The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Spalding, Thomas W. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917


Spalding, Thomas W., The Catholic Historical Review


The Minds of the West. Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. By Jon Gjerde. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1997. Pp. xiii, 426. $39.95.)

The Minds of the West is a challenging work by a writer conversant with the latest trends in immigration history. His greatest contribution in this work, however, is the emphasis he places on two neglected areas of American history. Historians of immigration or ethnic history have been little attracted to the foreign-born who peopled rural America. Professor Gjerde's world is the rural Middle West. In his introduction he observes that by 1880 over half of the farmers in the tier of states stretching from Wisconsin to the Dakotas were foreignborn. He has depicted to a greater degree than anyone, perhaps, the tensions and problems of adjustment of the ethnic farming communities scattered in checkerboard fashion over the Upper Middle West. Likewise historians of the West (with the notable exception of Ferenc Szasz) have shown little interest in religion. Professor Gjerde has also demonstrated the centrality of religion in the development of these communities in a "heavily churched landscape." A Catholic weekly of Dubuque, Die Iowa, is perhaps his most frequently cited source.

In Part One, "The Region," the author explains the attraction of a frontier stretching from Illinois to the Dakotas, where immigrants had the freedom to recreate the peasant villages they had left behind. These efforts aroused the alarm of such venerable nativists as Lyman Beecher and Samuel F B. Morse, and later Josiah Strong, as well as the apprehension of the "Yankee" pioneers who settled next to them. Part One also focuses on the immigrants' need to adjust to American freedoms and American pluralism. …

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