How did the Southern US get to be Called Dixie?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

There continues to be a great amount of debate over the origins of the word "Dixie" in connection with the American South. At least three major theories exist, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. A few facts concerning Dixie are not in dispute, including the use of the minstrel song Dixie as the informal anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The song was indeed performed at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's first and only president. Few (if any) references to Dixie as a region have been dated before 1860.

Many southerners have distanced themselves from Civil War-era references, such as the Confederate flag and terms like Dixie.
Many southerners have distanced themselves from Civil War-era references, such as the Confederate flag and terms like Dixie.

One theory concerning the American South and "Dixie" is also one of the first to be debunked by many historians. Some sources claim that in the days of the state banking system, certain banks in Louisiana produced currency bearing both English and French denominations. The ten dollar notes were informally called "Dixs" or "Dixies", based on the French word for "ten." As these notes began to circulate throughout the South, the holders became known collectively as "Dixies." While these "dixie bills" did exist, there is little evidence that their nickname actually became associated with an entire region.

The 1858 song 'Dixie' describes a slave's longing for an idyllic Southern plantation.
The 1858 song 'Dixie' describes a slave's longing for an idyllic Southern plantation.

Another popular theory connecting Dixie with the Southern United States concerns a very real border called the Mason-Dixon line. Originally ordered by the British colonial government, the Mason-Dixon line delineated the border between Pennsylvania, Maryland and parts of Delaware and western Virginia. Eventually this line would also mark the division between free and slave states. Some sources claim that "Dixie" is an informal corruption of surveyor Jeremiah Dixon's last name, and was adopted by the Confederacy to represent the entire region south of that Pennsylvania/Maryland border.

Although this theory appears to have the most historical basis, many historians and mapmakers now discount the Dixon/Dixie connection. The Mason-Dixon line was in existence for many years before the first known references to the South as Dixie. While many residents of the region may have used the Mason-Dixon line as an unofficial political or philosophical boundary, there have been no documented uses of Dixie in contemporary newspapers or literature until the publication of the songs Johnny Roach and Dixie's Land in 1859.

The third popular theory actually has its origins in the North, not the South. An Ohioan named Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote songs for minstrel shows performed primarily in New York City. These minstrel songs were often written in a crude form of black patois, mimicking the language of slaves. In 1858, Emmett composed a minstrel song called Dixie's Land, or Dixie. In the song, Emmett describes a slave's longing for an idyllic plantation. Some sources say the song was inspired by a real slaveowner named Johan Dixy, who was noted for his benevolent treatment of slaves on his Manhattan plantation called Dixy's Land.

The problem with this theory is that no records of such a kind Northern slaveowner on Manhattan Island actually exist. Emmett himself told a biographer that the song was inspired by Northern-based circus troupes who looked forward to performing in the warmer Southern climate during winter months. These performers often referred to the South as "Dixie's Land", for reasons of their own. There are records indicating several black or white minstrel performers using the name Dixie before Emmett wrote the song in 1858.

Popularity of the Dixie nickname has waned in recent years. Many modern Southerners have distanced themselves from various Civil War era references, especially the display of the Confederate flag and the perceived racist undertones of the unofficial Dixie moniker.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I also do not wish to be anonymous. My great aunt, Alice, was the wife of the 11th Baronet, Sir Beaumont, of Bosworth. My mother was brought up by her and always talked about the Dixies' American connections and property. Paul S., originally from Middlesbrough, England.


I have no wish to be anonymous. There is a suggestion that the Dixie family, from Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, England, bought into the Old South, and thus left their name there. I have family history in that small market town. -- Chris H., Coventry, England.


When someone says the "Confederate Flag," they are usually referring to the regimental battle flag seen in movies and television shows, such as "The Dukes of Hazzard." That flag adorns the top of the Dukes' car, the General Lee. It is a blue St. Andrew's X-style cross bordered in white on a red field. In the "X" are 13 white stars, symbolizing the 13 states of the Confederate States of America.

The first unofficial flag of the Confederacy was the "Bonnie Blue" flag, a rectangular flag with a single white star in the middle of a navy field. In other words--the Southern states were united under a single star. This flag does not carry the racist overtones of the "Confederate" flag, also known as "the Stars and Bars."


When you say, "Confederate Flag" what are you referring to?

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