Presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Cleveland on December 28, 1947. Published in the American Historical Review 53, no. 2 (January 1948): 223-34.

The Molding of the Middle West

“Nothing good ever came out of the East,” a midwestern lady once remarked to Dean Andrew Fleming West. “Not even the Westerners?” asked the Dean. He might with equal propriety have asked whether it had occurred to her that the Christian religion, representative government, the English language, the bill of rights had come to the Mississippi Valley from the eastern states. This good lady was but one of a numerous company, for only too many of our historians, many of them writers of distinction, have minimized this vital factor in the creation of our great West. Yet for the region beyond the Appalachians, the Atlantic seaboard and the Piedmont was the mother country, the hive from which its people swarmed, the source of its civilization.

We can gain an insight into the development of western civilization by a study of the forces which created the Atlantic civilizations, out of which it sprang.

There were four of these forces—the force of inheritance, the force of local conditions, the force of continued contact with Europe, and the force of the melting pot.

The cornerstone of our early civilizations, for there were several, was the transplanting of Europeans to our shores. It is well to remember that this movement was not confined to the English, but embraced, also, Dutch, Ulster Scots, Germans, French, Walloons, Flemings, Finns, Scots. Within some of these national groups were included minor groups, out of which grew localized American civilizations—the Wilderness Zion, Penn’s Holy Experiment, the United Brethren, etc.

The true nature of the creation of American civilization has been obscured by a misleading metaphor—the birthplace of the nation. Long and bitter has been the battle over this matter between Virginians and New Englanders, the former pointing out that Jamestown was the first successful English settlement and the place where the first representative assembly was established, the latter claiming that the Pilgrims who rounded Plymouth represented the American spirit. Now certain writers have made the claim that neither Jamestown nor Plymouth has a right to the prize, since it belongs rightly to Roanoke Island. If Roanoke Island is the birthplace of the nation, then the nation was stillborn. And I may add that the New Englanders, being from the days of Cotton Mather better propagandists than the Virginians, have gained the greatest following.

But is not the whole matter based on a false conception? American civilization was not the outgrowth solely of the settlement on the banks of the James; it did not develop solely from the Pilgrim Fathers, despite the vast numbers who claim descent from them, nor even from the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Our civilization was the result of the establishing of a number of what may aptly be called beachheads of European civilization. The beachhead on Roanoke Island was destroyed, but those at Jamestown, New Netherlands, Plymouth, Maryland, South Carolina, Philadelphia, and elsewhere were expanded to embrace the neighboring country, so as to become the bases of new civilizations.

These new civilizations were the product, not only of inheritance—of the languages, religions, traditions, social customs, governments, agricultural methods, architectures, crafts, etc.—of the peoples who founded them but of local conditions in the various regions in which they were planted. The tobacco civilization of Maryland, Virginia, and northern North Carolina, was shaped in a large measure by the soil, climate, and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay region; Puritan New England, despite the efforts of some of its leaders, could not escape the molding influence of geography and economic law. Before the end of the colonial period, the visitor to America, as he traveled from one province to another, distinguished a number of civilizations, each different from the other, and all different from the civilization of Great Britain.

Some of these civilizations were influenced profoundly by the melting pot. In New Jersey, Flemings and Walloons mingled with the Dutch, the Dutch touched elbows with Puritans, while Scots, Germans, Ulster Scots, and New Englanders sat down side by side with Swedes, Finns, and English Quakers. Pennsylvania, founded by the Quakers, became a refuge for thousands of Germans and Ulster Scots. Even in Virginia, Scotch merchants and French Protestants mingled with the English in the tidewater and Piedmont sections, while, in the Shenandoah Valley, Ulster Scots, Germans, and Swiss struggled to retain their religions, tongues, and customs, in the face of the tide of eastern Virginians who swept over the Blue Ridge.

Striking across the forces of diversity was the continued contact with Europe, especially with Great Britain. With New Englanders, Pennsylvanians, Carolinians, and other colonials reading English books and gazettes, wearing clothes cut in the English fashion, shaping their architecture to the Georgian model, reclining in English-made chairs, and eating from English pewter or silver dishes, turning, many of them, for religious leadership to the bishop of London, they continued to have much in common with each other and with the mother country.

The story of the founding and development of our eastern American civilizations gives us the pattern for the founding and development of the civilizations of the great West. They were shaped by the same forces—transit, local conditions, the melting pot, and continued contact with the parent regions. With the Atlantic states playing for the West the role which Europe formerly played for the colonies, history repeated itself, though with an infinite number of minor variations. The civilization planted on the southern shores of the Great Lakes did not reproduce exactly the civilization of New England; Kentucky was not another Virginia; southern and middle Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had a distinct civilization of their own; but we cannot understand these regions unless we know New England, Virginia, and the other states from which most of their settlers came.

The transplanting of our eastern civilizations to the West, certainly one of the most important movements in our history, is also one of the most neglected. Has anyone told the story of the expansion of Virginia and Maryland and evaluated the contributions of these states to the Mississippi Valley regions? Where do we turn for a definitive study of the establishment of New England civilization in western New York, northern Pennsylvania, on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, and along the banks of the upper Mississippi? We would like to know more about the migration from the Middle States and its influence in shaping the West.

South of the Mason and Dixon’s line it was soil exhaustion and soil erosion which sent thousands of young men to seek their fortunes in the land of promise. Starting in the tidewater region they swarmed over the Piedmont, invaded the Shenandoah Valley, where they contested the supremacy of Germans and Ulster Scots, and then leapt over the mountains to stake out their claims in the West. Here they fanned out in an ever-moving semicircle, some crossing the Ohio to establish farms in the fertile plains of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois; others pushing out to Kentucky, Missouri, and beyond; still others heading for the Southwest, to play a major role in the development of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas.

The distinctive Virginia accent became familiar in the streets of Cincinnati, on the banks of the Missouri, in the tobacco fields of Kentucky, in the far-off Brazos Bottom, even in the gold fields and fertile valleys of California. After the War between the States, cowboys, many of them Confederate veterans, carried the Virginia-Maryland tradition to every corner of the Great Plains. When a group of Princeton geologists under the leadership of the late William B. Scott lost their way in Idaho, they were received with hospitality by a settler in his log cabin. But on their departure the next morning, the host remarked, “Strangers, I am glad I let you in, but I wouldn’t have done so had I known you were Yankees.”

It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of the settlers from the tobacco states upon the vast West. They brought with them their governmental system; their religions; so far as soil and climate permitted, their agriculture; where the law did not forbid, the institution of slavery; their architecture; their social customs; their mental characteristics. Today thousands of western families take pride in tracing their ancestry back to a Harrison or a Clopton or a Carter, and have for Virginia and Maryland the same reverence that the colonial Virginians and Marylanders had for England.

The New Englanders, in turn, exerted a similarly powerful influence upon the regions where they settled. The farmer, weary of trying to wrest a living from his infertile soil; the sailor, thrown out of work by the Embargo, the War of 1812, and the Tariff of 1816; the poor and the dissenter, resenting the restrictions upon their political freedom, created in the West a new New England. No doubt this Yankee West, like the Virginia-Maryland West, would have been fan-shaped, had not Canada interposed to the northwest and west. So the New England host, upon reaching the Great Lakes, were shunted southwestward before they could move out into Michigan, northern Illinois, Wisconsin, and beyond the Mississippi. There were New Englanders in all parts of the old Northwest, but their chief line of advance was from the Mohawk to the Western Reserve and thence westward to Iowa.

Everywhere they were welcomed. “Come to us,” urged a western editor. “Come you poor job-hunting, street-walking Yankee mechanics and you will find a land of plenty.” Come they did—by the thousands, bringing with them the religion, political ideals, architecture, literature, customs of the region east of the Hudson. The traditions of William Ames, which John Winthrop and John Cotton had planted on the shores of Massachusetts Bay two centuries earlier, they now planted on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. The New England town, in a modified form, they established wherever they went.

In Congregationalist churches, modeled upon those of Massachusetts and Connecticut, preachers thundered out their warnings after the manner of Urian Oakes or Jonathan Edwards; in crude little schoolhouses the teacher gave instruction from books printed in Boston; in the four-square courthouses, for all the world like the old New England meetinghouses, the judge expounded the legal code which had been familiar to Samuel Sewall and William Stoughton; the stranger who strolled across the public square of a northern Ohio village might have imagined himself on the green of Lexington, Massachusetts. The old Northwest owes much to its Yankee inheritance. Nor were the Virginians and Marylanders and New Englanders alone in contributing to the civilizations of the West. From both banks of the lower Delaware came groups of Quaker farmers; the presence here and there of great Swiss barns marks the settlements of Pennsylvania Germans; the trail of Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians was blazoned by the crude little Presbyterian church buildings of the Ulster Scots. And far to the south, the expanding frontier of the cotton kingdom marked the advance of Carolinians and Georgians.

The settlers represented all classes of Easterners, for mingled with the poor mechanics and farmers were the sons of well-to-do planters, land speculators who dreamed of rich profits from the unopened expanses of the West, merchants who realized the possibilities of trade along the river systems. These men gave a tinge of conservatism to an otherwise democratic society, and recreated so far as they could the aristocracies of the East.

One wonders whether the emigrant from the Atlantic region, as he halted his pack horse or his crude wagon atop the Alleghenies to take his first view of the great valley which was to be his future home, realized how powerful would be its influence in reshaping his life. He might cling to his religion, to his ideals, to old customs, he might try to build his house on the model of the one in which he was born and reared, but slowly, inevitably the West would turn him into a Westerner. The vast inland waterways of the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes, the climate, the character of the soil, the crude life of the frontier, the danger from the Indians, the battle with the forests, all were to leave their mark on him and upon his sons and daughters.

It is not our purpose to dwell upon the influence of the frontier in molding the civilization of the West, since we are all acquainted with Frederick J. Turner’s brilliant work on this subject. Perhaps too much emphasis has already been put on it. After all, it was but one of many factors which contributed to the making of the region. And we should remember that local conditions in the West continued to be a powerful remolding force long after the frontier had moved on to other regions. Nor is it true that American democracy was born of the frontier. American democracy was born in Westminster Hall, it gained a new birth when transplanted to the shores of North America, it was fortified by a century and a half of political conflict between the colonial assemblies and the governors, and was taken into the West by men who regarded it as their most valued inheritance.

Yet none will deny that life in the Mississippi Valley was different, had to be different, from the life of Boston, or New York, or Pennsylvania, or on the Virginia plantation, or in the rice fields of South Carolina. The Yankee settlers found that the Great Lakes were quite different from the Atlantic Ocean, that the trader whose business had taken him to the West Indies, or to Glasgow, or to Spain, now found his ventures narrowly limited; the whaler had to turn to some other occupation; the Gloucester fisherman looked in vain for another Georges Banks; the shipbuilder had to reshape the type of vessel he turned out; the farmer was overjoyed to discover that the yield of wheat per acre in Knox County or Seneca County was double or treble that of Essex or Worcester; the Congregationalists, weakened by isolation in the new country and lacking the prop given them by the governments of New England, in many cases turned Presbyterian. The Virginians and Marylanders, faced with a legal ban on slavery north of the Ohio River and with the equally effective ban of sterile soil in vast expanses south of it, were greatly restricted in duplicating their plantation system.

Not less influential than inheritance and local conditions in shaping the character of the West was the melting pot. Had the boundaries of the newly formed regions in the Mississippi Valley been clearly fixed, those regions would have been more distinctive, would have differed one from the other more radically. But thousands of New Englanders crossed over into the Virginia-Maryland zone; in the Middle States zone of Ohio and Indiana both Yankees and Southerners flocked in to elbow Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians; in the Southwest settlers from Georgia and South Carolina disputed the best cotton lands with Virginians and Kentuckians. And, as though this did not complicate western society enough, there came across the Atlantic to seek their fortunes in this land of promise an unending stream of immigrants—Germans, Irish, Englishmen, Welsh, Scots. A western local historian tells us that a certain Andy Craig, the first settler of Knox County, Ohio, lived there for years before the solitude which surrounded him was broken by the arrival of Nathaniel Mitchell Young, a Jerseyman. Next George Dial, of Hampshire County, Virginia, paddled up the Owl Creek in his pirogue “and, pleased with the beautiful country,” made it his home. Then “old Captain Joseph Walker, from Pennsylvania, settles on the bank of the creek where Mt. Vernon now is.” He was followed by John Simkins, of Virginia, “with his son Seeley for capital.” “While these plain men from Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are preparing their cabins . . . a stray Yankee [Samuel H. Smith] . . . with a speculative eye . . . is, with a pocket compass,” laying out the town of Clinton. Finally, in 1806, arrived a company of Quakers to add still another element to this mixed society.

Nor was the situation in Knox County unusual. Among the first settlers of Dayton were men from Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Ireland, and elsewhere. The first white men to settle along Silver Creek, Honey Creek, and Rocky Creek, in Seneca County, hailed from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and southern Ohio, while elsewhere in the county were Germans, Irish, and French. The so-called backbone region of Ohio was peopled largely with Pennsylvania Germans, who were joined later by Germans and Swiss from Europe. In the Ohio legislature in 1822 twenty-nine members were from Virginia and Maryland, twenty-seven from Pennsylvania, twenty-five from New England, seven from New Jersey, four from New York, two from Kentucky, two from the Carolinas, and six from Ireland.

And so, in the forests of Ohio and Indiana, was renewed the age-old battle of civilizations. Warm indeed must have been the disputes in the crude cabins as the Virginian defended the institution of slavery, or the Quaker dwelt on the sin of war, or the New Englander insisted that God himself had designed the Congregationalist way. The Yankee farmer viewed with interest the great barns of the Pennsylvania Germans and profited by their agricultural methods; the Southerner, while perhaps disliking New England thrift, himself became more businesslike in his dealings.

The Southerners and New Englanders especially, as they met in the western melting pot, presented a marked contrast. “The Virginian is less complicated, with less apparent paradoxes, hospitable, generous, liberal,” wrote one observer. “The New Englander is unique and peculiar. He reduces everything to the standard of utility; he is frugal, not mean. He scrutinizes; his curiosity sometimes leads him into impertinence. He has . . . quiet humor. . . . The two distinct types of character are brought into contact, the one losing its rugged asperities and sharp angles, the other correcting unnecessary habits.”

Out of this welter, these clashing forces, emerged the Middle Westerner. Claiming an inheritance which led back to Williamsburg, to Boston, to the Delaware and Hudson Valleys; to the ideals of a Carter or a Byrd, or of Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall; to the teachings of William Penn, of Jonathan Edwards, of Count Zinzendorf; remolded by the great West itself, he emerged as the new American.

This new American owed much to the newcomers from foreign lands, from Germany, from Great Britain, from Ireland, from Switzerland, from Holland, and elsewhere, in the formative years of the West. The immigrant, though he might become an American citizen, might learn to speak English, might adopt American clothes and build his house in the American fashion, clung tenaciously to Old World customs and ideals. The Germans introduced intensive agriculture by the use of fertilizers and the diversification of crops, their music and drama had a marked influence on the region, their perseverance, thrift, and respect for authority exercised a needed stabilizing force. The Irish contributed an element of cheerfulness and hospitality; their wit and extravagances of speech made a lasting imprint on the American language; they made the Roman Catholic Church a power in the Midwest. The Dutch, stern Calvinists most of them, joined with Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists in passing blue laws and frowning upon dancing, cards, the theater and even music, while, at the same time, preserving some of their lighter customs through the annual tulip festival.

The development of distinct midwestern civilizations was hastened by the lack of adequate transportation before the advent of the railways. It was far more difficult for a Kentuckian to keep in touch with Richmond than for a Richmonder to keep in touch with Europe; to the Yankee settler in the Western Reserve, Faneuil Hall and the Old South Church seemed remote indeed. In fact, neither Richmond nor Boston ever became for the West the cultural capital, as London for two centuries was the cultural capital of the Atlantic colonies and states. The great Appalachian barrier, the barrier which Washington feared might one day cause the West to split off from the nation, made it necessary for the Westerners to depend more upon their own efforts and less upon the East, not only for their physical but for their spiritual and intellectual needs.

A lady once told me that the bricks for her ancestral residence near Lexington, Kentucky, built in 1811, had been brought all the way from Virginia. A little reflection should have convinced her that this was next to impossible, since the cost of hauling bricks over the poor roads of that day would have been prohibitive. It was only by the greatest effort that more precious things than bricks—books, newspapers, magazines, letters—were brought from the eastern states. When Samuel Doak founded the academy which later became Washington College, Tennessee, he brought the books for the library in sacks on horseback five hundred miles from Philadelphia through forests and over mountains.

This difficulty in securing eastern printed matter made it necessary for the settlers, at a very early date, to begin publishing for themselves. The first number of The Centinelof the North-Western Territory, edited by William Maxwell, a Revolutionary soldier, was published at Cincinnati in 1793. Since it was very costly to send a Kentucky or Ohio youth to William and Mary or to Harvard, the Midwesterners founded their own colleges. It became necessary for the region to develop its cabinetmakers, to organize public libraries and musical societies, to manufacture its own cloth and agricultural instruments. At a remarkably early date it gave birth to a distinctive literature.

Yet the transmontane region, despite its isolation, could not escape entirely the influence of the East. As new settlers continued to pour in from the seaboard states, they brought with them new ideas, new fashions, new techniques. The builder brought with him the latest architectural designs from Boston or Philadelphia, the schoolmaster new methods of teaching, the manufacturer brought new machinery, the musician brought new compositions. The news from the East, even before the day of canals and railways, was awaited eagerly. One Cleveland weekly, in changing the day of publication from Tuesday to Thursday, explained that this made it possible “to circulate the eastern news a week earlier” since the steamboat from Buffalo was expected to arrive on Wednesday. The New York Tribune was read in thousands of homes in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and exerted a powerful influence on public opinion, in fact became, as James Ford Rhodes expresses it, a political bible.

In architecture the log cabin was superseded by frame dwellings designed in many cases from drawings in Asher Benjamin’s The Country Builder’s Assistant and The American Builder’s Companion, while the influence of Jefferson was shown in such classical buildings as the Taft House, built in 1820, at Cincinnati; the Stinton House, Hamilton, Ohio; the Schug House, Huron; the Mathews House, Lake, Ohio; the Sykes House, Cuyahoga, Ohio; the Peter Allen House, Trumbull, Ohio; the Grange, Bourbon, Kentucky; the John Speed House, Jefferson, Kentucky; and Mercer Hall, Maury, Tennessee. Classical church buildings, almost identical with those in many eastern cities, sprang up on all sides. That Bulfinch, too, had his imitators in the West is evidenced by the Hildreth House, at Marietta, and by other buildings.

Both religion and education received their chief inspiration from the East. It was Thaddeus Dod, one of John Witherspoon’s ablest students, who was the prophet of Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, preaching in the wilderness, organizing congregations, gathering around him a group of students to found the first classical school west of the Alleghenies. It was another Princeton graduate, David Rice, a convert of Samuel Davies, who became the father of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. James Doddridge, who studied at Jefferson College, was the torchbearer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Virginia panhandle and eastern Ohio, going on horseback through the woods and over rivers, to preach and to baptize. Elisha Bates and Benjamin Lundy spread far and wide the tenets of the Society of Friends. Earnest men from New England, Yale graduates, many of them, established Congregational churches, schools, and colleges. The students at Oberlin, Western Reserve, Knox, and other western colleges went through the same array of Greek, Latin, mathematics, philosophy, and physics as students in the East, often using the same textbooks.

Profound, also, was the influence of eastern literature upon the West. Emerson, Poe, Lowell, Cooper, Irving, and others were widely read and appreciated, were an inspiration to budding western writers. Four of Emerson’s best-known poems were published in The Western Messenger a year before their first appearance in the East. The browser in M. C. Younglove’s bookstore, in Cleveland, was sure to find on the shelves copies of the Leatherstocking Tales. The Marietta College Magazine published critical articles on “Washington Irving,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” “Edgar Allan Poe” and “Horace Greeley.” And at the lyceums, which flourished in the midwestern cities, great crowds listened with intense interest to the lectures of Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, and other distinguished eastern writers.

Visitors to the United States have long recognized the existence of a distinctive American civilization. Even before the advent of the national period they noted with interest the spirit of optimism which prevailed everywhere, the love of democracy, the driving energy, the self-reliance, the initiative which marked the people from Maine to Georgia. Today we have an American economic system, a distinctive literature, a distinctive architecture, even an American language. When the American goes abroad he is recognized instantly by the cut of his clothes, by his accent, by his free and easy manners.

Yet one does not have to look far to find diversity in the midst of this apparent uniformity. The New Englander is different from the Georgian; California has a civilization quite distinct from that of Virginia; there is still such a thing as the Old Northwest. During the Second World War, Princeton University inaugurated a series of conferences on the United States for British officers and men. The thing which seemed to interest them most, the thing which they were sure they had to understand before they could know this country, was sectionalism; and many were the questions they asked concerning the Solid South, the Middle West, New England, and the Pacific Coast states. Americans themselves are fully aware of the importance of this matter, for sectionalism has played a major role in our history, plays a major role in our life today.

Should not historians give more attention to the origins and development of these sections? We have one excellent study of the geography of the expanded New England; there are a number of scholarly works on immigrant groups; the influence of the frontier has been studied fully; but we are woefully lacking in books on the transit of civilization from one section to another, on the continued influence of the older sections on the new, on the effects of local conditions.

It is fascinating to turn the pages of history back to ancient times—to look on as the Egyptians build their pyramids and temples and send their conquering armies up the Nile or into western Asia; to linger in Athens in the days of its glory, there to take counsel with Aristotle or Plato, or stand in admiring wonder before the Parthenon; to witness the rise and the decline of the Roman Empire; to accompany Peter the Hermit and Richard the Lionhearted on the Crusades. But even more interesting is the story of the founding and growth of our Middle West—the pouring of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children over the mountains into the vast bowl of the Mississippi Valley; the struggle with the Indians, the forests, and isolation; the converting of the wilderness into prosperous farms, great cities, and innumerable towns and villages; the laying down of railways, highways, and canals; the founding of schools and colleges; the building of churches; the development of a great industrial system.

May we not hope that in the coming years this story will be better told, so that we may understand more fully the forces which created our great Middle West, which has had so profound an influence upon all phases of American civilization.

Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker (February 6, 1879–April 22, 1966) was Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University. Prominent works include his doctoral dissertation, Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia (1910); Virginia Under the Stuarts (1914); and The Planters of Colonial Virginia (1922).