Understanding our search terms and their context

To help us understand the contemporary use of our seed search terms, we used Google Ngram Viewer to explore historic, digitised texts[1], as can be seen below when searching on ‘quadroon’:

Screenshot of google Ngram Viewer
Screenshot of results when searching for quadroon in Google Ngram Viewer

Following up on the texts discovered by the search, we encountered a definition of ‘quadroon’ in the Massachusetts Agricultural Journal for 1816[2].

Interestingly, the topic arose in a letter on page 157, “On the crossing the breed of animals” by Dr Parry. Having discussed cross-breeding of horses and then of sheep, Dr Parry concludes his letter with:

Of the truth of the principles which I am endeavouring to
establish, there cannot be better or more irrefragable evidence
than in the known effect of mixing different varieties of the
human race. Thus, “ a white man with a negro woman pro-
duces a Mulatto, of a yellow blackish colour, with black short
frizzled hair. A white man with a mulatto woman produces
a Quadroon, of a lighter yellow than the former. A white man
with a Quadroon woman produces a Mestizo. A white man with
a Mestizo woman produces almost a perfect white, called a
Quinteroon. This is the last gradation, their being no visible
difference between the fair Quinteroons and the whites ; and
the children of a white and Quinteroon consider themselves as
free from all taint of the negro race.”

Precisely the converse of this fact takes place in the mixture
of white females with Negro males.

Quite an insight into the mindset of the time, for not only is Dr Parry specific about the definitions of these ‘gradations’ but that he uses them as terms he expects to be widely known to illustrate the points he made earlier in his letter when discussing animals. In modern pedagogical parlance, he is scaffolding his readers, providing a known scaffold of human ‘cross-breeding’ on which they can construct the new knowledge of animal cross-breeding.

Returning to the immediate point of our research, this is another example of the oft found problem especially in social history, that when something is common or well-known, it is not documented because there is no need, and hence lost from the historic record. Though in this case, that the phenomenon is well known has led to it being recorded.


1 We appreciate the eclectic nature of Google Books, but argue the collection of texts can still form an effective starting point for getting a feel for the terms, if not providing a definitive, academically rigorous understanding of those terms.

2 @book{1816massachusetts,
    title={The Massachusetts Agricultural Repository and Journal},
    number={v. 4},
    url={https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=r45aAAAAYAAJ},
    year={1816}
  }