The perception that groups have, concerning either themselves or others, that they are unique, that they have a special social and cultural heritage, received and passed on from one generation to the next. This article addresses some of the early studies related to ethnicity, and examples of various ethnic groups are described. Ethnicity is a persistent aspect of many Americans’ identity and continues to be a variable in the U.S. Census. This persistence is related to several Old World and New World influences. Today’s significance of ethnicity in rural America and its role for cohesion in a pluralist society are discussed.
Early Ethnicity Studies
The ethnic backgrounds of those who reside in America’s countryside or in its small towns have never been the subject of a broad-scale, comprehensive study or the object of intense investigation. Early social scientists considered race in studies of African Americans in the rural South, Hispanic Americans in the Southwest, and American Indians. But Americans of European origins, the great majority of rural dwellers, were downplayed or ignored. Perhaps it was the dispersed conditions that led to the oversight. Unlike ethnic concentrations in large cities, national groups in the countryside were invisible and seldom seemed to be a social problem. The scattered circumstances led researchers to believe that successive generations would erode cultural attachments and country folk rapidly would become mainstream Americans.
The latter assumption is correct to a great extent in regard to the nation’s Atlantic and Old South states. Settled primarily by people of British Isles backgrounds in colonial times, the distinction between such originally diverse groups as Scots, English and Welsh was blurred by intermarriage, and these became what later groups would call Old Americans, or Yankees. (Yet even in the pre-Revolutionary times, some ethnic groups existed—various Germans in Pennsylvania, for example, whose way of life today is still distinct.)
The disregard for the rural national groups who came shortly before and in the decades after the Civil War has proven in recent years to have been a serious oversight. Several studies in states such as Texas, Missouri, Minnesota and North Dakota show that the countryside in much of America was and is a mosaic of cultures. Insulated by geography, their distinctions never were erased. The Old Americans are there, but at the same time national enclaves highlight the geographic hinterlands. In some places, the Old Americans are islands, and national groups form the surrounding mass of inhabitants.
Examples of Ethnic Groups
Any review of rural ethnicity must make note of some highly visible, very enduring groups such as Hutterites in the Great Plains states and Prairie provinces and the Pennsylvania Germans (e.g., Amish, Dunkards, Mennonites) who are now in at least a dozen states from Ohio and Indiana to the West Coast. These Anabaptist groups have a relatively closed social system with an Old Country heritage of persecution and strong religious ties. They maintain their way of life through protective procedures such as a distinctive garb, private schooling, pacifism, marriage controls, and sometimes through communal work or living arrangements.
These groups have been classed accurately as “extraordinary” (Kephart and Zellner, 1994), but fully three-fourths of the American landscape contains large numbers of what might be called “ordinary” groups. They are European in origin and routine in their religion and cultural ways: people from Slavic, Scandinavian, Mediterranean and Germanic countries. These ethnic enclaves are found today, especially in Midwestern, South central, and Pacific states. Yet, isolated groups are elsewhere in America: Poles in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts; Germans in Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia. The French reside in very durable settlements in Louisiana. And Texas has an array of over a dozen intact ethnic regions.
Ethnicity: A Persistent American Variable
The “What is your ancestry?” question used by the U.S. Census since 1980 for the first time provided a tool by which most of the nation’s rural national groups can be identified. The resulting tabulations show the tendency for Eastern and Southern rural residents to blur the matter of ethnic origins; “American” is a frequent response. But from Texas northward, through Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado, to the Canadian border, ancestry consciousness proliferates in ever more significant proportions. Oregon, California and Washington contain their own special rural groups. They are not as numerous, but are decidedly present. With rare exceptions, every national group listed in standard urban ethnic compilations has or had its rural counterpart.
Wherever the ethnic groups are, one factor stands out of extreme importance. The national groups, upon arrival in this new country, found themselves in a decidedly Anglo-American world. There was little of the classic western frontier. When they arrived, the European newcomers discovered in place about them, often in privileged positions, the grandchildren of the Old Americans—men and women whose roots went back to the early colonies. These were the land agents, merchants, teachers, political figures and gentry with American savvy and Eastern financial ties.
This condition in itself led to several results. First, ethnic bonds of the newcomers intensified. The newcomers previously were citizens of villages or provinces. In America they became Polish, Norwegian and Italian. It was “we and the ‘English.”’ Second, the national church became much more significant than it had been in the past. It became the groups’ central rallying point. For the less numerous individuals with strong secular biases, newly founded associations became prime centers of national cohesion. The immigrants sometimes were not content with a type of pan- Lutheranism or American-brand Catholicism. Instead, synods, national parishes and even whole new congregations arose. Third, an array of organizations like the Sons of Norway and Czech lodges dotted American frontier life. Politics, education and business were controlled by the Yankees; the church and lodge were safe ethnic havens in America.
Old World and New World Influences
The Anglo-Americans’ world did more than galvanize the immigrant groups’ cultural forces. It became the pattern that shaped their Americanization processes. For much of the northern and central Midwest and for the Far West, it was a Yankee pattern. In the Gulf and South Atlantic states, it reflected the traditions of the Old South. The new Americans on arrival learned the ways of their adopted homeland, not just from textbooks but by imitating their American mentors. Through the ensuing decades, the groups became what was to be a composite of Old Country heritage and New England or Old Southern traditions. Often the result was an amalgam of old and new values. A peasant work ethic was reinforced by Yankee Calvinist diligence; Old Country farming skills blossomed in a New World setting; Swiss newcomers excelled in dairy farming, Italians in wines, and Germans and Ukrainians from the steppes in grain farming. The political traditions of Europe dictated New World participation. Some felt at home among the Populists, some the Socialists, some Democrats or Republicans. Some displayed a “King Man” or “Padrone” type of community organization; some were individualists; some retained their language and garb; some discarded the more surface features of the past.
The strangeness of the New World, combined with the condescending and sometimes hostile attitude of the Old Americans, led immigrants to seek the company of fellow countrymen and women who were already in residence in the various states. Ethnic enclaves or ghettos developed in the cities. The same phenomenon occurred in the country. The clustering of ethnic groups today is due, in most cases, to that early desire for security. Ethnic mosaics or “patchwork quilts” are frequent and quite accurate phrases used to describe the rural landscapes in many portions of America.
The initial choice of land for most immigrants was dictated by the time of arrival in this country, usually where homestead activity was taking place. At times the land selections were not propitious. It was submarginal or inappropriate to the group’s prior experience. Some moved to more conducive terrains and some abandoned rural settings altogether and settled in cities. Those who found their locations satisfactory remained, and it is their descendants who are most often the rural dwellers of today.
Current Significance of Ethnicity in Rural America
Time in America meant gradual assimilation of the new nation’s values. What remains today is a variety of national traits. More than any other single element, it is the religious heritage that persists. Besides the question of church affiliation, modern studies determined that the ethnic past still dictates other differences that frequently can be significant: voting patterns, birth rates, recreational practices, marriage patterns, land tenure and ownership experience. Genetic characteristics contribute to the incidence of some diseases: alcoholism, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Some groups readily seek assistance from mental health services; others seek help only as a last resort. Farming practices vary: some farmers are innovators; some prefer traditional ways; some are comfortable with mortgages and speculation; some excel in caution. Family styles certainly vary: some raise children to move far from the home in search of opportunity, while others assume that their offspring will settle within arm’s reach. The role of women differs considerably from group to group (Salamon, 1992). No investigation of this feature of rural society today can afford to overlook the ethnic dimension.
An ethnic atlas of North Dakota (Sherman, 1983) found almost 40 different national groups who took land in that state at one time or another. All had their identifiable portions of the prairie landscapes. Many were subdivisions of what might at first sight be considered a single group, yet they saw themselves as decidedly distinct, with their own history, dialect, religion and special traditions. Six different kinds of German- Russians appeared: Black Sea, Dobrudja, Volynian, Mennonite, Hutterite and Volga. The German label also included Sudeten, Banat, Burgenland, Silesian and Gallician settlers. Other national groups had less numerous, but just as pronounced differences. Adaptation and assimilation in each group varied through the generations in sometimes substantial ways. If such differences occur in North Dakota, a student of the subject may be warned to watch for similar configurations elsewhere.
Casual observers and trained academicians have suggested a variety of differences for the nation as a whole. Germans, of whatever variety, tended to stay on the land; it was a way of life. British Isles and Irish farmers saw land as a commodity, an investment, and often as a speculative venture. Among the Scandinavians, Norwegians liked the prairies, whereas Finns liked the woods. Poles were less ready to accept American ways and often took farms that others passed by. Large-scale ranching was a matter for the British or Irish, whereas European Continental immigrants preferred farming. Some groups built large barns, and small, utilitarian homes; others erected monumental homes and shortchanged the farm buildings. Some were dairy farmers; some were pork producers. Assessments such as these can be found in every part of America. These patterns occur with sufficient frequency to force the student of rural matters to look closely at the ethnic dimension in American life.
Ethnic Cohesion in a Pluralist Society
The question regularly arises of what remains of the ethnic component after intermarriages take place? No scholar has a satisfactory and universally applicable answer. There are those who believe that ethnicity does not necessarily disappear under these circumstances. If the national community is large enough, the offspring of mixed unions absorb the traditions no matter what confusion might exist in their lineage. Others suggest that in mixed marriage families one ethnic tradition often predominates, and values and allegiances still point strongly in one prevailing direction. Given the growing number of mixed-ethnic marriages, this issue will increase in importance and deserve substantial analysis now and in the future.
Ethnicity for a substantial number of Americans is a matter of “roots.” Thousands have found in the confusion of life a degree of certainty as they study their private ancestral heroes on both sides of the oceans. Additionally, ethnicity has proven to be “recreation.” The relatively recent proliferation of ethnic celebrations that occur through the seasons (e.g., sauerkraut fests, polka festivals, smorgasbord days) highlights the diverse origins of the nation’s countryside. Some have emerged into what can be classed as local industries— a German village in Texas, a Little Bohemia in Nebraska, a Hostefest in North Dakota, a New Holland in Michigan. There are abundant signs that the ethnic dimension of America’s hinterlands in one fashion or another is here to stay for a long time.
— William C. Sherman
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