Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What is a "Pelhamite" and For How Long Have We Been Called That?

Why are we called Pelhamites?  Why not "Pelhamanians," "Pelhamians" or "Pelhamers?"  Perhaps even "Pelhamaniacs!"  How long have we been known as "Pelhamites?"  Actually, just what is a Pelhamite?  What do the residents of such communities as Pelham, New Hampshire and Pelham, Georgia call themselves?  Will we ever really know the answers to such earth-shaking questions as these?

The Earliest Documented Use of "Pelhamite" Found So Far

Every resident of Pelham, New York knows the term "Pelhamite."  It has been used countless times in ordinary conversations and has appeared thousands of times in print publications and online to denote a resident of the Town of Pelham, New York.  The earliest documented use of the term that I yet have uncovered (at least as applied to citizens of our town) appeared more than a century ago in the October 8, 1910 issue of The Pelham Sun.  There, the following appeared:

"The Town of Pelham, although one of the smallest in the county, did itself proud, for a Pelhamite, Col. F. J. Hoyle, of Pelham Manor, was made permanent chairman of the [Westchester County Democratic] convention, and later our Supervisor, Edgar C. Beecroft, was unanimously chosen as the candidate for District Attorney amid thunderous applause."

Source:  THE COUNTY DEMOCRATS SELECT A GRAND TICKET, The Pelham Sun, Oct. 8, 1910, Vol. 1, No. 27, p. 1, cols. 1-2 (emphasis supplied).  

The term "Pelhamite" in the above quote was used so casually and without pretense that it seems very unlikely that this use ultimately will reflect the earliest documented use of the term.  My efforts to find earlier uses, however, so far have failed.  Even a review of the recently discovered (and quite extensive) "Records of The Pelham Manor Protective Club 1881 -- 1892" that have been acquired by the Westchester County Historical Society reveal no instances of the use of the term during that eleven-year period.  

In any event, the term seems to have been used somewhat sparingly until about 1922 when "Pelhamite" began to appear frequently in the local newspaper, The Pelham Sun.  At least one possible explanation for what, so far, seems to be a lack of use of the term during the 19th century may lie in the peculiar history of our town.

Pelham was quite rural during much of the 19th century with the center of its population located on City Island.  Before the annexation of City Island, Hunter's Island and the lands that now form Pelham Bay Park, the Town of Pelham consisted of a host of settlements somewhat distant from one another including Pelhamville, Prospect Hill, Pelham Manor, Bartow, and City Island.  City Island and the mainland settlements bickered over a host of issues such as expenditures to repair local roadways.  During elections various of the settlements pitted their own slates of candidates against one another.  In short, citizen identity seemed to be strongly tied to, or at least correlated with, the local settlement in which the citizen resided rather than with the Town of Pelham for much of the nineteenth century.

After New York City's annexation of City Island and the adjacent mainland and with the subsequent rise of the automobile, the electric trolley, and the improvement and expansion of local roadways, the tenor seems to have changed.  Citizens were still proud members of the villages in which they resided, but a "sense of Town" seems to have strengthened and clearly is present and reflected in the earliest issues of Volume 1 of The Pelham Sun published in 1910.  Indeed, it seems no surprise that by at least 1910, we considered ourselves "Pelhamites."  

Just as years of research have slowly pushed back the earliest known references to baseball played in Pelham, it seems certain that continued research likely will push back the earliest known references to to the term "Pelhamite" when used to describe citizens of Pelham, New York.  Until the next such research discovery, however, October 8, 1910 seems to be the earliest documented use of the term as applied to citizens of our town.

What Is "Pelhamite?"

Pelhamite, it turns out, is a type of semi-precious stone.  According to "Catalogue of Gems and Precious Stones" published in 1922, Pelhamite is a variety of serpentine which is a semi-precious stone (see pp. 193 & 203).  Other sources describe "Pelhamite" as one of at least seventeen known varieties of vermiculite, a form of hydrated magnesium aluminum silicate.  Vermiculites, including pelhamite, expand markedly when heated and have been used in their expanded state for heat insulation and as a plant growth medium.  Admittedly, the concept of "semi-precious" seems better suited to citizens of Pelham than "a form of hydrated magnesium aluminum silicate" . . . 

What Do the Citizens of Other Pelham Communities Call Themselves?

Interestingly, the demonym "Pelhamite" seems to be used far and wide by virtually every community named Pelham regardless of location.  (A "demonym" is the name used for people who live in a particular locality.)  

In addition to The Town of Pelham, New York, there are at least eight other communities named Pelham.  As the sources below indicate, like Pelham, New York, residents of at least seven of the eight other communities named "Pelham" likewise refer to themselves as "Pelhamites."  As for the eighth, a community in South Africa, no demonym yet has been determined. 

     The City of Pelham in Shelby County, Alabama.  Residents of the community of Pelham, AL appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See "Pelham (Shelby County, Alabama) Community Profile - Glossary" in Roadside Thoughts ("A demonym for Pelham is Pelhamite.  For example, my nephew moved when young, yet he still thinks of himself as a Pelhamite.").

     The City of Pelham in Mitchell County, Georgia.  Residents of the community of Pelham, GA appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See "Pelham (Mitchell County, Georgia) Community Profile" in Roadside Thoughts (noting local residents call themselves "Pelhamites").  

     Pelham, North Carolina, an unincorporated community in northwest Casewll County, North Carolina.  Residents of the community of Pelham, NC appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See "Pelham (Caswell County, North Carolina) Community Profile" in Roadside Thoughts ("When the people of Pelham refer to themselves (known as a demonym), they frequently use Pelhamite.").

     Pelham, South Africa, a suburb of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  It has not yet been determined whether residents of Pelham, South Africa refer to themselves as "Pelhamites."

     Pelham, Tennessee, an unincorporated community and census-designated place in Grundy County, Tennessee.  Residents of the community of Pelham, TN appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See "Pelham (Grundy County, Tennessee) Community Profile" in Roadside Thoughts (noting that the demonym Pelham, Tennessee residents used for themselves is "Pelhamite").

     The Town of Pelham in Hampshire County, Massachusetts.  Residents of the Town of Pelham, MA appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See, e.g., Parmenter, C. O., History of Pelham, Mass. From 1738 To 1898, Including the Early History of Prescott -- Early Settlement of the Town -- Establishment of Schools -- The French and Indian Wars -- The Revolutionary War -- Shays Rebellion -- Sketch of Capt. Daniel Shays -- Church History -- The Rebellion of 1861-5 -- Sketches of Notable Men, Natives of the Town, Etc., Etc., pp. 337-40 (Amherst, MA:  Press of Carpenter & Morehouse, 1898).  

     The Town of Pelham in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire.  Residents of the Town of Pelham, NH appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See, e.g., Annual Report of the Town of Pelham, New Hampshire -- 1977, p. 37 (Pelham, NH:  1978) ("because of the foresight of Pelhhamites, the Pelham Recreation Department does have proper facilities").

     The Town of Pelham in the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada.  Residents of the Town of Pelham in the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada appear to call themselves "Pelhamites."  See, e.g., Richard Rybiak for Pelham Ward 1 [a candidate for reelection to the Pelham Town Council] ("I am proud to be a life-long Pelhamite.").


Pelhamites of Pelham, New York have referred to themselves as such for more than a century.  In doing so, however, we may not be as special and unique as we otherwise might have believed.  Virtually every other community in the world named "Pelham" also seems to use the demonym "Pelhamite" for its citizens.  It seems, therefore, that the term may originate simply from the ease with which it flows as a shorthand reference to someone from Pelham.  Indeed, the term certainly seems to flow from the tongue more easily than "Pelhamaniacs."

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