In the last blog post, we learned how the book American Nations provides a framework for understanding U.S. History that can give greater context to the community our individual ancestors were a part of. Our ancestor’s small FAN club connected into a larger network of FAN clubs that can be seen in history and in large genetic networks such as Ancestry Communities or the 2017 study published the scientific journal Nature Communications, “Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America.”
In the first post, we covered the three heavyweight nations of early U.S. History, Yankeedom, and the southern nations of Tidewater and the Deep South. American Nations posited that U.S. History has been defined as a struggle primarily between two “nations,” Yankeedom and the Deep South/Tidewater. What about the other nations? In this post, we will look at a snapshot of all the nations and their migration patterns. Colin Woodard wrote in the New York Times recently doing much the same thing: The Maps that Show That City vs. Country Is Not Our Political Fault Line.
The Theory of American Nations
European colonization devastated the indigenous people of North America through disease, forced relocation, dishonest treaties, and relentless violent conflict. This unspeakable tragedy resulted in the loss of American Indian culture in the lands that Europeans colonized. American Nations posits that the mostly blank cultural slate that remained was filled by the first European cultures to take root. Woodard builds his theory from several sources, starting with Wilbur Zelinsky, who first proposed the theory of the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” in 1973:
“Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been…”
American Nations argues that no matter what culture your ancestor came from originally, where they settled in the U.S. greatly affected where they and their descendants may have migrated, who they married, and perhaps even what political party they supported. Let’s meet these 11 nations so that no matter where your ancestors settled in the U.S., you may learn something about the “nation” they lived in. I hope these thumbnail descriptions of the 11 nations will help you understand the theory Woodard proposes, as well as perhaps lead you to read American Nations for its even greater detail of your own ancestor’s nation.
The 11 Nations of the U.S.
El Norte (Southern part of California, Arizona, most of New Mexico, plus northern Mexico)
Who were the first Europeans to permanently settle in what is now the U.S.? If you are like me, you might think it was English colonists who arrived on the east coast in the early 1600s. But no, the oldest European communities in the U.S. are in the desert southwest. The Spanish, the superpower of the 16th century, were in Kansas, Oregon, Florida, and Virginia before the English. The oldest European communities in North America go back to 1595 in New Mexico. Woodard argues that the people of the southwestern U.S., and northern Mexico, which make up “El Norte,” have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of their respective countries.
New France (Quebec, parts of Nova Scotia, Louisiana)
In 1604, also before the English, 79 Frenchmen arrived in what they would later name as Acadia, and what today is parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, as well part of Eastern Maine. Woodard summed up the founding principles that would govern New France by arguing that the earliest governors (Pierre Dugua and Samuel de Champlain) wanted to recreate a French feudal society in North America, but
“He (Champlain) believed it (New France) should coexist in a friendly, respectful alliance with the Native American nations, “ and “Instead of conquering and enslaving the Indians (as the Spanish had), or driving them away (as the English would), the New French would embrace them.”
Later the Acadians would move to Louisiana and become Cajuns, while more French settlers would arrive in Quebec, where they dominate to this day. Woodard argues that the nation of New France has consistently been the most liberal of the 11. For example, Woodard argues that though Louisiana was a slave state, its view of slavery differed from the Deep South and that some of its slave owners were Unionists. In other words, the settlers from New France influenced Louisiana to be more liberal than its immediate neighbors from the Deep South. Likewise, Quebec is also generally more liberal than its neighbors from nearby provinces (e.g. Ontario) that were settled by Midlanders.
Yankeedom (New England, migrated to Northern Ohio west across the Upper Midwest, and founded the pacific coastal cities):
Along with the Tidewater and the Deep South, Yankeedom has exerted the greatest influence on U.S. History. Yankeedom refers to the utopian and egalitarian values held by the first settlers arriving in the early 17th century in New England. Belief in the importance of education, debate, and coming to a consensus by reason characterized the way Yankeedom wanted to solve its problems. Unlike their nemesis regions of Tidewater and Deep South, the settlers of Yankeedom shunned hierarchy and instead created a government system of rotating power (selectmen). They were idealists whose sense of righteousness helped them create a more equal society but also irritated their fellow nations with their strong sense that their way was always best. Along with New France, Yankeedom is the most liberal of the nations.
Tidewater (Lowlands or tidal areas of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Carolinas):
Unlike the more middle-class ethos of Yankeedom, Tidewater was led by settlers who were the second sons of the British aristocracy, whose lack of inheritance back in England brought them to the colonies. They sought to recreate their more feudal society in their new homeland. With themselves at the top, and indentured servants and enslaved people at the bottom, they sought to create a paternalistic, mannered, class-based society. Unlike Yankeedom consensus was not sought, instead, the Tidewater ethos was that your betters knew best and would take care of you, as long as you stayed in your place. Almost all of the founding fathers were from Tidewater and made sure the Constitution reflected their distrust of the masses. Along with the Deep South, Tidewater has been the most conservative of the nations. However by now, Tidewater has been mostly subsumed into the Deep South, as can be seen in its disappearance from the DNA map from the Nature Communications study (see Part 1, Figure 2).
New Netherlands (New York City):
The greater New York City area founded in the early 17th century by the Dutch, still has the strong cultural imprint of its founders, though very few Americans can claim much Dutch ancestry. Like its parent city Amsterdam, New Yorkers have always been characterized by diversity and mercantilism. Liberal but not always as democratically-minded as Yankeedom, New Netherlands brought the 17th-century Dutch values of free speech and inquiry that were codified in our Bill of Rights. As committed to these freedoms as they were, the Dutch wanted the toleration of diversity that was good for business. Like Amsterdam, New York became a mecca of the free exchange of ideas and cultures with a business front of mind, which fosters new business ventures and economic juggernauts to this day. Like Tidewater, New Netherlands doesn’t have a measurable genetic presence (see Part 1, Figure 2), but its ideas still dominate its stronghold in the New York City area.
Midlands (Pennsylvania, parts of the Midwest, upper Midwest, plus Ontario, Canada):
After El Norte, New France, Yankeedom, and Tidewater were founded, came the earliest and largest non-English speaking European group, the Germans. Their moderation put them between the more liberal Yankeedom and more conservative Tidewater settlers. 17th and 18th century Germans colonists were fleeing wars and hierarchical societies that they felt deprived them of land and autonomy. They shunned the semi-feudalism of Tidewater, as equally as the bossiness of Yankeedom.
The Quakers were the other main group of the Midlands. They left Europe to escape the Puritans, and so especially at first, the Quakers were not natural allies of the Puritans who settled Yankeedom. The Germans and Quakers together formed a moderate nation that above all wanted to be left alone. Along with Appalachia, they have often been the swing voters of U.S. History. Whichever side the Midlands and Appalachia chose in the various battles between Tidewater plus the Deep South versus Yankeedom is the side that wins.
Appalachia (highlands from Pennsylvania down to South Carolina, some migrating west to southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, but others through Kentucky and Tennessee, then onto Arkansas and Missouri, then to Oklahoma and Texas and into the Far West):
Scots-Irish immigrants made up the great majority of those settling on the frontier of early America along the Appalachian mountains. These immigrants had long stoutly fought their English overlords along the borderlands of Scotland and England. Many migrated starting in the 1600s to Ireland where they again served as a bulwark (between the English and native Irish), prior to immigrating again to the U.S.
Just like they had in Europe, they lived in America on borderlands where they hoped to be left alone, and always chafed under attempts to be ruled from outside of their community. If challenged they knew how to fight. Not surprisingly many of our country’s best generals came from Appalachia (e.g. Pershing, MacArthur, Patton). They were incredibly independent in their mindset and shunned hierarchy even more than the Midlands did. They formed a society in the hills of Appalachia organized entirely on kinship and not a formal government for order.
Deep South (Georgia to Texas):
Founded later than Tidewater and Yankeedom, the Deep South eventually became the primary antagonist to Yankeedom. While early on Tidewater dominated their partnership against Yankeedom, the Deep South’s ethos has come to define the conservative side of many of our nation’s conflicts. The Deep South’s first settlers were the second sons of Barbadian slaveholders. Equally as hierarchical as Tidewater but mostly without much of the noblesse oblige of the latter, the founders at the top of the Deep South’s hierarchical society were the most brutal of 17th-18th century enslavers.
The economies of the English Caribbean depended on working enslaved people nearly or actually to death on sugar plantations. Unlike enslaved people on the mainland of North America, many fewer enslaved people lived to reproduce, so great was the pressure to produce the sugar (the oil of its time). As bad as slavery could be in Tidewater, it was much worse to be sold downriver into the Deep South. The settlers of the Deep South were often outnumbered by the African Americans in forced labor among them. This made the founders of the Deep South especially sensitive about any effort to undermine their control.
Left Coast (Pacific Coastal areas: Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C.):
The cities of the West Coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver BC, and parts of Los Angeles were first settled by immigrants from Yankeedom. New England’s shipping industry made Yankeedom the most familiar of the nations with the West Coast with its accessibility from the sea. They brought their egalitarian, utopian values and planted them in the coastal Pacific. These Yankeedom transplants clashed and eventually blended with the elements of El Norte, Appalachia (gold rush), and later arriving immigrants to make Left Coast culture similar to Yankeedom in its idealism but somewhat more individualistic.
Far West (Interior pacific coast states through the great plains states):
The Far West was the last nation to be settled by Europeans. Its landscape made it difficult to transplant the farming and industrial methods that had worked in the settling of other nations. Therefore it has always been more sparsely populated than the other nations but is rich in natural resources. This dynamic of harsher landscape, fewer people, but richness of resources made the Far West into a kind of internal colony of the other nations. This dependence on, but simultaneous extraction of, resources by the other nations has resulted in a culture of resentment, and desire for independence that does not always square with the needs of the Far West nation.
How do the histories of the 11 nations help you understand your ancestors? Below are a couple of brief examples of how American Nations might provide a framework for viewing your ancestor’s nation that may help you understand their larger FAN club.
Scots-Irish Case Study
In a recent RLP podcast, Diana has recently shared how she is reading a book on the Scots-Irish for her research into some of her ancestors whose origins she suspects may belong in this group. Did the hint that her ancestors were “Scots-Irish” mean they were a part of the nation, American Nations called Appalachia?
Tracing her Harris/Frazier ancestors back in time, I saw they most recently were in Texas and Oklahoma. Before that, they were in Missouri and Arkansas. Going further back they were in Tennessee and Kentucky. All of this fits perfectly with Appalachia’s migration patterns found in American Nations. If the theory were to hold up in this case, American Nations would predict that Harris/Frazier immigrants would have started out in the highlands of Pennsylvania, Virginia, or the Carolinas. Further reading of American Nations discussion of the nation of Appalachia may help unpack the history and culture of these Scots-Irish ancestors in America.
German Case Studies
I wrote about how 19th-century German immigrants had arrived into a Missouri divided between those with roots in Yankeedom and the Midlands, versus those with roots in Tidewater and Appalachia, and how these “nations” with their different cultures clashed in Missouri dramatically during the Civil War. American Nations made sense of the world my 19th century Germans were stepping into as they got off the steamship in 1850-60s in St. Louis.
Additionally, as I studied my Pennsylvania German ancestral lines, I noticed they started out in southeastern Pennsylvania, moved to southwestern Pennsylvania, and then often to Ohio and then onto the upper midwest. Before I read American Nations I wondered why I was seeing this basic pattern repeat itself in the different Pennsylvania German families I researched. American Nations explained that while many colonial Germans stayed in Pennsylvania, those that migrated went west in just this pattern. Many Pennsylvania Germans stayed with their “nation,” and only recently after WW2 stopped speaking German.
I had one Pennsylvania German family that I felt certain must be an outlier before I read American Nations. This family started out in eastern Maryland on the fringes of where colonial or “Pennsylvania” Germans settled. This family then moved to Ontario, Canada after the Revolutionary War. Why did these Germans move to Ontario? I felt certain that an explanation would not be found in American Nations. However, Woodard describes that relatively few Loyalists (Yankeedom) settled Ontario as might be thought, but instead it was mainly land-hungry Germans and Quakers from the Midlands who migrated to Ontario in the period after the Revolutionary War. My family fit right into this pattern!
American Nations helped me see my ancestors’ individual choices as part of the overall pattern and explained a bit better what historical forces they must have felt as they tried to make the best decisions they could in their own times. I hope that having the context American Nations provides helps you find and understand the records your ancestors left behind as they did the best they could to navigate their own world.
Colin Woodard, American Nations (Penguin Group[USA], New York, NY, 2011).
Han, E., Carbonetto, P., Curtis, R. et al. Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America. Nat Commun 8, 14238 (2017) (accessed 19 Nov 2021).
Colin Woodard, “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.
Woodard, Colin (2018, July 30). “The Maps That Show That City vs. Country Is Not Our Political Fault Line.” The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/30/opinion/urban-rural-united-states-regions-midterms.html : accessed 19 Nov 2021).