Yesterday, Languagehat, a wonderful linguistics blog, linked to my posting, which means a lot of people who know a lot about words finally read it. Ben Zimmer, an editor for Oxford University Press’s American dictionaries, left a comment: “Barry Popik has found citations for y'all dating to 1856-57, from Alfred W. Arrington's novel The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, or Life Among the Lawless: A Tale of the Republic of Texas.” I checked, and sure enough, Ben and Barry are right.
Here are the relevant sentences from Arrington’s book:
"Why, heern as how the regerlators wur guine to cotch y' all and swing y' up to dry, us thought we'd better heave to, and gin y' a lift; but when we fotch up in the dead man's grove, as them call it, and I guess as how 'twill bar a wusser name herearter, all in a twinkling, quicker nor y' could say Jack Robison, the bushes all blazed like a burnin' prairie, and the rifles roared behind every tree, and our boys dropped like pigeon-shootin'; and then the rest on 'em squalled fur mercy, and wur tooke alive” (p. 206).He then made a small opening, and inquired, "ar y'all alive and kickin' in thar?" (p. 355).
Barry Popik, I salute you, sir!
And thanks, Ben, for passing this on.