Gaps in My Immigrant Knowledge

I know I knew it at one point in time, but it can be easy to forget things for a variety of reasons.

I’m re-reading Sonya Salamon’s Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest (Studies in Rural Culture) as a means of re-familiarizing myself with certain concepts for a variety of personal and professional reasons. Salamon studied four migrant groups into Illinois in the mid-19th century(*) and their approach to farming and land tenure. Those groups were:

  • German Yeoman–an Ostfriesen (Lutheran) settlement referred to as “Heartland.”
  • German Yeoman–a German Catholic settlement referred to as “St. Boniface.”
  • Yankee Entrepreneur–a Illinois settlement of American natives from across the United States who Salamon referred to as “Yankees.” She made her case for the use of that term in her book and in that context it makes perfect for several reasons including the fact that European immigrants often referred to all Americans as “English” because of the language they spoke–no matter what part of the US they were from. That settlement was referred to as Wheeler in her book.
  • A mixed German/Yankee settlement–referred to as Prairie Gem.

The book holds high personal interest for me because all my Illinois families arrived during the time period covered in Salamon’s book. All (except for one ggg-grandfather) were farmers.  Half my ancestors settled in a settlement like Heartland (and were Ostfriesen), and most of the rest fell into one of the other categories. The only exception was that my Germans were Lutheran and not Catholic. The distinctions in terms of farming are minimal.

Salamon’s discussion of the differences in how different members of different ethnic groups approached farm growth and inheritance resonated with me because it confirmed differences among my own families that I had noticed, but had never verbalized.

From a very large perspective, the Ostfriesen farmer typically settled in one spot and stayed put (or maybe moved once until he “settled.”) His general goal was to see that his children (either as farmers or as the wives of farmers) were established near him. The Yankee perspective was to send children out on their own and have them succeed and settle where they might. Ostfriesens (and the Germans) generally wanted their farm to pass to their children, Yankees were not as concerned about passing on the physical farm to their families and retaining it “in the family name.”

With any study generalizing human behavior it is important to remember that there will be exceptions. Not everyone behaves the same. Genealogists live in those exceptions. Despite this caveat, generalizations can help provide some perspective and it’s advantageous to know what the expectations of the peer group were even if our ancestor did not follow those expectations. Not following the expectations of the culture peer group can lead to tension.

In several of my Ostfriesen families who settled in Illinois, the farms purchased by the immigrant generations are still owned by descendants today. Some are operated by descendants and some are not. Farms my “Yankee” settled on in Illinois are no longer owned by descendants. Most left family ownership upon the death of the settler/owner or in some cases, one of their children.

How did your ancestors fit in to the expectations of their peers?

Have you read academic treatments of your ancestor’s social/ethnic group and has it given you some insight into their life and experience?

*-This post originally indicated Salamon’s study discussed the mid-18th century. That was incorrect. Her study of the 1800s would be the 19th century. Thanks to a reader who caught the error.


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