Saturday, July 4, 2015

Civil War Officers and Cowboys - the History and Etymology of "Come Hell or High Water"

“Come hell or high water.”  It sounds like something ancient and Biblical – Old Testament Biblical.  Noah, plagues, eternal damnation.

The paper trail, however, paints a different picture.  The idiom, “come hell or high water,” may be little more than one-hundred years old; the apparent forerunner idiom, “in spite of hell or high water,” is only about forty years older.  The “high water” of the idiom may refer to seasonal flooding along the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, and not The Flood.

Earliest Known Use of “Come Hell or High Water”

The earliest known appearance of the idiom in print comes from Henry Wallace Phillips’ popular “Red Saunders” series of Western stories: 

‘Do you, Kyle, take this woman, Loys, to have and keep track of, come hell or high water, her heirs and assigns for ever?’ – or such a matter – says he, all in one breath.  They both said they did.

A Red-Haired Cupid, Henry Wallace Phillips, McClure’s, Volume 17, number 4, August 1901, page 380.

The wedding scene from A Red-Haired Cupid

“Red Saunders,” a “picturesque and resourceful cowboy,”[i] was a popular Western character in the early twentieth century.  The popularity of the character persisted for at least twenty years, spawning dozens of stories, at least four collections of stories, and several films and film series produced as late as 1919.  

The “Red Saunders” stories were known for their use of the, “vernacular of the cow punchers or ranchmen and miners . . . . The speech is condensed, individual, replete with imagery and simile and full of unexpected turns and play upon words . . . and it is at all times the wildest slang.”[ii]

Within ten years, the idiom appears to have been firmly established, even in New York City:

High water time in the Mississippi valley is one of fear and danger to all that live in the lowlands along the river from Cairo to the gulf stretch, says the New York Evening Post . . . .  High water talk is the one subject of every one.  As the saying goes, it’s “come hell and high water.”

Yorkville Enquirer, May 17, 1912, page 1.

Ten years later, the idiom was still associated with cattlemen of the American West:

Belgium and France sign a military alliance.  They will get together, regardless of circumstances – “come hell or high water,” as the Old Cattleman would have put it.

The Bismark Tribune (North Dakota), May 20, 1922, page 4.

Many of the post-1902 references seem to support the idea that the idiom came from the American West.  Michael Quinion, writing on World Wide Words, for example, cites a 1939 book entitled, Trampling Herd: the Story of the Cattle Range in America and an article about old-time cattlemen that appeared in the Washington Post in 1905:

He prospered in those palmy days until he became the largest cattle owner in the territory and felt able to take his regular blowout in St Louis, until 1884, when, between the alien land law, drought and rustlers, the “hell and high water of the cattlemen,” he ... walked out of the Kansas City stock yards a few hundred thousand dollars worse off and no cattle worth putting an iron on, much less pulling grass by hand to feed.

Michael Quinion, (quoting, The Washington Post, 1905).

But the fact that those references appeared after the use of the idiom in a “Red Saunders” story begs the question: was the idiom associated with the West because it appeared in a Red Saunders story, or was it used in a Red Saunders story precisely because it was an idiom popular out west? 


A forerunner to the idiom, “in spite of hell and high water,” dates to 1861.  It comes from the early American West – west of the Cumberland Gap – but not the Far West, where the Buffalo roam.  All of the earliest examples that I could find are connected with Civil War officers and come from the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys in Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. 

The idiom eventually found its way into the American West.  Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, one form of the idiom or another appeared in newspapers from Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah; or in stories originating from western states but published in other regions.  The now more familiar form, “come hell or high water,” does not appear until the Red Saunders story in 1901; it may well be the product of Henry Wallace Phillips’ imagination and peculiar literary genius.

In Spite of Hell

The phrase, “in spite of hell,” dates to at least as early 1659:

Notwithstanding all the confusions that have happened in the world, all the fires that have been kindled, the massacres that have been executed, and the battels that have been fought against the true Christian Religion, the storehouse thereof hath continued to this day, and these Oracles of God been preserved in spite of hell.

John Arrowsmith, Armilla Catechetica, a Chain of Principles; or, an orderly concatenation of Theological Aphorismes and Exercitation; wherein, the Chief Heads of Christian Religion are asserted and improved, Cambridge, John Field, Printer to the University, 1659, page 106.

The phrase was still in use in the United States during the mid-eighteenth century:

Miles Clinton is a bright boy, who has just reached the dignity of a six-year-old. – As one of the rights of that age he goes to church on his own hook, and, last Sunday, came home in advance of the family, and announced to his sister, who had remained at home, that the minister swore dreadfully in the pulpit.

“’Why, what did he say?

“’Oh, he said he would have a revival in spite of hell!

The Grand River Times (Grand Haven, Michigan), January 29, 1857, page 2.

Or, alternatively:

Turn him into a cornfield to fatten, and he’ll break out.  Try to stop him out of a cornfield, and he’ll break in in spite of the devil.

M’arthur Democrat (McArthur, Ohio), December 20, 1859, page 2.

If you lived along a river, your problems might be more immediate than “hell” or “the devil”:

We still live – or rather exist – here at the Rapids, in spite of winter, tight times, high water, and a general stagnation of business.

The Grand Haven (Michigan) News, December 7, 1859, page 2.

In Spite of Hell or High Water

It may have taken someone having to deal with both high water and hell to put the two together.  They say war is hell, and crossing a river during wartime may pose “high water” problems.  In 1861, during the early days of the Civil War, a report on the purported movements of the Confederate General, Simon Bolivar Buckner, used the earliest version of the idiom that I could find in print:

General Buckner has crossed Green river, at the head of a large force, swearing he will reach Lebanon junction (thirty miles behind us) by Saturday night, “in spite of Hell or high water.”

The Hancock Jeffersonian (Findlay, Ohio), November 15, 1861, page 3.

The phrase may have gained some degree of currency during the war.  Several of the earliest examples I found related to post-Civil War hostilities or were attributed to men who served as officers during the Civil War.

Seven years before General Buckner crossed the Green River, and four years after the official end of the Civil War, a state of war still raged from time to time during Reconstruction, as anti-Union terrorists continued to agitate against the extension of full voting rights to newly freed citizens.  In 1868, the Governor of Missouri called a company of militia into active service shortly after the Ku Klux Klan murdered a voter registration officer and threatened other public officials with similar treatment. 

The troops were placed under the command of Major William Monks who lived in southern Missouri along the Arkansas-Missouri border:[iii] 

It was stated that the law-abiding citizens were without arms and that the Ku-klux were raiding the whole country [(of Northern Arkansas)]; the whole country was being terrorized by said men and in God’s name asked us to come and bring men and arms to aid the civil officers to enforce the law. 

William Monks, A History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas, West Plains, Missouri, West Plains Journal Co., 1907 (an annotated version of Monk’s book, edited by John Bradbury and Lou Wehmer, is available from

Monks determined to lead his forces into Arkansas, “since the rebels at the commencement of the Civil war had had no regard for state lines . . . .”  Neither “hell nor high water” would stop him:

A St. Louis dispatch of the 16th says: A speck of war exists upon our southern border.  During the canvass Governor Fletcher called into active service a company of militia, and placed them under command of Major Monks, a Radical desperado, who is now threatening to invade Arkansas to punish some alleged outrage upon loyal men by the ku-Klux.  The Radicals of this county held a meeting beseeching him not to do so, as they fear retaliation by Arkansas, pledging themselves to prevent him.  Monks, however, says he is going, and “hell nor high water can’t stop me.”

Nashville Union and American (Tennessee), November 19, 1868, page 1.

In 1872, the idiom made its way into the Congressional Record (then known as the Congressional Globe) in connection with testimony regarding a contested election in Arkansas.  The words are said to have been spoken by Governor Powell Clayton who, a decade earlier, had served as a Union General during the Civil War:

[Governor Clayton] said pledged to get Johnson out of the way, and intended to make it good; that the majority of the supreme court of the State was with him, and he had the cards in his own hands and he was going to play them.  He said that it was understood before this, between him and Senator McDonald, that he was to go to the United States Senate, and that ‘they might fight him as much as they were a mind to, but he was going there in spite of hell and high water.’”

Arkansas Contested Election – Mr. Boles, Appendix to the Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 42d Congress, February 9, 1872, page 36 (excerpt from testimony of John Agery).[iv]

In 1875, a newspaper in South Carolina used the idiom in describing a cartoon from Leslie’s Illustrated, in which President Grant is shown as a down-on-his-luck circus promoter having a difficult time drumming up support for a third term as President.  The Southern newspaper gloated about the Republicans’ loss of support and that anti-Ku Klux Klan sentiment was no longer a strong campaign draw in the North:

The last number of Frank Leslie contains an admirable cartoon by Kepler, which represents the Republican stock company returning from its New England tour. . . .  The President is astride the jaded steed that draws the wagon, and looking very sulky and very drunk. . . . The death’s head and the Kluklux mask are carried along on poles, as worthless accompaniments which have ceased to draw. . . .  He seems determined to drive on in spite of the devil and high water.  His rickety old show wagon is going to pieces, but he cares not for that.  He is too sulky to hear advice, and too drunk to appreciate it if he heard it.

The Daily Phoenix (Columbia, South Carolina), April 21, 1875, page 1.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 24, 1875, volume 40, number 1021.

Western Usage

The idiom “hell and/or high water” continued in regular use throughout the 1880s and 1890s.  Two early uses come from stories about Oklahoma land rushes:

Oklahoma or Bust

They Lost Their Wagon and Immediately Took the Cars.

Wellington, Kas., April 19.  – Two Oklahoma colonist outfits attempted this morning to cross State creek, which is greatly swollen, at Foraker’s ford, two miles south of this city.  The first horses to enter were drowned, the wagon swept away and the occupants rescued with great difficulty.  Without attempting to save the submerged wagon or contents the boomers hastily drove the other outfit to a farmhouse near by, leaving it in charge of the farmer, and the mounting horses, galloped away to the nearest railroad station to take the cars for Oklahoma.  They had traveled over 200 miles overland, and said they were determined to reach Oklahoma in spite of “hell and high water.

Evening Star (Washington DC), April 19, 1889, page 4.

Three years and another Oklahoma land rush later, the story of a tragic drowning story appeared which, even if true, reads more like the set-up to a gallows-humor joke than an actual event:

A sensational and pathetic drowning fatality occurred in the Choctaw Nation, which has just been reported here.  A family of returning boomers, man, wife, and three children, who were disappointed in not getting a suitable claim in the newly opened territory were going back to Texas.  They tried to cross the Blue at the Cherokee ford, but the river was much swollen and the man was advised to wait.  He swore he would cross, saying, “I am going to Texas in spite of hell or high water,” and with the words whipped his team of mules into the stream.  The swift current swept them down and all were drowned before they reached the middle.  None of the bodies have been recovered.

The Dakota Farmers’ Leader (Canton, South Dakota), May 20, 1892, page 6.

Other early examples of use came from Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Texas and Utah:

Giddings will revise his speech uttered at the Opera House where he declared that “the boys know their rights, and would have them in spite of hell and high water.”  He will take it all back and vow that he never said it; that it was somebody else; not Giddings.

The Dallas Daily Herald, May 24, 1887, page 3.

We mean business, and we are not afraid of hell or high water.  There is one gentleman to whom these remarks are particularly addressed.  No more monkey business goes.

The Salt Lake Herald (Utah), July 22, 1890, page 4.

We can beat the Republicans next year “in spite of hell and high water.” Hastily yours, P. P. Elder. 
Is them words Latin?

The Saline County Journal (Salina, Kansas), December 10, 1891, page 2.

I’ve always been a dimicrat and I’m going to be to the end of time in spite of hell or high-water.

The Globe-Republican (Dodge City, Kansas), March 31, 1892, page 1.

Although the capital fight has been over two years and more, the esteemed Helena Herald cannot dispel its violent alarm that somebody it refers to as Marcus Daly has captured the Montana legislature in spite of hell and high water.

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), November 16, 1896, page 4.

What will Rev. Lyman Abbott do with his critics? He is somewhat like the country minister who had expressed strange views on hell and the deluge.  Before services the following Sunday a deacon approached and said: “Well, Brother Jones, whar’bouts air you at this mornin’?”  “I don’t know exactly,” replied the minister, “but I’m somewhere betwixt hell an’ high water!  “An what air you agoin’ ter do about it?” asked the deacon.  The minister leaned toward him and whispered: “I’m a-goin’ in swimmin’!”

Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), August 1, 1897, page 12.


After forty years, the stage was set for Henry Wallace Phillips to codify the expression into its current form (if it hadn't already taken that form in an oral tradition or in undiscovered print sources).  The idiom that had been moving west from Kentucky since at least 1861 had finally touched the entire country and reached its final form.  Now, the idiom ain't gonna change,

“come hell or high water!”

[i] The Frankfort Roundabout (Kentucky), December 24, 1904, page 11.
[ii] The Topeka State Journal, April 26, 1902, page 13.
[iii] William Monks was a third-generation American soldier.  His grandfather fought during the Revolutionary War, and his father saw action in the Seminole Wars. 
[iv] Clayton’s comments were also reported in the press: “The Washington correspondent of the Baltimore Gazette, says: “Evidence before the committee investigating the charges against Senator Clayton, exhibits a state of political affairs in Arkansas much worse than could well have been imagined before, and confirms the testimony of certain witnesses, that Clayton did as he said he would, namely, ‘go to the U. S. Senate in spite of hell and high water.’ – The investigation will not likely be concluded within two months.” The Staunton Spectator (Staunton, Virginia), March 12, 1872, page 2.

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