes:
~ > Dear Mr. Campbell -- I've heard that some people think that Foster
~ > was referring
~ > to Camptown, PA in his song, "De Camptown Races" but have found no
~ > mention of
~ > this in historical documents. Could you direct me to a historian in
~ > your area
~ > who may be able to help me with this? -- Daniel
~ That would probably be, um, well, me. You are right; there has never been
~ found any documentary evidence that the song was based on Camptown,
~ Pennsylvania, but it seems reasonably certain.
~ Stephen Foster lived in Towanda when he was 14-15 years old. His brother
~ was the chief engineer building a canal along the Susquehanna River.
~ Foster attended the Towanda Academy (a history of Camptown says he
~ attended the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute, but that is wrong) and
~ later the Athens Academy, 16 miles north, as work on the canal advanced.
~ Athens is the location of Tioga Point. Incidentally, that would have put
~ him in Towanda at the same time as David Wilmot, a founder of the Free
~ Soil Party and author of the Wilmot Proviso, if you are interested in
~ that period.
~ Fifteen miles away is Camptown, where a famous annual horserace was held.
~ It was a five mile straight line race between Camptown and Wyalusing on a
~ narrow track following the Wyalusing Creek. It was unusual in that it was
~ a timed race, i.e., the horses did not race in a bunch but rather one at
~ a time with the fastest time winning the race. That much is well
~ established, but just how they timed it (which no one seems to question)
~ I have not been able to learn.
~ This was 1840 - 1841, not all that long before young Stephen started
~ writing songs. There is little doubt that his song drew on memories of
~ the Camptown races, which he may very well have attended with his
~ brother. But it is not a historical treatise on the race. As you surely
~ know, Foster was often quite casual about literal history, e.g. Swanee
~ River, My Old Kentucky Home, etc.
~ Hope this has been helpful. If you want more, let me know and I'll see
~ what I can dig up.
~ BTW, somewhere in my study, though I can't put my hands on it right now,
~ I have a turn-of-the-century professionally published script for a
~ blackface minstrel. If I find it, I'll send you the publishing info in
~ case it might contain something that might interest you. It is not a
~ curtain to curtain script but rather a series of sketches and banter from
~ which a local cast could pick and choose.
~ D
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