Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancestral geography and American Nations at the Washington Post

Flying back from Washington, D.C. this afternoon, I was pleased to see Reid Wilson's piece over at the Washington Post featuring the U.S. Census Bureau's map of dominant reported ancestry by county and, yes, the American Nations map. As Wilson points out, there are a number of continuities.

For those unfamiliar with American Nations, note a critical difference at the outset. The map from my book is tied to initial settlement patterns, showing which of North America's disparate Euro-American colonizing cultures first settled which parts of the continent, laying down the institutions, expectations, and societal norms -- the "cultural DNA" as it were -- that later (and, often, much larger) immigrants had to deal with. Thus (largely English) Yankees may have guided and dominated settlement of the Western Reserve of Ohio or Michigan, but that doesn't mean they are a majority today -- or even a century ago.

That said, some remarkable continuities in patterns will likely strike you. First, as the book itself remarks about this census map, the people of Greater Appalachia are the ones calling themselves "Americans" when asked their ethnicity. (As former Sen. Jim Webb points out in Born Fighting, this is probably because many are not properly aware of their Scots-Irish ancestry.) Much of the Deep South has African-American pluralities and -- not surprisingly -- El Norte has Mexican or Hispano/Spanish pluralities (the latter, as discussed in the book, being the descendants of the early Spanish settlers of New Mexico.) Also: see that big blot of "English" dominance in Utah and surrounding states? Those are the descendants of the Mormon Migration -- overwhelmingly Yankees. Indeed, Utah regularly surpasses rivals Maine and Vermont as the "most English" states in the federation.

For fun, consider this map from the Canadian census, where Eastern Canadians of European background almost universally identify as "Canadian" (rather than "French/Quebecois" or "English" or "Irish") and those in Central and Western Canada never do. First nations people of course dominate First Nation (though in some of these sparsely populated areas, the map needs municipal-level data to draw the boundaries between Far West and First Nation.)

Finally, thanks to the Governing Institute for having me as their luncheon keynote at their Governing Maryland Leadership Forum in College Park yesterday; I enjoyed meeting and talking to many of that very sectionalized state's leaders. Also to the members of the Serious Book Club for a stimulating discussion of the book on the Virginia side of the Potomac last night; pleased the book has so many thoughtful followers in the Tidewater.


  1. Of course, it's worth noting that census ethnicity should be best thought of as a guideline to true ethnicity, as Americans are often of very mixed heritage. Many of these highly mixed people will nonetheless choose just one ethnic origin (say, German or Irish) despite having varied roots. As we see in Canada, the same is true there.

    1. Very true. But if I recall correctly, at least in the US census you can check multiple boxes. I believe this map represents the "most boxes checked", and if so, a fair proxy for how people self-identify.

  2. I have just recently begun reading American Nations. Truly one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. Thank you for writing it. It makes me wonder if it might not be the north that secedes from the nation, rather than the south, given the current political climate toward oligarchy, corporatism and the elitism of the 1%.

  3. Mr Woodard, I've thoroughly enjoyed your book although it was kind of awkward to read it as a deep southerner. Regarding this map of ethnicity, one thing stands out clearly to me. The non German parts of the map represent regions of the United States which all have a deep sense of their own identity. New England stands out clearly on the map,as does Mormon Utah. The black belt stands out in the south as does the Mexican borderlands. The entity with the strongest sense of it's own identity, the south all identify as American, not just Greater Appalachia. If you look at the non African American parts of the deep south they too identify as American. French Acadiana also stands out. The rest of the United States is largely German and doesn't seem to have a sense of their own distinctiveness apart from being general American in identity.