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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pull up stakes

Pull up stakes

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pull up stakes'?

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To move home. Sometimes also given as 'pull up sticks'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pull up stakes'?

The first thing that the English settlers to America did after landing in Jamestown in 1607 was to set about building a palisade to protect the settlement. In less than a month they had erected a triangular wooden fort, bounded by a palisade of wooden stakes.

The phrase 'Pull up stakes' - meaning and origin.The habit was continued by the Pilgrim Fathers who constructed a similar palisade around their settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is recorded in a letter by John Pory to the Earl of Southampton, in 1623:

"Now concerning the quality of the people ... their industry as well appeareth by their building, as by a substantial palisado about their [town]."

The fear of attack by native Americans or, where there was no such fear, the need to mark a boundary, caused all early dwellings to be surrounded by paling fences. Gathering the timber and building the fences involved significant effort and if settlers later decided to move they would take their palisade with them. This was a well-enough established practice by 1640 for the phrase 'pull up stakes' to have been used figuratively to mean 'move house'. That is shown in this example, from a 1640 letter by a Thomas Lechford, who was planning a move from New England:

"I am loth to hear of a stay, but am plucking up stakes with as much speed as I may."

The setting out and pulling up of stakes continued in a literal sense into the 18th century. Samuel Sewall's
Diary, 1703 (the same diary incidentally that provides the best record of the Salem Witch Trials, of which Sewall was judge):

"Went to my Bounds, asserted them, then ordered Kibbe to pull up the Stakes. Told Mr. Lynde's Tenants what my Bounds were; forwarn'd them of coming there to set any Stakes, or cut any wood."

The terms 'pull up stakes' or 'pluck up stakes' aren't recorded in the home country of the settlers, that is, England, prior to 1640 and so are authentic American coinage. If we ignore 'mother country', which is known prior to its American usage, then 'pull up stakes' is the earliest known example of a phrase that was coined in America.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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