Change and Continuity in United States Cultural Geography

One of Colin Woodard’s central theories in American Nations predicates that the first social group with guns, germs, and bibles to successfully settle in a given area holds a significant and enduring degree of “cultural capital” in that area. So much so, in fact, that future waves of immigrants who attempt to shape their new homelands in their own image fail to make as a strong an impact as the land’s original settlers. Hence, the “dominant” cultural values of “Yankeedom” and the “Deep South” today, for example, are largely reflective of the Puritan and white Barbadian settlers who first emigrated to these areas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In making these claims Woodard relies on cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who mapped out these ideas in a theory he described as the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement.”

While I believe Zelinsky’s theory is strong and mostly accurate, Woodard’s study cast doubts about the applicability of the “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” to Woodard’s self-defined nations. In this post I will provide three case studies that I believe complicate the usefulness of this theory.

Kansas: Woodard largely ignores settlement patterns in antebellum Kansas in his study, perhaps because the history of this area defies easy explanation. In a recent essay titled “Before the Border War: Slavery and the Settlement of the Western Frontier, 1825-1845,” Kristen K. Epps demonstrates how Kansas was originally settled by Southern slaveholding emigrants from Missouri, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and various states in the Deep South. Many of these emigrants settled around Fort Leavenworth and along the present-day border between Missouri and Kansas. If we used Woodard’s self-defined nations to describe Kansas during most of the antebellum period, it would be safe to say that the area combined “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachian” cultural values.

With the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, however, Kansas became a U.S. territory eligible for statehood. The act stipulated that the question of slavery in the area would be determined by the voters of the territory, and many settlers believed Kansas would become a slave state. Kansas-Nebraska, however, set off a second wave of immigration to Kansas by New England abolitionists and Free-Staters like Indiana native James Lane who feared the admittance of another slave state to the Union. The tension between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas set off several years of nasty crime and violence, presaging the horrors of the American Civil War in the 1860s. For our purposes it should be pointed out that Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861 and, equally important, today one would be hard-pressed to argue that Kansas reflects Southern values. In this case, the values of the region’s first white settlers have not sustained the cultural geography of Kansas today.

Midlands culture and St. Louis: As mentioned before, Woodard argues that “Midlands” culture originated in Pennsylvania with the Quaker values of William Penn and spread itself West into Ohio, Northern Indiana, Illinois, and, curiously, St. Louis, Missouri. Penn’s vision for religious tolerance, equality, and pluralism, argues Woodard, transferred itself into the “Heartland,” where “a collection of mutually tolerant enclaves . . . [developed] as a center for moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business.”

With regards to St. Louis, Woodard states that:

Northern Missouri became a Midland stronghold . . . with St. Louis supporting two German-language daily newspapers by 1845. Bavarian immigrant George Schneider founded the Bavarian Brewery there in 1852, selling it to Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch a few years later. Continued immigration from Germany enabled Midland civilization to dominate the American Heartland despite competition from aggressive Yankees and Borderlanders. By midcentury, German immigrants were arriving by riverboats in St. Louis and from there fanning out across northern Missouri and the eastern prairies.

While these facts are all true, Woodard conveniently leaves out that St. Louis was not originally settled by Germans and that the city was already approaching 100 years old by the time of the Civil War. Woodard makes no mention of the French settlers who first arrived in 1764, the Spanish settlers who emigrated after the territory was transferred to Spain shortly thereafter, the Irish immigrants who moved starting in the early 1800s, or the emigrants from both the South and New England who began to settle in the 1820s and 1830s. If Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement rings true, St. Louis should reflect Woodard’s nation of “New France,” not the Midlands. While St. Louis certainly maintains parts of its French heritage (look no further than the naming of neighborhoods and streets throughout the city for tangible examples), it’s evident that the pluralism of the city makes any endeavor into defining the region’s cultural history frustrating.

Indeed, if St. Louis should be considered a part of the Midlands because of its pluralism, then Woodard’s very definition of the Midland “nation” reflects the lack of a regional identity in America’s Heartland rather than something reflective of an easily definable “dominant culture.” And let’s do away with this notion of St. Louis as reflective of a “mutually tolerant enclave.” French, Germans, Southerners, and Yankees did live side by side, but these groups lived in uneasy harmony and often expressed outright hostility towards one another due in large part to disagreements about slavery. Recent German immigrants who were particularly vocal about their hatred for slavery and support for the Republican party were often derisively referred to as “Black Dutch.” During the Camp Jackson Affair of 1861 nativist and pro-secession whites took to the streets to hurl stones, rocks, and racial epitaphs at the mostly German Missouri Volunteer units marching through the city. So much for “tolerance.”

New Orleans: I don’t have much to say about New Orleans because it’s an area I don’t have much knowledge about. Nevertheless, I believe Woodard to be slightly incorrect in his interpretation of the city’s history. Woodard argues that during the nineteenth century, Deep Southerners moved westward, with many moving to New Orleans. Woodard argues that “Deep Southerners were disgusted with New Orleans, where a more lenient French and Spanish form of slavery and race relations had produced a far less rigid slave society . . . Tension between the white Franco-Spanish residents of New Orleans—the ‘Creoles’—and the ‘new population’ continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.”

These statements are true, but several important components are ignored. For one, no distinction is made between “Cajuns” (the original white French Acadians who emigrated from Quebec to the area in the seventeenth century) and “Creoles” (Franco-Spanish and Franco-African residents today). Second, Ned Sublette demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte meant that “New Orleans was on its way to becoming the largest slave market in the United States.” Yes, there was a large free black population, but New Orleans was built on slavery, an institution embraced by many whites in the area, regardless of ethnic heritage. For example, one of the most prominent Southern magazines in the nation, DeBow’s Review, was published out of New Orleans and frequently published articles defending slavery, advocating secession, and calling for the return of the African slave trade to America. Finally, the agency of black New Orleans residents is not acknowledged by Woodard besides a protest they held for being excluded from a Congressional election in 1812. In sum, strong tensions existed between a wide range of groups in a pluralist society. The Acadian culture first established by Cajuns remains, but to suggest that this culture remains “dominant” in the area seems to be a stretch to me.

I’ve attempted to outline three case studies that challenge Wilbur Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Settlement. How useful is this doctrine for understanding cultural geography? I’m not totally sure, but I question how effective these ideas are in explaining the significant cultural transformations that took place in several prominent areas of the United States during the antebellum era.