Family madlibs

Today I came across yet another narrative recounting how my extended family “settled” the frontiers of western Virginia and North Carolina. In this, as in every one of these stories, my ancestors were described as brave, doughty settlers taming the wilderness and bravely fighting off “warlike” Indians. We’ve written before in this blog, about reevaluating the language that we use, not in an effort to be “politically correct,” but to be historically correct.  If you want a serious thoughtful examination of those words, revisit the entry, “The words we use, the stories they tell.”


But if you want a frivolous but fun little exercise, read on.  Today, in a fit of annoyance, I decided to replace all the “brave settler” language with historically accurate terms and descriptions. The result was both silly and yet deeply satisfying.


So here’s a recap of some of the most common “brave settler” vocabulary with my replacement term.

Settlers and pioneers = “invaders”

To call a people “settlers” implies that they are moving into a land that is not already settled. I’m replacing those terms with “invaders.

Hardy or restless pioneers = “desperate”

My Scotch-Irish forebears are frequently referred to using words like hardy, restless, and independent.  What those terms really mean is that they were so desperate for land that they were willing to live in areas where they might be killed by justifiably angry Natives. I’m replacing those terms with “desperate.

Frontier = “Native homeland”

Implies the edge of OUR territory rather than the place where YOU fight to maintain your territory. Instead I describe what the land was being used for by the Natives or call is simply “Native homeland.”



Here’s the original:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was on the western frontier in an area then known as Augusta County.  The Dennis families were hardy adventurers, brave enough to move where few white men ever lived before.  These pioneers were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the fierce warlike Indians who continuously stalked the white invaders of their land.”


Here’s the translation:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia.  This move was to an area then called by the English  “Augusta County,” but was situated along the Great Indian War Path and within a well-used tribal hunting ground.  The Dennis families were desperate for land, desperate enough to move to Native territory.  These white invaders were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the justifiably angry Indians who tried to push the white invaders from their homeland.”




Handy Glossary of replacement words: (Try it with your own family myths! It’s kind of fun!)


Terms describing slavery:


Plantation – forced-labor camp


Master/mistress – wardens


Slave – enslaved person, prisoner, forced laborer


Overseer – prison guard or labor-camp guard


Sex between owners and enslaved – rape



Terms describing colonial expansion:


Colony – usurped land


Settler – invader


Pioneer – invader


Hardy – desperate


Restless – forced to move


Indian fighter – Indian murderer


Frontier – native land


(military) expedition – violent invasion


Civilization – lifeways the colonizer values


Savages, barbarians, etc. –

Those who live on land colonizers want

Those who live in ways different from the colonizers

Those who worship differently than the colonizers


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4 thoughts on “Family madlibs”

  1. How I wish you could see the exhibition that is currently at the Confederation Gallery here in Charlottetown. Kent Monkman, a Cree from Manitoba, was commissioned to create paintings and installations to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada but from the First Nations point of view. He does it with grace and that sense of satire that has served Canadians so well for so long. But it rips at the heart. It has been a startling, sobering, frightening, and overwhelming lesson for both Laurent and I to work on it as docents. My historical education was very much of the “God, Queen and Empire” school – I have learned things that make me ashamed of my country and my heritage: the starvation of the Plains nations, the coercion and betrayal of the Chiefs, the horror of the Residential Schools and life – if it can be called that – on the Reserves.

    1. Will (and Laurent) – We SO wish we could see the exhibit as well. We’re egging ourselves on to finish the first draft of this behemoth of a book by dreaming up all the wonderful trips we’ll take as a reward. PEI (and two of it’s inhabitants) is on that list!

  2. I am presently presenting an exhibit by Cree artist Kent Monkman, entitled Shame and Prejudice a history of Resilience. It is the story of Confederation in Canada from 1864 to today. Not a pretty story according to First Nations, disease, famine, genocide, residential schools, incarceration, violence and prejudice. The non-native visitors to the exhibit have problems with this version of Canada’s history presented in large canvasses and artifacts. All the artist wants to do is to explain what happened and have the visitors use critical thinking in looking at the exhibit. As he said, now you know the truth of what happened to us indigenous people and we can move on. This exhibit is part of the Truth and Reconciliation Enquiry funded by the Government of Canada and is travelling around the country.

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