De Camptown Races

Duane Campbell dcamp911 at JUNO.COM
Wed Nov 12 02:45:10 UTC 2003

On Tue, 11 Nov 2003 17:15:30 -0800 dpmstrel at writes:
> 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.

This doesn't sit well with me. First, Camptown is capitalized in the
song, so it was a specific place. Camptown PA is named after a person,
Captain Job Camp, the first settler.

More to the point, though, are the social and economic circumstances of
the time. The kind of camp town you describe may have existed in
California during the gold rush, when small communities had their
population increase exponentially in six months, faster than housing
could be built, though the homeless and vagrant allusion would not have
been quite accurate.

Bradford County in the mid-19th Century, though, was a quite different
place. There were still many people alive who came here when it was a
roadless frontier, and there was rapid, almost explosive growth, but
nothing to compare with Gold Country. People were moving here in droves
then for the economic opportunity, but they weren't living in homeless
camps outside town. They were living first in rooming houses and hotels,
then quickly in their own cabins or houses. Yes, there was the occasional
eccentric living out in the woods, and they were creatures of legend, but
there were no homeless camps.

> The urban audiences of the early minstrels would know about
> camptowns, whereas
> they would not know of tiny Camptown, Pennsylvania.

Nor would they need to. Just as they wouldn't know where the Swanee River
was. And for that matter, neither did Stephen Foster.


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