The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

Synopsis

Susan Gray explores community formation among New England migrants to the Upper Midwest in the generation before the Civil War. Focusing on Kalamazoo County in southwestern Michigan, she examines how 'Yankees' moving west reconstructed familiar communal institutions on the frontier while confronting forces of profound socioeconomic change, particularly the rise of the market economy and the commercialization of agriculture. Gray argues that Yankee culture was a type of ethnic identity that was transplanted to the Midwest and reshaped there into a new regional identity. In chapters on settlement patterns, economic exchange, the family, religion, and politics, Gray traces the culture that the migrants established through their institutions as a defense against the uncertainty of the frontier. She demonstrates that although settlers sought rapid economic development, they remained wary of the threat that the resulting spirit of competition posed to their communal ideals. As isolated settlements developed into flourishing communities linked to eastern markets, however, Yankee culture was transformed. What was once a communal culture became a class culture, appropriated by a newly formed rural bourgeoisie to explain their success as the triumphant emergence of the Midwest and to identify their region as true America.

Excerpt

This book began more years ago than I care to remember as a paper for a University of Chicago graduate seminar on the social history of the nineteenth-century Midwest, directed by Kathleen Conzen. The year before, I had watched in envy and dismay as fellow students in a seminar on colonial American history dug up fascinating records from their various hometowns on the east coast with an eye to contributing to the colonial community studies then in vogue. They spoke of local historical societies and gravestone rubbings with an easy intimacy that I, confined by family and finances to the Midwest, could not hope to emulate. "Very well," I thought, "I'll find my own community in the Midwest." The pioneering aspect of this decision was particularly appealing: unlike the East, and especially New England, the Midwest was hardly overrun by ambitious graduate students. And as a suitable place to study, where better to look than in my own backyard?

This spurt of filiopietism was aided and abetted by my parents, Jack and Caroline Gray, who pointed me toward the Regional Historical Archives of the state of Michigan at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. They also remembered Roy Nichols. He was probably in his late eighties at the time, as was his wife, Joyce, but my memory of him is fixed in my childhood: pats on the head and nickels occasionally pressed into my hand after Sunday . . .

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