I first saw reference to David Hacket Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America in a post on DailyKos by Dana Houle that made reference to some of the maps that I had made of the Democratic primary election that was underway in concert with Fischer’s work to explain a particular pattern of results in Appalachia.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary election, what started as a three-way race between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards quickly became a protracted campaign battle between the first two candidates. While there were momentum shifts, the race was pretty steady. Thanks to the persistence of the Clinton campaign until the very end, I was able to make a map of the results at the county level that showed a broad pattern that cut across state lines rather than ending at them:
This exposed a region of anomalously strong Clinton support (shown in red as opposed to Obama’s blue†) in Appalachia. Houle argued that this trend resulted from the unique subculture that came to settle that region early in America’s history, as laid out in Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. Since then, I have seen the book referenced several times by a variety of sources. However, I didn’t get around to reading it myself until this year.
Two of the most striking themes of Albion’s Seed are its narratives of regionalism and continuity. The book argues that American culture (or perhaps more properly, cultures) has (have) been shaped in a large part by four great migrations from the British Isles prior to American independence. The source of these migrations is nicely summed up in the book’s table of contents:
EAST ANGLIA TO MASSACHUSETTS
The Exodus of the English Puritans 1629-42
THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND TO VIRGINIA
Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants 1642-75
NORTH MIDLANDS TO THE DELAWARE
The Friend’s Migration 1675-1725
BORDERLANDS TO THE BACKCOUNTRY
The Flight from North Britain 1717-1775
The migration most pertinent to Houle’s point was the fourth one, which settled the highlands inland from the east coast, which we now call Appalachia. However, I found that the book covered the cultures of all four migrations and their cultural contribution to modern America with great richness and detail, also noting how the colonists saw each other and how the persistence of cultural attitudes and differences continues to shape American history and politics.
As an American myself, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in familiarity I felt with the cultures of each of the four migrations. I’m not well-acquainted with my entire family history, but I know that my maternal grandfather traces his maternal grandfather’s family to Methodist lead miners who moved to southwestern Wisconsin from Gunnerside in northwestern Yorkshire, which is within the area that many of the Quakers who with German pietists formed the third migration listed above to the Delaware valley.
My maternal grandmother’s roots go back to a mix of Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, and British ancestors who converged on the northern tip of Wisconsin around the fishing town of Bayfield. Both these areas were settled predominantly by settlers originating in the Delaware valley. However, after getting married, they moved eastward to Sheboygan, which sits on Lake Michigan.
I was born in Milwaukee and when I was 6, my family moved to its current dwelling of Neenah. These areas were settled with more of a bias toward settlers of New England origin and during my childhood in Neenah, I attended a United Church of Christ, which draws its roots in the the Puritan’s Congregationalist tradition. Because of this, I found the descriptions of the third migration to the Delaware and to a lesser extent, the first migration to New England to have the most cultural familiarity. I am a Northerner through and through.
Ultimately, more than just explaining political patterns and giving context for my own cultural background, I found Albion’s Seed to be a very thought-provoking account of an aspect of American history that is largely glossed over in primary and secondary education and really offers a depth of knowledge about the early cultures of America’s settlers that I have not seen elsewhere.
†The colors on the map are determined by multiple factors. The brightness of each county is logarithmically proportional to the weight of votes per square mile (weight of votes was determined by the number of state delegates divided into each county’s contribution of votes to its state’s results) and the color is determined by the ratio of votes between the candidates such that the ratio of the hex values rr:gg:bb accords with Clinton:Edwards:Obama for each county.
I am well aware that this is a very imperfect way of displaying the results because of the nature of the human visual system. We tend to focus on areas where a color’s hue is most intense, which makes cities like Minneapolis and Kansas City, which went overwhelmingly for Obama, look disproportionately important, and massive cities like New York and Los Angeles, where the results were more mixed look disproportionately unimportant.
Regardless, my coloration method does do a good job of emphasizing both the rural-urban and regional divides a map that merely shows vote ratios without regard to vote density does not: