Albion’s Seed by David Fischer is a history professor’s nine-hundred-page treatise on patterns of early immigration to the Eastern United States. It’s not light reading and not the sort of thing I would normally pick up. I read it anyway on the advice of people who kept telling me it explains everything about America. And it sort of does.

In school, we tend to think of the original American colonists as “Englishmen”, a maximally non-diverse group who form the background for all of the diversity and ethnic conflict to come later. Fischer’s thesis is the opposite. Different parts of the country were settled by very different groups of Englishmen with different regional backgrounds, religions, social classes, and philosophies. The colonization process essentially extracted a single stratum of English society, isolated it from all the others, and then plunked it down on its own somewhere in the Eastern US.

I used to play Alpha Centauri, a computer game about the colonization of its namesake star system. One of the dynamics that made it so interesting was its backstory, where a Puerto Rican survivalist, an African plutocrat, and other colorful characters organized their own colonial expeditions and competed to seize territory and resources. You got to explore not only the settlement of a new world, but the settlement of a new world by societies dominated by extreme founder effects. What kind of weird pathologies and wonderful innovations do you get when a group of overly romantic Scottish environmentalists is allowed to develop on its own trajectory free of all non-overly-romantic-Scottish-environmentalist influences? Albion’s Seed argues that this is basically the process that formed several early US states.

Fischer describes four of these migrations: the Puritans to New England in the 1620s, the Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s, the Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s, and the Borderers to Appalachia in the 1700s.


A: The Puritans

I hear about these people every Thanksgiving, then never think about them again for the next 364 days. They were a Calvinist sect that dissented against the Church of England and followed their own brand of dour, industrious, fun-hating Christianity. Most of them were from East Anglia, the part of England just northeast of London. They came to America partly because they felt persecuted, but mostly because they thought England was full of sin and they were at risk of absorbing the sin by osmosis if they didn’t get away quick and build something better. They really liked “city on a hill” metaphors.

I knew about the Mayflower, I knew about the black hats and silly shoes, I even knew about the time Squanto threatened to release a bioweapon buried under Plymouth Rock that would bring about the apocalypse. But I didn’t know that the Puritan migration to America was basically a eugenicist’s wet dream.

Much like eg Unitarians today, the Puritans were a religious group that drew disproportionately from the most educated and education-obsessed parts of the English populace. Literacy among immigrants to Massachusetts was twice as high as the English average, and in an age when the vast majority of Europeans were farmers most immigrants to Massachusetts were skilled craftsmen or scholars. And the Puritan “homeland” of East Anglia was a an unusually intellectual place, with strong influences from Dutch and Continental trade; historian Havelock Ellis finds that it “accounts for a much larger proportion of literary, scientific, and intellectual achievement than any other part of England.”

Furthermore, only the best Puritans were allowed to go to Massachusetts; Fischer writes that “it may have been the only English colony that required some of its immigrants to submit letters of recommendation” and that “those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies and sent back to England”. Puritan “headhunters” went back to England to recruit “godly men” and “honest men” who “must not be of the poorer sort”.

1. Sir Harry Vane, who was “briefly governor of Massachusetts at the age of 24”, “was so rigorous in his Puritanism that he believed only the thrice-born to be truly saved”.
2. The great seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company “featured an Indian with arms beckoning, and five English words flowing from his mouth: ‘Come over and help us'”
3. Northern New Jersey was settled by Puritans who named their town after the “New Ark Of The Covenant” – modern Newark.
4. Massachusetts clergy were very powerful; Fischer records the story of a traveller asking a man “Are you the parson who serves here?” only to be corrected “I am, sir, the parson who rules here.”
5. The Puritans tried to import African slaves, but they all died of the cold.
6. In 1639, Massachusetts declared a “Day Of Humiliation” to condemn “novelties, oppression, atheism, excesse, superfluity, idleness, contempt of authority, and trouble in other parts to be remembered”
7. The average family size in Waltham, Massachusetts in the 1730s was 9.7 children.
8. Everyone was compelled by law to live in families. Town officials would search the town for single people and, if found, order them to join a family; if they refused, they were sent to jail.
9. 98% of adult Puritan men were married, compared to only 73% of adult Englishmen in general. Women were under special pressure to marry, and a Puritan proverb said that “women dying maids lead apes in Hell”.
10. 90% of Puritan names were taken from the Bible. Some Puritans took pride in their learning by giving their children obscure Biblical names they would expect nobody else to have heard of, like Mahershalalhasbaz. Others chose random Biblical terms that might not have technically been intended as names; “the son of Bostonian Samuel Pond was named Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin Pond”. Still others chose Biblical words completely at random and named their children things like Maybe or Notwithstanding.
11. Puritan parents traditionally would send children away to be raised with other families, and raise those families’ children in turn, in the hopes that the lack of familiarity would make the child behave better.
12. In 1692, 25% of women over age 45 in Essex County were accused of witchcraft.
13. Massachusetts passed the first law mandating universal public education, which was called The Old Deluder Law in honor of its preamble, which began “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures…”
14. Massachusetts cuisine was based around “meat and vegetables submerged in plain water and boiled relentlessly without seasonings of any kind”.
15. Along with the famous scarlet A for adultery, Puritans could be forced to wear a B for blasphemy, C for counterfeiting, D for drunkenness, and so on.
16. Wasting time in Massachusetts was literally a criminal offense, listed in the law code, and several people were in fact prosecuted for it.
17. This wasn’t even the nadir of weird hard-to-enforce Massachusetts laws. Another law just said “If any man shall exceed the bounds of moderation, we shall punish him severely”.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of Massachusetts Puritanism: “The underlying foundation of life in New England was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered mehalncholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune.” And indeed, everything was dour, strict, oppressive, and very religious. A typical Massachusetts week would begin in the church, which doubled as the town meeting hall. There were no decorations except a giant staring eye on the pulpit to remind churchgoers that God was watching them. Townspeople would stand up before their and declare their shame and misdeeds, sometimes being forced to literally crawl before the other worshippers begging for forgiveness. THen the minister would give two two-hour sermons back to back. The entire affair would take up to six hours, and the church was unheated (for some reason they stored all their gunpowder there, so no one was allowed to light a fire), and this was Massachusetts, and it was colder in those days than it is now, so that during winter some people would literally lose fingers to frostbite (Fischer: “It was a point of honor for the minister never to shorten a sermon merely because his audience was frozen”). Everyone would stand there with their guns (they were legally required to bring guns, in case Indians attacked during the sermon) and hear about how they were going to Hell, all while the giant staring eye looked at them.

So life as a Puritan was pretty terrible. On the other hand, their society was impressively well-ordered. Teenage pregnancy rates were the lowest in the Western world and in some areas literally zero. Murder rates were half those in other American colonies. There was remarkably low income inequality – “the top 10% of wealthholders held only 20%-30% of taxable property”, compared to 75% today and similar numbers in other 17th-century civilizations. The poor (at least the poor native to a given town) were treated with charity and respect – “in Salem, one man was ordered to be set by the heels in the stocks for being uncharitable to a poor man in distress”. Government was conducted through town meetings in which everyone had a say. Women had more equality than in most parts of the world, and domestic abuse was punished brutally. The educational system was top-notch – “by most empirical tests of intellectual eminence, New England led all other parts of British America from the 17th to the early 20th century”.

In some ways the Puritans seem to have taken the classic dystopian bargain – give up all freedom and individuality and art, and you can have a perfect society without crime or violence or inequality. Fischer ends each of his chapters with a discussion of how the society thought of liberty, and the Puritans unsurprisingly thought of liberty as “ordered liberty” – the freedom of everything to tend to its correct place and stay there. They thought of it as a freedom from disruption – apparently FDR stole some of his “freedom from fear” stuff from early Puritan documents. They were extremely not in favor of the sort of liberty that meant that, for example, there wouldn’t be laws against wasting time. That was going too far.

B: The Cavaliers

The Massachusetts Puritans fled England in the 1620s partly because the king and nobles were oppressing them. In the 1640s, English Puritans under Oliver Cromwell rebelled, took over the government, and killed the king. The nobles not unreasonably started looking to get the heck out.

Virginia had been kind of a wreck ever since most of the original Jamestown settlers had mostly died of disease. Governor William Berkeley, a noble himself, decided the colony could reinvent itself as a destination for refugee nobles, and told them it would do everything possible to help them maintain the position of oppressive supremacy to which they were accustomed. The British nobility was sold. The Cavaliers – the nobles who had fought and lost the English Civil War – fled to Virginia. Historians who cross-checking Virginian immigrant lists against English records find that of Virginians whose opinions on the War were known, 98% were royalists. They were overwhelming Anglican, mostly from agrarian southern England, and all related to each other in the incestuous way of nobility everywhere: “it is difficult to think of any ruling elite that has been more closely interrelated since the Ptolemies”. There were twelve members of Virginia’s royal council; in 1724 “all without exception were related to one another by blood or marriage…as late as 1775, every member of that august body was descended from a councilor who had served in 1660”.

These aristocrats didn’t want to do their own work, so they brought with them tens of thousands of indentured servants; more than 75% of all Virginian immigrants arrived in this position. Some of these people came willingly on a system where their master paid their passage over and they would be free after a certain number of years; others were sent by the courts as punishments; still others were just plain kidnapped. The gender ratio was 4:1 in favor of men, and there were entire English gangs dedicated to kidnapping women and sending them to Virginia, where they fetched a high price. Needless to say, these people came from a very different stratum than their masters or the Puritans.

People who came to Virginia mostly died. They died of malaria, typhoid fever, amoebiasis, and dysentery. Unlike in New England, where Europeans were better adapted to the cold climate than Africans, in Virginia it was Europeans who had the higher disease-related mortality rate. The whites who survived tended to become “sluggish and indolent”, according to the universal report of travellers and chroniclers, although I might be sluggish and indolent too if I had been kidnapped to go work on some rich person’s farm and sluggishness/indolence was an option.

The Virginians tried their best to oppress white people. Really, they did. The depths to which they sank in trying to oppress white people almost boggle the imagination. There was a rule that if a female indentured servant became pregnant, a few extra years were added on to their indenture, supposedly because they would be working less hard during their pregnancy and child-rearing so it wasn’t fair to the master. Virginian aristocrats would rape their own female servants, then add a penalty term on to their indenture for becoming pregnant. That is an impressive level of chutzpah. But despite these efforts, eventually all the white people either died, or became too sluggish to be useful, or worst of all just finished up their indentures and became legally free. The aristocrats started importing black slaves as per the model that had sprung up in the Caribbean, and so the stage was set for the antebellum South we read about in history classes.

1. Virginian cavalier speech patterns sound a lot like modern African-American dialects. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why, but it’s strange to think of a 17th century British lord speaking what a modern ear would clearly recognize as Ebonics.
2. Three-quarters of 17th-century Virginian children lost at least one parent before turning 18.
3. Cousin marriage was an important custom that helped cement bonds among the Virginian elite, “and many an Anglican lady changed her condition but not her name”.
4. In Virginia, women were sometimes unironically called “breeders”; English women were sometimes referred to as “She-Britons”.
5. Virginia didn’t really have towns; the Chesapeake Bay was such a giant maze of rivers and estuaries and waterways that there wasn’t much need for land transport hubs. Instead, the unit of settlement was the plantation, which consisted of an aristocratic planter, his wife and family, his servants, his slaves, and a bunch of guests who hung around and mooched off him in accordance with the ancient custom of hospitality.
6. Virginian society considered everyone who lived in a plantation home to be a kind of “family”, with the aristocrat both as the literal father and as a sort of abstracted patriarch with complete control over his domain.
7. Virginia governor William Berkeley probably would not be described by moderns as ‘strong on education’. He said in a speech that “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing [in Virginia], and I hope we shall not have these for a hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divuldged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”
8. Virginian recreation mostly revolved around hunting and bloodsports. Great lords hunted deer, lesser gentry hunted foxes, indentured servants had a weird game in which they essentially draw-and-quartered geese, young children “killed and tortured songbirds”, and “at the bottom of this hierarchy of bloody games were male infants who prepared themselves for the larger pleasures of maturity by torturing snakes, maiming frogs, and pulling the wings off butterflies. Thus, every red-blooded male in Virginia was permitted to slaughter some animal or other, and the size of his victim was proportioned to his social rank.”
9. “In 1747, an Anglican minister named William Kay infuriated the great planter Landon Carter by preaching a sermon against pride. The planter took it personally and sent his [relations] and ordered them to nail up the doors and windows of all the churches in which Kay preached.”
10. Our word “condescension” comes from a ritual attitude that leading Virginians were supposed to display to their inferiors. Originally condescension was supposed to be a polite way of showing respect those who were socially inferior to you; our modern use of the term probably says a lot about what Virginians actually did with it.

In a lot of ways, Virginia was the opposite of Massachusetts. Their homicide rate was sky-high, and people were actively encouraged to respond to slights against their honor with duels (for the rich) and violence (for the poor). They were obsessed with gambling, and “made bets not merely on horses, cards, cockfights, and backgammon, but also on crops, prices, women, and the weather”. Their cuisine focused on gigantic sumptuous feasts of animals killed in horrible ways. There were no witchcraft trials, but there were people who were fined for disrupting the peace by accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. Their church sermons were twenty minutes long on the dot.

The Puritans naturally thought of the Virginians as completely lawless reprobate sinners, but this is not entirely true. Virginian church sermons might have been twenty minutes long, but Virginian ballroom dance lessons could last nine hours. It wasn’t that the Virginians weren’t bound by codes, just that those codes were social rather than moral.

And Virginian nobles weren’t just random jerks, they were carefully cultivated jerks. Planters spared no expense to train their sons to be strong, forceful, and not take nothin’ from nobody. They would encourage and reward children for being loud and temperamental, on the grounds that this indicated a strong personality and having a strong personality was fitting of a noble. When this worked, it worked really well – witness natural leaders and self-driven polymaths like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. More often it failed catastrophically – the rate of sex predation and rape in Virginia was at least as high as anywhere else in North America.

The Virginian Cavaliers had an obsession with liberty, but needless to say it was not exactly a sort of liberty of which the ACLU would approve. I once heard someone argue against libertarians like so: even if the government did not infringe on liberties, we would still be unfree for other reasons. If we had to work, we would be subject to the whim of bosses. If we were poor, we would not be “free” to purchase most of the things we want. In any case, we are “oppressed” by disease, famine, and many other things besides government that prevent us from implementing our ideal existence.

The Virginians took this idea and ran with it – in the wrong direction. No, they said, we wouldn’t be free if we had to work, therefore we insist upon not working. No, we wouldn’t be free if we were limited by poverty, therefore we insist upon being extremely rich. Needless to say, this conception of freedom required first indentured servitude and later slavery to make it work, but the Virginians never claimed that the servants or slaves were free. That wasn’t the point. Freedom, like wealth, was properly distributed according to rank; nobles had as much as they wanted, the middle-class enough to get by on, and everyone else none at all. And a Virginian noble would have gone to his grave insisting that a civilization without slavery could never have citizens who were truly free.

C: The Quakers

Fischer warns against the temptation to think of the Quakers as normal modern people, but he has to warn us precisely because it’s so tempting. Where the Puritans seem like a dystopian caricature of virtue and the Cavaliers like a dystopian caricature of vice, the Quakers just seem ordinary. Yes, they’re kind of a religious cult, but they’re the kind of religious cult any of us might found if we were thrown back to the seventeenth century.

Instead they were founded by a weaver’s son named George Fox. He believed people were basically good and had an Inner Light that connected them directly to God without a need for priesthood, ritual, Bible study, or self-denial; mostly people just needed to listen to their consciences and be nice. Since everyone was equal before God, there was no point in holding up distinctions between lords and commoners: Quakers would just address everybody as “Friend”. And since the Quakers were among the most persecuted sects at the time, they developed an insistence on tolerance and freedom of religion which (unlike the Puritans) they stuck to even when shifting fortunes put them on top. They believed in pacificism, equality of the sexes, racial harmony, and a bunch of other things which seem pretty hippy-ish even today let alone in 1650.

England’s top Quaker in the late 1600s was William Penn. Penn is universally known to Americans as “that guy Pennsylvania is named after” but actually was a larger-than-life 17th century superman. Born to the nobility, Penn distinguished himself early on as a military officer; he was known for beating legendary duelists in single combat and then sparing their lives with sermons about how murder was wrong. He gradually started having mystical visions, quit the military, and converted to Quakerism. Like many Quakers he was arrested for blasphemy; unlike many Quakers, they couldn’t make the conviction stick; in his trial he “conducted his defense so brilliantly that the jurors refused to convict him even when threatened with prison themselves, [and] the case became a landmark in the history of trial by jury.” When the state finally found a pretext on which to throw him in prison, he spent his incarceration composing “one of the noblest defenses of religious liberty ever written”, conducting a successful mail-based courtship with England’s most eligible noblewoman, and somehow gaining the personal friendship and admiration of King Charles II. Upon his release the King liked him so much that he gave him a large chunk of the Eastern United States on a flimsy pretext of repaying a family debt. Penn didn’t want to name his new territory Pennsylvania – he recommended just “Sylvania” – but everybody else overruled him and Pennyslvania it was. The grant wasn’t quite the same as the modern state, but a chunk of land around the Delaware River Valley – what today we would call eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, southern New Jersey, and bits of Maryland – centered on the obviously-named-by-Quakers city of Philadelphia.

Penn decided his new territory would be a Quaker refuge – his exact wording was “a colony of Heaven [for] the children of the Light”. He mandated universal religious toleration, a total ban on military activity, and a government based on checks and balances that would “leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country”.

His recruits – about 20,000 people in total – were Quakers from the north of England, many of them minor merchants and traders. They disproportionately included the Britons of Norse descent common in that region, who formed a separate stratum and had never really gotten along with the rest of the British population. They were joined by several German sects close enough to Quakers that they felt at home there; these became the ancestors of (among other groups) the Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish, and Mennonites.

1. In 1690 a gang of pirates stole a ship in Philadelphia and went up and down the Delaware River stealing and plundering. The Quakers got in a heated (but brotherly) debate about whether it was morally permissible to use violence to stop them. When the government finally decided to take action, contrarian minister George Keith dissented and caused a major schism in the faith.
2. Fischer argues that the Quaker ban on military activity within their territory would have doomed them in most other American regions, but by extreme good luck the Indians in the Delaware Valley were almost as peaceful as the Quakers. As usual, at least some credit goes to William Penn, who taught himself Algonquin so he could negotiate with the Indians in their own language.
3. The Quakers’ marriage customs combined a surprisingly modern ideas of romance, with extreme bureaucracy. The wedding process itself had sixteen stages, including “ask parents”, “ask community women”, “ask community men”, “community women ask parents”, and “obtain a certificate of cleanliness”. William Penn’s marriage apparently had forty-six witnesses to testify to the good conduct and non-relatedness of both parties.
4. Possibly related: 16% of Quaker women were unmarried by age 50, compared to only about 2% of Puritans.
5. Quakers promoted gender equality, including the (at the time scandalous) custom of allowing women to preach (condemned by the Puritans as the crime of “she-preaching”).
6. But they were such prudes about sex that even the Puritans thought they went too far. Pennsylvania doctors had problems treating Quakers because they would “delicately describe everything from neck to waist as their ‘stomachs’, and anything from waist to feet as their ‘ankles'”.
7. Quaker parents Richard and Abigail Lippincott named their eight children, in order, “Remember”, “John”, “Restore”, “Freedom”, “Increase”, “Jacob”, “Preserve”, and “Israel”, so that their names combined formed a simple prayer.
8. Quakers had surprisingly modern ideas about parenting, basically sheltering and spoiling their children at a time when everyone else was trying whip the Devil out of them.
9. “A Quaker preacher, traveling in the more complaisant colony of Maryland, came upon a party of young people who were dancing merrily together. He broke in upon them like an avenging angel, stopped the dance, anddemanded to know if they considered Martin Luther to be a good man. The astonished youngsters answered in the affirmative. The Quaker evangelist then quoted Luther on the subject of dancing: ‘as many paces as the man takes in his dance, so many steps he takes toward Hell. This, the Quaker missionary gloated with a gleam of sadistic satisfaction, ‘spoiled their sport’.”
10. William Penn wrote about thirty books defending liberty of conscience throughout his life. The Quaker obsession with the individual conscience as the work of God helped invent the modern idea of conscientious objection.
11. Quakers were heavily (and uniquely for their period) opposed to animal cruelty. When foreigners introduced bullbaiting into Philadelphia during the 1700s, the mayor bought a ticket supposedly as a spectator. When the event was about to begin, he leapt into the ring, personally set the bull free, and threatened to arrest anybody who stopped him.
12. On the other hand, they were also opposed to other sports for what seem like kind of random reasons. The town of Morley declared an anathema against foot races, saying that they were “unfruitful works of darkness”.
13. The Pennsylvania Quakers became very prosperous merchants and traders. They also had a policy of loaning money at low- or zero- interest to other Quakers, which let them outcompete other, less religious businesspeople.
14. They were among the first to replace the set of bows, grovels, nods, meaningful looks, and other British customs of acknowledging rank upon greeting with a single rank-neutral equivalent – the handshake.
15. Pennsylvania was one of the first polities in the western world to abolish the death penalty.
16. The Quakers were lukewarm on education, believing that too much schooling obscured the natural Inner Light. Fischer declares it “typical of William Penn” that he wrote a book arguing against reading too much.
17. The Quakers not only instituted religious freedom, but made laws against mocking another person’s religion.
18. In the late 1600s as many as 70% of upper-class Quakers owned slaves, but Pennsylvania essentially invented modern abolitionism. Although their colonial masters in England forbade them from banning slavery outright, they applied immense social pressure and by the mid 1700s less than 10% of the wealthy had African slaves. As soon as the American Revolution started, forbidding slavery was one of independent Pennsylvania’s first actions.

Pennsylvania was very successful for a while; it had some of the richest farmland in the colonies, and the Quakers were exceptional merchants and traders; so much so that they were forgiven their military non-intervention during the Revolution because of their role keeping the American economy afloat in the face of British sanctions.

But by 1750, the Quakers were kind of on their way out; by 1750, they were a demographic minority in Pennsylvania, and by 1773 they were a minority in its legislature as well. In 1750 Quakerism was the third-largest religion in the US; by 1820 it was the ninth-largest, and by 1981 it was the sixty-sixth largest. What happened? The Quakers basically tolerated themselves out of existence. They were so welcoming to religious minorities and immigrants that all these groups took up shop in Pennsylvania and ended its status as a uniquely Quaker society. At the same time, the Quakers themselves became more “fanatical” and many dropped out of politics believing it to be too worldly a concern for them; this was obviously fatal to their political domination. The most famous Pennsylvanian statesman of the Revolutionary era, Benjamin Franklin, was not a Quaker at all but a first-generation immigrant from New England. Finally, Quakerism was naturally extra-susceptible to that thing where Christian denominations become indistinguishable from liberal modernity and fade into the secular background.

But Fischer argues that Quakerism continued to shape Pennsylvania long after it had stopped being officially in charge, in much the same way that Englishmen themselves have contributed disproportionately to American institutions even though they are now a numerical minority. The Pennsylvanian leadership on abolitionism, penal reform, the death penalty, and so on all happened after the colony was officially no longer Quaker-dominated.

And it’s hard not to see Quaker influence on the ideas of the modern US – which was after all founded in Philadelphia. In the middle of the Puritans demanding strict obedience to their dystopian hive society and the Cavaliers demanding everybody bow down to a transplanted nobility, the Pennsylvanians – who became the thought leaders of the Mid-Atlantic region including to a limited degree New York City – were pretty normal and had a good opportunity to serve as power-brokers and middlemen between the North and South. Although there are seeds of traditionally American ideas in every region, the Quakers really stand out in terms of freedom of religion, freedom of thought, checks and balances, and the idea of universal equality.

It occurs to me that William Penn might be literally the single most successful person in history. He started out as a minor noble following a religious sect that everybody despised and managed to export its principles to Pennsylvania where they flourished and multiplied. Pennsylvania then managed to export its principles to the United States, and the United States exported them to the world. I’m not sure how much of the suspiciously Quaker character of modern society is a direct result of William Penn, but he was in one heck of a right place at one heck of a right time

D: The Borderers

The Borderers are usually called “the Scots-Irish”, but Fischer dislikes the term because they are neither Scots (as we usually think of Scots) nor Irish (as we usually think of Irish). Instead, they’re a bunch of people who lived on (both sides of) the Scottish-English border in the late 1600s.

None of this makes sense without realizing that the Scottish-English border was terrible. Every couple of years the King of England would invade Scotland or vice versa; “from the year 1040 to 1745, every English monarch but three suffered a Scottish invasion, or became an invader in his turn”. These “invasions” generally involved burning down all the border towns and killing a bunch of people there. Eventually the two sides started getting pissed with each other and would also torture-murder all of the enemy’s citizens they could get their hands on, ie any who were close enough to the border to reach before the enemy could send in their armies. As if this weren’t bad enough, outlaws quickly learned they could plunder one side of the border, then escape to the other before anyone brought them to justice, so the whole area basically became one giant cesspool of robbery and murder.

In response to these pressures, the border people militarized and stayed feudal long past the point where the rest of the island had started modernizing. Life consisted of farming the lands of whichever brutal warlord had the top hand today, followed by being called to fight for him on short notice, followed by a grisly death. The border people dealt with it as best they could, and developed a culture marked by extreme levels of clannishness, xenophobia, drunkenness, stubbornness, and violence.

By the end of the 1600s, the Scottish and English royal bloodlines had intermingled and the two countries were drifting closer and closer to Union. The English kings finally got some breathing room and noticed – holy frick, everything about the border is terrible. They decided to make the region economically productive, which meant “squeeze every cent out of the poor Borderers, in the hopes of either getting lots of money from them or else forcing them to go elsewhere and become somebody else’s problem”. Sometimes absentee landlords would just evict everyone who lived in an entire region, en masse, replacing them with people they expected to be easier to control.

Many of the Borderers fled to Ulster in Ireland, which England was working on colonizing as a Protestant bulwark against the Irish Catholics, and where the Crown welcomed violent warlike people as a useful addition to their Irish-Catholic-fighting project. But Ulster had some of the same problems as the Border, and also the Ulsterites started worrying that the Borderer cure was worse than the Irish Catholic disease. So the Borderers started getting kicked out of Ulster too, one thing led to another, and eventually 250,000 of these people ended up in America.

250,000 people is a lot of Borderers. By contrast, the great Puritan emigration wave was only 20,000 or so people; even the mighty colony of Virginia only had about 50,000 original settlers. So these people showed up on the door of the American colonies, and the American colonies collectively took one look at them and said “nope”.

Except, of course, the Quakers. The Quakers talked among themselves and decided that these people were also Children Of God, and so they should demonstrate Brotherly Love by taking them in. They tried that for a couple of years, and then they questioned their life choices and also said “nope”, and they told the Borderers that Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley were actually kind of full right now but there was lots of unoccupied land in Western Pennsylvania, and the Appalachian Mountains were very pretty at this time of year, so why didn’t they head out that way as fast as it was physically possible to go?

At the time, the Appalachians were kind of the booby prize of American colonization: hard to farm, hard to travel through, and exposed to hostile Indians. The Borderers fell in love with them. They came from a pretty marginal and unproductive territory themselves, and the Appalachians were far away from everybody and full of fun Indians to fight. Soon the Appalachian strategy became the accepted response to Borderer immigration and was taken up from Pennsylvania in the north to the Carolinas in the South (a few New Englanders hit on a similar idea and sent their own Borderers to colonize the mountains of New Hampshire).

So the Borderers all went to Appalachia and established their own little rural clans there and nothing at all went wrong except for the entire rest of American history.

1. Colonial opinion on the Borderers differed within a very narrow range: one Pennsylvanian writer called them “the scum of two nations”, another Anglican clergyman called them “the scum of the universe”.
2. Some Borderers tried to come to America as indentured servants, but after Virginian planters got some experience with Borderers they refused to accept any more.
3. The Borderers were mostly Presbyterians, and their arrival en masse started a race among the established American denominations to convert them. This was mostly unsuccessful; Anglican preacher Charles Woodmason, an important source for information about the early Borderers, said that during his missionary activity the Borderers “disrupted his service, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation before a service of communion”.
4. Borderer town-naming policy was very different from the Biblical names of the Puritans or the Ye Olde English names of the Virginians. Early Borderer settlements include – just to stick to the creek-related ones – Lousy Creek, Naked Creek, Shitbritches Creek, Cuckold’s Creek, Bloodrun Creek, Pinchgut Creek, Whipping Creek, and Hangover Creek. There were also Whiskey Springs, Hell’s Half Acre, Scream Ridge, Scuffletown, and Grabtown. The overall aesthetic honestly sounds a bit Orcish.
5. One of the first Borderer leaders was John Houston. On the ship over to America, the crew tried to steal some of his possessions; Houston retaliated by leading a mutiny of the passengers, stealing the ship, and sailing it to America himself. He settled in West Virginia; one of his descendants was famous Texan Sam Houston.
6. Traditional Borderer prayer: “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.”
7. “The backcountry folk bragged that one interior county of North Carolina had so little ‘larnin’ that the only literate inhabitant was elected ‘county reader'”
8. The Borderer accent contained English, Scottish, and Irish elements, and is (uncoincidentally) very similar to the typical “country western singer” accent of today.
9. The Borderers were famous for family feuds in England, including the Johnson clan’s habit of “adorning their houses with the flayed skins of their enemies the Maxwells in a blood feud that continued for many generations”. The great family feuds of the United States, like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, are a direct descendent of this tradition.
10. Within-clan marriage was a popular Borderer tradition both in England and Appalachia; “in the Cumbrian parish of Hawkshead, for example, both the bride and the groom bore the same last names in 25 percent of all marriages from 1568 to 1704”. This led to the modern stereotype of Appalachians as inbred and incestuous.
11. The Borderers were extremely patriarchal and anti-women’s-rights to a degree that appalled even the people of the 1700s.
12. “In the year 1767, [Anglican priest] Charles Woodmason calculated that 94 percent of backcountry brides whom he had married in the past year were pregnant on their wedding day”
13. Although the Borderers started off Presbyterian, they were in constant religious churn and their territories were full of revivals, camp meetings, born-again evangelicalism, and itinerant preachers. Eventually most of them ended up as what we now call Southern Baptist.
14. Borderer folk beliefs: “If an old woman has only one tooth, she is a witch”, “If you are awake at eleven, you will see witches”, “The howling of dogs shows the presence of witches”, “If your shoestring comes untied, witches are after you”, “If a warm current of air is felt, witches are passing”. Also, “wet a rag in your enemy’s blood, put it behind a rock in the chimney, and when it rots your enemy will die”; apparently it was not a coincidence they were thinking about witches so much.
15. Borderer medical beliefs: “A cure for homesickness is to sew a good charge of gunpowder on the inside of ths shirt near the neck”. That’ll cure homesickness, all right.
16. More Borderer medical beliefs: “For fever, cut a black chicken open while alive and bind it to the bottom of your foot”, “Eating the brain of a screech owl is the only dependable remedy for headache”, “For rheumatism, apply split frogs to the feet”, “To reduce a swollen leg, split a live cat and apply while still warm”, “Bite the head off the first butterfly you see and you will get a new dress”, “Open the cow’s mouth and throw a live toad-frog down her throat. This will cure her of hollow-horn”. Also, blacksmiths protected themselves from witches by occasionally throwing live puppies into their furnaces.
17. Rates of public schooling in the backcountry settled by the Borderers were “the lowest in British North America” and sometimes involved rituals like “barring out”, where the children would physically keep the teacher out of the school until he gave in and granted the students the day off.
18. “Appalachia’s idea of a moderate drinker was the mountain man who limited himself to a single quart [of whiskey] at a sitting, explaining that more ‘might fly to my head’. Other beverages were regarded with contempt.”
19. A traditional backcountry sport was “rough and tumble”, a no-holds-barred form of wrestling where gouging out your opponent’s eyes was considered perfectly acceptable and in fact sound strategy. In 1772 Virginia had to pass a law against “gouging, plucking, or putting out an eye”, but this was the Cavalier-dominated legislature all the way on the east coast and nobody in the backcountry paid them any attention. Other traditional backcountry sports were sharpshooting and hunting.
20. The American custom of shooting guns into the air to celebrate holidays is 100% Borderer in origin.
21. The justice system of the backcountry was heavy on lynching, originally a race-neutral practice and named after western Virginian settler William Lynch.
22. Scottish Presbyterians used to wear red cloth around their neck to symbolize their religion; other Englishmen nicknamed them “rednecks”. This may be the origin of the popular slur against Americans of Borderer descent, although many other etiologies have been proposed. “Cracker” as a slur is attested as early as 1766 by a colonist who says the term describes backcountry men who are great boasters; other proposed etymologies like slaves talking about “whip-crackers” seem to be spurious.

This is not to paint the Borderers as universally poor and dumb – like every group, they had an elite, and some of their elite went on to become some of America’s most important historical figures. Andrew Jackson became the first Borderer president, behaving exactly as you would expect the first Borderer president to behave, and he was followed by almost a dozen others. Borderers have also been overrepresented in America’s great military leaders, from Ulysses Grant through Teddy Roosevelt (3/4 Borderer despite his Dutch surname) to George Patton to John McCain.

The Borderers really liked America – unsurprising given where they came from – and started identifying as American earlier and more fiercely than any of the other settlers who had come before. Unsurprisingly, they strongly supported the Revolution – Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) was a Borderer. They also also played a disproportionate role in westward expansion. After the Revolution, America made an almost literal 180 degree turn and the “backcountry” became the “frontier”. It was the Borderers who were happiest going off into the wilderness and fighting Indians, and most of the famous frontiersmen like Davy Crockett were of their number. This was a big part of the reason the Wild West was so wild compared to, say, Minnesota (also a frontier inhabited by lots of Indians, but settled by Northerners and Germans) and why it inherited seemingly Gaelic traditions like cattle rustling.

Their conception of liberty has also survived and shaped modern American politics: it seems essentially to be the modern libertarian/Republican version of freedom from government interference, especially if phrased as “get the hell off my land”, and especially especially if phrased that way through clenched teeth while pointing a shotgun at the offending party.


This is all interesting as history and doubly interesting as anthropology, but what relevance does it have for later American history and the present day?

One of my reasons reading this book was to see whether the link between Americans’ political opinions and a bunch of their other cultural/religious/social traits (a “Blue Tribe” and “Red Tribe”) was related to the immigration patterns it describes. I’m leaning towards “probably”, but there’s a lot of work to be done in explaining how the split among these four cultures led to a split among two cultures in the modern day, and with little help from the book itself I am going to have to resort to total unfounded speculation. But the simplest explanation – that the Puritans and Quakers merged into one group (“progressives”, “Blue Tribe”, “educated coastal elites”) and the Virginians and Borderers into another (“conservatives”, “Red Tribe”, “rednecks”) – has a lot going for it.

Many conservatives I read like to push the theory that modern progressivism is descended from the utopian Protestant experiments of early America – Puritanism and Quakerism – and that the civil war represents “Massachusetts’ conquest of America”. I always found this lacking in rigor: Puritanism and Quakerism are sufficiently different that positing a combination of them probably needs more intellectual work than just gesturing at “you know, that Puritan/Quaker thing”. But the idea of a Puritan New England and a Quaker-(ish) Pennsylvania gradually blending together into a generic “North” seems plausible, especially given the high levels of interbreeding between the two (some of our more progressive Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, were literally half-Puritan and half-Quaker). Such a merge would combine the Puritan emphasis on moral reform, education, and a well-ordered society with the Quaker doctrine of niceness, tolerance, religious pluralism, individual conscience, and the Inner Light. It seems kind of unfair to just mix-and-match the most modern elements of each and declare that this proves they caused modernity, but there’s no reason that couldn’t have happened.

The idea of Cavaliers and Borderers combining to form modern conservativism is buoyed by modern conservativism’s obvious Border influences, but complicated by its lack of much that is recognizably Cavalier – the Republican Party is hardly marked by its support for a hereditary aristocracy of gentlemen. Here I have to admit that I don’t know as much about Southern history as I’d like. In particular, how were places like Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera settled? Most sources I can find suggest they were set up along the Virginia model of plantation-owning aristocrats, but if that’s true how did the modern populations come to so embody Fischer’s description of Borderers? In particular, why are they so Southern Baptist and not very Anglican? And what happened to all of those indentured servants the Cavaliers brought over after slavery put them out of business? What happened to that whole culture after the Civil War destroyed the plantation system? My guess is going to be that the indentured servants and the Borderer population mixed pretty thoroughly, and that this stratum was hanging around providing a majority of the white bodies in the South while the plantation owners were hogging the limelight – but I just don’t know.

A quick argument that I’m not totally making all of this up:

This is a map of voting patterns by county in the 2012 Presidential election. The blue areas in the South carefully track the so-called “black belt” of majority African-American areas. The ones in the Midwest are mostly big cities. Aside from those, the only people who vote Democrat are New England (very solidly!) and the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania. In fact, you can easily see the distinction between the Delaware Valley settled by Quakers in the east, and the backcountry area settled by Borderers in the west. Even the book’s footnote about how a few Borderers settled in the mountains of New Hampshire is associated with a few spots of red in the mountains of New Hampshire ruining an otherwise near-perfect Democratic sweep of the north.

One anomaly in this story is a kind of linear distribution of blue across southern Michigan, too big to be explained solely by the blacks of Detroit. But a quick look at Wikipedia’s History of Michigan finds:

In the 1820s and 1830s migrants from New England began moving to what is now Michigan in large numbers (though there was a trickle of New England settlers who arrived before this date). These were “Yankee” settlers, that is to say they were descended from the English Puritans who settled New England during the colonial era….Due to the prevalence of New Englanders and New England transplants from upstate New York, Michigan was very culturally contiguous with early New England culture for much of its early history…The amount with which the New England Yankee population predominated made Michigan unique among frontier states in the antebellum period. Due to this heritage Michigan was on the forefront of the antislavery crusade and reforms during the 1840s and 1850s.

Alhough I can’t find proof of this specifically, I know that Michigan was settled from the south up, and I suspect that these New England settlers concentrated in the southern regions and that the north was settled by a more diverse group of whites who lacked the New England connection.

Here’s something else cool. We can’t track Borderers directly because there’s no “Borderer” or “Scots-Irish” option on the US census. But Albion’s Seed points out that the Borderers were uniquely likely to identify as just “American” and deliberately forgot their past ancestry as fast as they could. Meanwhile, when the census asks an ethnicity question about where your ancestors came from, every year some people will stubbornly ignore the point of the question and put down “America” (no, this does not track the distribution of Native American population). Here’s a map of so-called “unhyphenated Americans”, taken from this site:

We see a strong focus on the Appalachian Mountains, especially West Virginia, Tennesee, and Kentucky, bleeding into the rest of the South. Aside from west Pennsylvania, this is very close to where we would expect to find the Borderers. Could these be the same groups?

Meanwhile, here is a map of where Obama underperformed the usual Democratic vote worst in 2008:

These maps are small and lossy, and surely unhyphenatedness is not an exact proxy for Border ancestry – but they are nevertheless intriguing. You may also be interested in the Washington Post’s correlation between distribution of unhyphenated Americans and Trump voters, or the Atlantic’s article on Trump and Borderers.

If I’m going to map these cultural affiliations to ancestry, do I have to walk back on my previous theory that they are related to class? Maybe I should. But I also think we can posit complicated interactions between these ideas. Consider for example the interaction between race and class; a black person with a white-sounding name, who speaks with a white-sounding accent, and who adopts white culture (eg listens to classical music, wears business suits) is far more likely to seem upper-class than a black person with a black-sounding name, a black accent, and black cultural preferences; a white person who seems black in some way (listens to hip-hop, wears baggy clothes) is more likely to seem lower-class. This doesn’t mean race and class are exactly the same thing, but it does mean that some races get stereotyped as upper-class and others as lower-class, and that people’s racial identifiers may change based on where they are in the class structure.

I think something similar is probably going on with these forms of ancestry. The education system is probably dominated by descendents of New Englanders and Pennsylvanians; they had an opportunity to influence the culture of academia and the educated classes more generally, they took it, and now anybody of any background who makes it into that world is going to be socialized according to their rules. Likewise, people in poorer and more rural environments will be surrounded by people of Borderer ancestry and acculturated by Borderer cultural products and end up a little more like that group. As a result, ethnic markers have turned into and merged with class markers in complicated ways.

Indeed, some kind of acculturation process has to have been going on, since most of the people in these areas today are not the descendents of the original settlers. But such a process seems very likely. Just to take an example, most of the Jews I know (including my own family) came into the country via New York, live somewhere on the coast, and have very Blue Tribe values. But Southern Jews believed in the Confederacy as strongly as any Virginian – see for example Judah Benjamin. And Barry Goldwater, a half-Jew raised in Arizona, invented the modern version of conservativism that seems closest to some Borderer beliefs.

All of this is very speculative, with some obvious flaws. What do we make of other countries like Britain or Germany with superficially similar splits but very different histories? Why should Puritans lose their religion and sexual prudery, but keep their interest in moralistic reform? There are whole heaps of questions like these. But look. Before I had any idea about any of this, I wrote that American society seems divided into two strata, one of which is marked by emphasis on education, interest in moral reforms, racial tolerance, low teenage pregnancy, academic/financial jobs, and Democratic party affiliation, and furthermore that this group was centered in the North. Meanwhile, now I learn that the North was settled by two groups that when combined have emphasis on education, interest in moral reforms, racial tolerance, low teenage pregnancy, an academic and mercantile history, and were the heartland of the historical Whigs and Republicans who preceded the modern Democratic Party.

And I wrote about another stratum centered in the South marked by poor education, gun culture, culture of violence, xenophobia, high teenage pregnancy, militarism, patriotism, country western music, and support for the Republican Party. And now I learn that the South was settled by a group noted even in the 1700s for its poor education, gun culture, culture of violence, xenophobia, high premarital pregnancy, militarism, patriotism, accent exactly like the modern country western accent, and support for the Democratic-Republicans who preceded the modern Republican Party.

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained. We grudgingly acknowledge these features when we admit that maybe making the Middle East exactly like America in every way is more of a long-term project than something that will happen as soon as we kick out the latest dictator and get treated as liberators. Part of us may still want to believe that pure reason is the universal solvent, that those Afghans will come around once they realize that being a secular liberal democracy is obviously great. But we keep having deep culture shoved in our face again and again, and we don’t know how to get rid of it. This has led to reasonable speculation that some aspects of it might even be genetic – something which would explain a lot, though not its ability to acculturate recent arrivals.

This is a hard pill to swallow even when we’re talking about Afghanistan. But it becomes doubly unpleasant when we think about it in the sense of our neighbors and fellow citizens in a modern democracy. What, after all, is the point? A democracy made up of 49% extremely liberal Americans and 51% fundamentalist Taliban Afghans would be something very different from the democratic ideal; even if occasionally a super-charismatic American candidate could win over enough marginal Afghans to take power, there’s none of the give-and-take, none of the competition within the marketplace of ideas, that makes democracy so attractive. Just two groups competing to dominate one another, with the fact that the competition is peaceful being at best a consolation prize.

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

I don’t know. But I highly recommend Albion’s Seed as an entertaining and enlightening work of historical scholarship which will be absolutely delightful if you don’t fret too much over all of the existential questions it raises.

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Wow, that was good. As a clueless teen in Dutch-settled Rensselaer county, NY, bordering Vermont and Massachusetts, I visited nearby New England frequently, by bike and car, then moved there in my early twenties. My curiosity about the roots of the very different present-day cultures on either side of the New York border led me to a study of regional history. In short, the two sides of the border were colonized and settled by people with very different philosophies and politics. New York by royal land grants administered by nobles through a serf-like tenant farmer system that discouraged education (lest they should read the lease) and churchgoing (lest they should band together) and private enterprise (the right reserved to landowners). Dismal unimproved shacks and lack of town centers resulted, and harsh top-down laws prevented good citizenship. New England, by contrast, was populated by Puritan and Quaker descendants with a history of self-governance, land ownership, pride in citizenship and a love of education and church-going. Today, the culture in New York is characterized by tough laws (especially tenant-landlord laws) and policing, gritty towns lacking civic pride, low school funding, and a conspicuous separation of the economic classes. New England now has friendly cops, laws favoring tenants over landlords, town meeting, highly funded school districts, church spires everywhere, and neat, clean towns with town greens and white fences. I guess that wasn't brief after all. Point is, this book review presents a larger context for all of that. Thank you very much.