As genealogists, we formulate a hypothesis about our ancestors to make progress in our research. That hypothesis is a lens, a way of organizing the myriad of facts we discover, which we hope will lead us to locate further records, helping us prove or disprove our hypothesis. I like to try to use the same idea to try and understand the history of an ancestor’s time. I want to avoid getting too bogged down in history’s details, yet still, gain the context I need to see the world more through an ancestor’s eyes.
Where can we get a hypothesis to understand U.S. history as we research our ancestors? American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard may be just such a helpful research lens for our early American ancestors, that excitingly has DNA evidence to back up the hypothesis it proposes for understanding U.S. history. (The link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Thanks for your support!)
In this first blog post, I hope to present the general idea of American Nations. In the second blog post I will first describe each nation, and then present a couple of brief case studies to show how I applied the framework of American Nations to gain valuable context for researching ancestors.
The daunting task here is to distill the theory author Colin Woodard carefully builds in 300 pages of American Nations into a couple of blog posts. Necessarily then, the case is better made in the book and I do hope these blog posts encourage you to read American Nations. However, even if you don’t get a chance to read the book, I suggest that the thesis of American Nations will still help you in your research. It’s helpful to look at U.S. history as having a deeper undercurrent of several different “nations” struggling to forge one polity- sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. I hope that the shortened version of American Nations I present here will introduce you to your ancestor’s “nation,” and give you context for their world.
Though the relevance of American Nations is obvious for early American ancestors, Woodard argues that his theory is important for those who settled in later periods. Even if your ancestors arrived much more recently or were outliers within their nation, which “nation” they settled in still greatly affected the way they and their descendants viewed the world. I hope these blog posts will give you clues and context for why your ancestors married who they married, migrated where they migrated, and even perhaps why they may have voted as they did.
Yankeedom vs. The South (Tidewater & the Deep South)
American Nations proposes that we are not so much 50 states united under one national history, as 11 “nations” each with its own culture and preferred governing style. In short, U.S. History consists of these 11 nations arguing with each other, sometimes constructively and sometimes not, about who we are and how best to organize our country. Though these different nations that make up the U.S. clash at different points in our history, the primary conflict has been between the culture founded in New England, versus the two founded in the South (Tidewater and the Deep South). American Nations contends that this original conflict was and is the fulcrum on which our history turns.
An American Conflict with Roots in England
This fundamental conflict working its way out throughout our history was one we initially inherited from the English. The early English colonists brought with them an unresolved conflict that had been recently fought over in the English Civil War of the 1640s. The English Civil War can be thought of as a battle between two different views of liberty held by these warring factions, the Roundheads versus the Cavaliers. The “Roundheads” were the mostly educated, middle-class people from East Anglia (located north of London, the stronghold of the Anglo-Saxons) who believed liberty was for everyone, that people could govern themselves, that perfection for the masses was possible, and who supported parliament in the English Civil War. When they immigrated to America they formed the very democratically run, somewhat self-righteous New England towns that American Nations calls Yankeedom.
On the other side of this English then American conflict were the “Cavaliers.” They were the aristocratic second sons from the south of England (historic stronghold of the patrician Norman English) who because they would not inherit their family’s wealth immigrated to the tidal areas of the mid-Atlantic colonies and founded the Tidewater nation. These second sons of noble birth wanted to recreate the semi-feudalism in America of their former home where hierarchy was prized, and who had supported the king in the English Civil War. These patricians believed liberty was for your betters who in turn would take care of you (i.e. Tidewater believed in noblesse oblige, but the Deep South tended not to), and greatly feared leaving any power to the masses would result in chaos, such as the beheading of Charles I or later the French Revolution.
Appalachia & Midlands Tip the Balance
In between these two dominant extremes of Yankeedom and Tidewater plus the Deep South, revolved the other nations who fell in between these two poles. In particular, Appalachia (settled mostly by borderland Scots-Irish) and the Midlands (Quakers and Germans) whose histories in Europe taught them to distrust concentrated power. Each in their own way wanted to be left alone. American Nations argues that in every conflict between Yankeedom and the South (Tidewater and Deep South), whichever extreme pole could win over its fellow nations – particularly Appalachia and the Midlands – would be the winner in the conflict.
Our Civil War Defines Us
This can especially be seen in the U.S.’s quintessential conflict, the American Civil War. Yankeedom provided the bulk of the troops and zeal versus the Deep South and Tidewater. Whichever of these sides could convince the other nations to join them would win the war. Appalachia and the Midlands viewed each side (North and South) with disdain and some fear, wanting nothing to do with the conflict until that is the South made the first move on Fort Sumter. In each conflict in U.S. history, Appalachia and the Midlands tended to join the side they hated least. Fort Sumter appalled them and made it clear to them in this case who that was. With the help of the Midlands and Appalachia, Yankeedom would win the Civil War, but it would lose others.
For example, Reconstruction failed in part because Yankeedom was more like an occupying army in a foreign land than fellow countrymen. The Northern troops sent to enforce the rule of law in the South after the Civil War ended were seen as foreigners and had not won over the people they were ruling. The “Yankees” eventually gave up and went home before they had consolidated their victory. Yankeedom had won a military battle in the Civil War but had lost the war to change Southern minds.
Now we have a basic idea of how U.S. History can be seen not as one united nation with one history, but as culturally different nations struggling to form a functioning country. Next, we will look at a 2017 study that shows the theory American Nations proposes shows up not just in our history but in our DNA.
DNA Evidence for American Nations
The scientific journal Nature Communications published the 2017 study “Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America,” which dovetailed amazingly well with American Nations. According to Colin Woodard’s 2017 blog post in Medium.com The 11 Nations of America, as Told by DNA, neither he nor the authors of this Nature Communications study knew about each other. Compare the map from American Nations (Figure 1) with the map from the Nature Communications (Figure 2) study to see how well Woodard’s American Nations explains the genetic data. Notice in particular how little north to south mixing there has been.
The study involved using 770,000 Ancestry users’ data to form clusters for the whole country, a large-scale version of what genealogists do with their individual DNA results (Fast Ways to Cluster Your DNA Matches at the Beginning of a Research Project). What the data showed was something genealogists anecdotally know at the ground level. Our ancestors tended to associate with, marry, and migrate with other people of the same group, also known as their FAN club (i.e. friends, associates, neighbors).
Ancestry DNA Communities (Ancestry Communities White Paper) and this 2017 study found similar results using this larger view. Both depict the macro phenomenon of how different groups of Americans continued to associate with the same group over generations. That they formed communities and migration patterns can be seen in history and confirmed with DNA. American Nations provides a framework for us to unpack these patterns.
American Nations is a 20,000-foot view of U.S. History that has DNA evidence to back it up. It’s a framework we as genealogists can use to get ideas to help us trace our ancestors by seeing that where our ancestors first settled very often affected who they associated with in future generations. Hopefully, we can make a successful transition from this general view to the specifics of our family case, and see a little better how our ancestors may have fit into the sweep of history.
In American Nations: Part 2, I will present the theory of American Nations and a snapshot of each of the 11 nations. I hope this will entice you to read the book because Woodard provides so many more details than I was able to that may be helpful in understanding the world your ancestors inhabited.
Woodward, Colin. American Nations. (New York: Penguin Group, 2011).
Han, E., P. Carbonetto., R. Curtis, et al. “Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America.” Nat Commun 8, 14238, 2017.
Woodard, Colin. “11 Nations of America, as Told by DNA.” Medium.com, posted 21 Sep 2017.
“Genetic Communities™ White Paper: Predicting fine-scale ancestral origins from the genetic sharing patterns among millions of individuals.” (Ancestry: accessed 19 Nov 2021) > DNA > Learn More > AncestryDNA® White Papers > Communities.