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

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

munities could continue to move again and again. Church bells, in sum, could "ring strife into the air" because of a complex transplantation and adaptation of an institution that defined not only orthodoxy but ethnicity. Such strife, of course, was not so severe in all communities, but it was made all the more probable by the fluid, dynamic nature of the society of which the citizens were now a part.


Conclusion

The migration and settlement in the rural Middle West of untold millions of people were often premised on the migrants' perception of a "freedom" to move and thereby improve their lives. Eastern Americans and Europeans alike trekked westward to a mythical garden that they hoped would recast their existence. Yet patterns of migration in practice connected old and new homes and in effect transplanted former cultural forms into the garden. In turn, they engendered segmented settlements that were based in vital ways on beliefs derived from their former homes. To be sure, the westering migrants carried with them outward behavior such as their language and dress. Still more important, they also brought cultural patterns and religious beliefs that were established under the auspices of the community and its leadership. Surely the West provided opportunity, but who would consciously forsake a chance for salvation simply to enjoy the material benefits the West offered? The fact that cultural underpinnings could be transplanted in the West was part and parcel of the migrants' perception that it was indeed a land of freedom.

The communities on which the intellectual systems were based, however, could only be reformulations of former patterns. In the dynamic society of the developing Middle West of the nineteenth century, individual households voluntarily joined others to create rural communities based on some semblance of a common past. Community identifications were constructed around common pasts and beliefs, and nowhere were these identifications more fluid than in the impressionable rural Middle West, a region only recently populated by Americans of European origin. Affinities of language, religion, and "nationality," as well as common kinship and regional backgrounds and differences in status and wealth, established a matrix of similarity and dissimilarity from which communities could be created and re-created. 96 Families thus often had the opportunity to join a community and also maintain their religious past. The "freedoms" that migrants celebrated in the Middle West, in short, promoted the expectations that they could build new communities that

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