The Four Great Migrations: 1629-1750

Although immigration has played a huge role in the history of the United States of America, immigration continues to be very controversial, and this is due in part to the fact that the origins and development of American social life are intricately tied to patterns of settlement that have helped to shape the regional history of various parts of the USA. Not surprisingly, this makes it difficult to tell the story of the settlement of North America without the stories of the parts seeming to be larger than the union of the whole.

In the latter part of the 20th century, American historians found themselves disagreeing more and more about how to narrate American origins and development. This so-called “social history” claimed to be new in method, and its empirical focus, was rigorous and innovative.  Social historians did generate many new interpretations of history, but they also contributed to a sense of fragmentation. In the process, it often seemed like the narrative thread or “storyline” got lost in the midst of the multiplicity of arguments.

As a result, the discipline of history started to appear split. On the one hand, you have historians who write as if “the past is fundamentally separate from the present” (sometimes called the antiquarian solution). And on the other hand, some historians study the past as if “the past is prologue to the present” (sometimes called the “Presentist” approach).  See the Preface to Albion’s Seed, x.) In contrast to these two extremes, a new “school” of historians began to focus on the ways in which history is itself the product of cultural influences (what David Hackett Fischer calls the “immediatist” approach).

Fischer has made one of the most original contributions to the discussion of American cultural history in his remarkable book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). Although this very large book looks rather imposing, it is rather simply to digest once readers get a sense of the author’s argument.  On pp. 785-786, Hackett helpfully summarizes the four patterns of immigration that he has analyzed.

“After 1629, the major folk movements began to occur, in [a] series of waves.  . . . As we have seen, the first wave (1629-1640) was an exodus of English Puritans who came mainly from the eastern counties and planted in Massachusetts a very special culture with unique patterns of speech and architecture, distinctive ideas of marriages and the family, nucleated settlements, congregational churches, town meetings, and a tradition of ordered liberty.” (785-786)

“The second wave brought to Virginia a different set of English folkways, mainly from a broad belt of territory that extended from Kent and Devon north to Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. This culture was characterized by scattered settlements, extreme hierarchies of rank, strong oligarchies, Anglican churches, a highly developed sense of honor and an idea of hegemonic liberty.”

“The third wave (ca.1675-1715) was the Friends’ migration, which carried yet another culture from the England’s North Midlands to the Delaware Valley. It was founded on a Christian idea of spiritual equality, a work ethic of unusual intensity, a suspicion of social hierarchy, and an austerity which Max Weber called ‘worldly acesticism.’ It also preserved many elements of North Midland speech, architecture, dress and food ways. Most important, it creating a pluralistic system of reciprocal liberty in the Delaware Valley.” (786)

“The fourth great migration (1717-1775) came to the back country from the borderlands of North Britain — an area which included the Scottish lowlands, the north of Ireland and England’s six northern counties. These emigrants were of different ethnic stocks, but shared a common border culture which was unique in its speech, architecture, family ways, and child-rearing customs. Its material culture was marked by extreme inequalities of condition, and its public life was dominated by a distinctive ideal of natural liberty.” (786)

Hackett’s comparative argument about the four distinct types of “liberty” has been criticized.  On the other hand, he has identified lingering patterns of “folkways” that continue to mark the areas settled by immigrants who traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to Somerset, south through the Shenandoah Valley, and on to Cumberland Gap of Kentucky and points west and south.  More than the first three streams, it is the saga of this fourth great migration that offers the clearest explanation of what our Cartwright ancestors experienced in their movements from Virginia and North Carolina to Tennessee and Georgia and on to Arkansas before later spreading out even further to places like California as well as “back East.”

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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