ASHLAND — Many of us are familiar with the catchy tune Yankee Doodle which starts out “Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni…”
This little melody is still known today as a patriotic and fun children’s song. But who was Yankee Doodle and why was he riding into town with a feather in his cap that he referred to as macaroni?
It makes no sense until you learn the story.
Yankee Doodle apparently was not a real person but a song that became very popular during the Revolutionary War. Although the history of its origin is sketchy, it was possibly written at Fort Crailo in Rensselaer, New York, which is located in the middle-eastern portion of the state.
The building is now a state historic site and is also known as Yankee Doodle House. The word “Crailo” is the Dutch word meaning “crow’s woods.”
Yankee Doodle was written by a British Army surgeon named Dr. Richard Shuckburgh in about 1755 and its purpose was to mock our colonial soldiers serving in the war against the British.
Initially, it was sung by British troops in the 1770’s.
The term “yankee” became very popular and eventually referred to any American living in the colonies, not just our soldiers. The word “doodle” referred to anyone who was a “fool” thus the name for our soldiers who were ridiculed because their appearance and manners did not rise to the strict standards of the British Army.
Along with various types of clothing, many American soldiers also wore a feather in their cap which caused the British to mock them but the reason why is interesting. During this time, macaroni was a new and exotic Italian food that became popular in England.
A young group of British noblemen founded a private club in the 1760’s. They named their group the Macaroni Club and dressed in highly fashionable clothing with very high headwear.
The uniformly dressed “Redcoats” teased the Americans by implying that the errant feather in their cap was a failed attempt to achieve the high level of fashion worn by themselves and the members of the Macaroni Club.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Americans turned the tables on the British and the meaning of the song completely changed. As British soldiers were forced back, the Americans militias began to sing the song back at them and turned it into a battle cry.
There have been many versions of the song as it became a marching tune and battle cry with one verse changing to “Sing Yankee Doodle, that fine tune Americans delight in. It suits for feasts, it suits for fun, it suits as well for fighting.”
Eventually, the British reportedly despised hearing the song because it became a constant reminder of their losses during the war.
The song was played after various battle surrenders during the Revolutionary War and at the surrender. In later years, it also became the unofficial national anthem for colonial forces and in the very early years of the United States.
In 1875, a famous lithograph entitled Yankee Doodle 1776 depicted two drummers and a piper playing the song as they led a group of soldiers into battle.
Yankee Doodle is also the state song of Connecticut. An unconfirmed area legend reports that Yankee Doodle was really Thomas Fitch, the son of a Connecticut colonial governor who led a group of Norwalk, Connecticut men to Rensselaer, New York in the 1750’s to help the British in the French and Indian War.
As the men left, Mr. Fitch’s sister, Elizabeth, stuck some chicken feathers in their caps. When they arrived in Rensselaer, their appearance led Dr. Shuckburgh to write the lyrics to the song.
The Board of Directors, staff and volunteers of the Ashland County Historical Society wish everyone a happy and fun 2021 Independence Day as we celebrate the freedoms so many sacrificed for us to enjoy.