What do children take with them when they venture with their parents into a new land? They take their imaginations, their energy and spirit, and the folk games and folklore they already have inside their heads. These children modify according to memory, sometimes faulty, and to circumstance, and they pass these games on to their peers. In playing their games and singing their songs, children are continuing traditions of great antiquity, one with pan-European origins, so that it is possible to see variations on the same games played throughout Western Europe and then brought to the New World. Many games have antecedents in Greek and Roman times. Ring games in particular, were played first by ladies and gentlemen of the European royal courts. By the time these games came to America with the colonists, they were played by children.
The Oklahoma cultural mix, where South and Midwest meet West, has been a rich one. After the Civil War many southerners immigrated to Oklahoma, settling principally south of the Canadian River. They often came by way of Arkansas or Texas and brought with them Southern cultural traditions. Beginning in 1889 Oklahoma was opened up to men and women lured by the great American dream of free land. Most emigrants came from the Midwest, principally from Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois, and were of Anglo-American heritage, including Scots-Irish. The migrants also included a substantial number of German families, as well as Irish and Scandinavians. During the first half of the nineteenth century African American families came to Oklahoma as slaves of the Indians; post Civil War they participated in the land rush. After 1900 a certain number of families came from Mexico, primarily to work in the fields.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Oklahoma as elsewhere, the most popular schoolyard games favored by boys from about six to twelve years of age included baseball, marbles, football, tag, and hide and seek, games that tested dexterity, physical skill, and strength, and games in which boys could compete against each other. Although there would always be some crossover, as with tag and hide-and-seek, on the whole girls preferred role-playing games that were a bit more decorous, such as playing with dolls, playing house, and playing school, as well as the active jump rope and croquet. The more colorful games, involving the ancient intricate songs and ring dances, with their dramatic ballads, courtship rituals and clever word play, were enjoyed by boys and girls but were not favored quite as much. In all these games, local variations with regional flavor always sprang up: playing policeman was replaced by "Buffalo Bill" or "cops and robbers" by cowboys and Indians.
Many children's games included harmless divination, a foretelling of the future. Girls' jump rope games were an excellent illustration of this and were a way for ritual and repeated rhymes to give a collective pleasure to a group of giggling, laughing girls. Depending upon where the jumper missed the skip, she might marry a "rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief." She might live in a "big house, little house, pig pen, barn, castle, hotel, or any old farm." This method could also determine her wedding dress, the name of her prospective husband, and so forth.
Play-party games would also have been popular in Oklahoma. A number of families who emigrated from the Midwest into Oklahoma were adherents of the Reformed Presbyterian church. Dancing was frowned upon or forbidden, but the natural energy and enthusiasm of children and young adults for movement, for rhyming, and for flirtatious behavior gave rise to play-party games. A variant on the ancient ring games of Europe, these games were easy to play. There was no organization, no management, and no music. All that a group needed was a place to move around, such as a parlor or barn. Popular play-party games included "Pig in the Parlor," "Skip to My Lou," "Happy is the Miller," "Needle's Eye," "There's a Light in the Window," "Down in Alabama," "Lazy Mary," "Kilmacrankie," "Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley," and "Weevily Wheat." Variations of these were found all over the United States, and they originated in medieval Europe.
Apart from playground games and play-party games, there were riddles, games, and songs handed down by parents. Many Oklahoma families lived in straitened conditions in isolated, rural communities, their existence revolving around country church, one-room rural schools, and strict tenets of a Calvinist religion, but this did not preclude lives rich in tradition and play. After the chores were done, the family would gather around the fire to play the same old games, recite familiar riddles, and sing beloved songs. With this ritual and repetition the family would bond in harmony. Beloved by this type of family was the riddle: "Twelve pears hanging high; twelve men came riding by. Each man took a pear—and left eleven hanging there." Answer: "Each man" was a man's name! This riddle has been recorded in Virginia, the Ozarks, Tennessee, Philadelphia, among black children in New Orleans, in Guilford County, South Carolina, and among part-Cherokee "Croatans" of Robeson County, North Carolina. They might sing a well-known play-party song, "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh," found in Michigan, South Carolina, and Nebraska or enjoy a variation on a widespread song, "Go Tell Aunt Betsey."
When African Americans came to Oklahoma, they came mostly from the southern states where they had developed their own blend of African and European folk games, emphasizing strong oral tradition and love of rhythm. Examples would be ring games, line games such as "Little Sally Walker," and the various handclap games. Mexican American families also brought with them their own games, which came out of the European tradition but had been modified more dramatically over time. La Puerta Esta Quebrada ("The Door is Broken") clearly shares the same roots with "London Bridge is Falling Down." Mexican American children in particular would have enjoyed wordplay forms such as dichos, riddles or sayings, often with a moral.
As elsewhere, the folk games allowed Oklahoma children to express their natural love for physical movement, illustrated the struggle between good and evil, taught them skills they would need as adults, and encouraged them to develop a love of language and problem solving. They were the perfect outlets for a child's boundless imagination and expression of the inner world.
Martha Hartzog, "Folk Games," in The New Handbook of Texas, ed. Ron Tyler (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996).
Martha Hartzog, "Folk Games of Texas Children," in Texas Toys and Games, ed. Francis Edward Abernethy (Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989).
Catharine Ann McCollum, "Winter Evenings in Iowa, 1873–1880," Journal of American Folklore 56 (April–June 1943).
William Wells Newell, Games and Songs of American Children: Collected and Compared (1903; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1963).
Edwin F. Piper, "Some Play-Party Games of the Middle West," Journal of American Folklore 28 (1915).
Brian Sutton-Smith and B. G. Rosenberg, "Sixty Years of Historical Change in the Game Preferences of American Children," in The Folkgames of Children, ed. Brian Sutton-Smith (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972).
Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill, eds., The Culture of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).
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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Martha Hartzog, “Folk Games,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FO007.
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