Albion's Seed

David Hackett Fischer. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 


           The term Albion is Greek for Great Britain. Albion’s Seed is an extensive study of the four British folkways in America. David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America explores the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borders. Each of these four groups came from different parts of Great Britain for different reasons over different periods. They brought with them different ideas and attitudes about religion, marriage, and magic. The central thesis of Fischer’s study is that “the legacy of four British folkways in early America remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.”[1]
            Before exploring the four groups’ attitudes and ideas about religion, marriage, and magic, this section will look at where they  originated in Great Britain, the years of migration, where they settled in North America, the number of settlers in each colony, and who the people were that migrated in terms of occupations and work skills. “The Exodus of the Puritans” took place from 1629-1641. The Puritans originated in East Anglia from places such as Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Lincolnshire; 21,000 Puritans settled in Massachusetts. The dress and demeanor of the Puritans marked them as yeomen, husbandmen, craftsmen, merchants, traders, and artisans of the middle class. The families came from high and lesser ranks but very few were from the bottom rung of English society.   
            The migration of the “Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants” happened between the years 1642-1675. The groups travelled from the South of England from Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Berkshire, Northamptonshire, Hampshire, Surrey, Isle of Wright, and Somerset. Approximately 45,000 Cavaliers and indentured servants landed on the colony of Virginia. Sir William Berkeley with the appearance of a nobleman started a recruiting campaign for his colony. Virginia’s ruling families were founded by the younger sons of eminent English families during Berkeley’s governorship. These younger sons adapted mercantile and maritime occupations, which brought them in contact with Virginia. A great number of them were staunch Royalists serving in the English Civil War as military officers, with 98 percent supporting the King.
            The third wave or “The Friends’ Migration” occurred during the years 1675-1725. They originated in places such as Derbyshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Nottingham, and parts of central Wales; these places are referred to as the North Midlands. The number of Quakers and Quaker sympathizers totaled 23,000. They settled in the Delaware Valley in parts of west New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and northeastern Maryland. In the North Midlands, Quakers and their supporters were small farmers, craftsmen, laborers, and servants.
            The Borders made up the fourth wave of British migration in America. “The Flight from North Britain” ensued from 1717-1775. They came from border counties of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ulster. This migration was the largest with 250,000 borders settling in the backcountry of America. They were sprinkled throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, western parts of Maryland and Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Borders were farmers, farm laborers, semiskilled workers, and small traders; a very small number of them were indentured servants.
            It is important to investigate their reasons for migrating to North America. The Puritans’ migration was not a mass movement of people who were attracted to the New World. They migrated because conditions at home grew intolerable. The years 1629-1640 were known as the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny.’ First, King Charles I tried to rule England without a Parliament. Then Archbishop William Laud and the Anglican Church began purging its Puritans members. These factors combined with depressing economic conditions and epidemics, caused Puritans board the ship Arbella and head for other places.[2]
            Sir William Berkeley migrated to America to rule Virginia. When he arrived, there were about 8,000 people living there and by the time his governorship was over the population grew to 45,000. The cavalier migration (1642-76) occurred mostly during the 1650s “when the Puritan oligarchy gained the upper hand in England and tried to impose its beliefs by force upon an unwilling people.”[3] The Virginian Royalist immigrants were refugees from oppression much like the Puritans many fought for Charles I in the English Civil War, some continued to serve Charles I until his armies were defeated and he was killed. Many others fought under Charles II and were once again defeated; some of these royalists fled to Europe and other distressed cavaliers, recruited by Sir William Berkeley made up the first families of Virginia.
            The Friends’ Migration started as early as the 1650s, when individual Quakers appeared in American colonies just a few years after the Society of American Friends has been founded. The Quakers, or Friends, were a religion that was greatly persecuted at home. In England, they were physically assaulted. When they were refused to pay church taxes, they were jailed and their property seized. They saw America not as a way to seek refuge from persecution but as a great opportunity to develop their religion. In 1677, on the “good ship Kent,” 230 Friends set sail from London and dropped anchor on the River Delaware, other ships soon followed carrying 1,400 Quakers to West Jersey by 1681.[4] The number of Quakers increased in 1682 when 23 ships sailed into Delaware Bay carrying 2,000 Quakers who founded the colony of Pennsylvania; one of these ships was Welcome and carried William Penn.
            The Borders’ migration was truly a mass migration. Unlike the other migrations, which had a strong religious and/or political basis, these migrants did not speak of holy experiments or cities on a hill; they came in search of material betterment. Back home in North Britain, financial conditions were terrible, rents were high, wages low, taxes were heavy, and leases short. In Ireland, famine and starvation were the leading causes of migration. The rapacity of English landlords, food shortages, and dreams of a better life sent Borders to the backcountry of America.
            Similar to every other aspect of their lives, these four groups’ social origins varied as well. The Puritans thought of themselves as a twice chosen people- once by God and again by the General Court of Massachusetts. The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony chose colonists with care. Founders demanded that those wanting to settle provide written proof of good character. Some immigrants were required to submit letters of recommendation. There were instances of cultural winnowing taking place. Those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies or were sent back to England. What set Massachusetts apart from the other American colonies was its high level of family integration; the founders travelled in families. Over 40 percent of the immigrants were mature men and women over 25 years of age, children under 16 also made up a large portion. The elderly or people over 60 made up a small numbers. This migration was mostly urban with approximately one-third of the founders originating from small market towns in England, another one-third from large towns, less than 30 percent from manorial villages, and a small proportion dwelled on separate farms.
            In Virginia, immigrants came from higher and lower ranks. The distressed cavaliers were only a small number of the total population. Humble people of low rank made up the great numbers of immigrants, more than 75 percent. The servants recruited from the lower strata of English society but not from the very lowest, tended to be more rural and agrarian than the founders of Massachusetts. 2/3 of Virginian colonists were unskilled laborers or farmers; 30% were artisans; most unable to read or write; rates of literacy were lower in the Chesapeake Bay than in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
            Unlike immigrants to Massachusetts, the Friends’ migration was not much of a family affair.[5] The Quakers were men and women of humble origin who came from the lower middle ranks of English society. Quakers of Pennsylvania showed no hostility towards servants, whereas leaders of Massachusetts Bay did; people too poor to pay their own way came in larger numbers to the Delaware than to New England. Due to social filters, Quakers tended to screen out English elites, mainly because Quaker principles had little appeal to families of high rank.
            Although the social origins of the borders were more humble than New England Puritans or Delaware Quakers, they did not come from the bottom of British society, only a small number were unskilled laborers. A small important minority of Irish and North British migrants were gentry who came from the ruling order of this region. Somewhat larger groups were independent yeomen who had achieved a measure of independence from the great landlords who dominated the region, in Cumberland and Westmoreland these yeomen were called the “statesmen” class.[6] Most emigrants came from ranks below that of the gentry and statesmen. In the border countries of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the majority were farmers and farm laborers who owned no land of their own but worked as tenants and under tenants. A large minority were semiskilled craftsmen and petty traders. In Northern Ireland, many worked in the linen trade-impoverished handloom weavers, unemployed agents, traders, and entrepreneurs. Few came from bondage. Irish servants were not really wanted in America; it was believed that they were violent, ungovernable, and very apt to assault their masters. In British America, buyers complained of the “proud” and “haughty” spirit of these people.[7]  
            One of the most important factors examined by Fischer is religion. Their religious ways are also tied into their attitudes and ideologies towards marriage and magic. The Puritans’ migration developed as a religious movement of English Christians who meant to build a new Zion in America.[8] For the Puritans, religion was the only purpose for migrating to the New World. Religious impulse assumed many forms such as evangelical, communal, familial, and personal. According to Fischer’s research, John Dane, a tailor, his purpose for traveling to the New World “was to find a place where he could serve God’s will and be free of temptation.”[9] The religious purposes of the colony were not confined to a small “Puritans oligarchy.” Puritans were staunch Calvinists and their spiritual leader was John Cotton.
            Fischer describes the Puritan’s form of worship as meeting style and lecture. The Puritans worshipped in meetinghouses, which were rude, unpainted, square buildings. Church services took place at 9am. The town was summoned by the sound of a ringing bell or the rasping of a conch shell. The congregation arrived in orderly family groups- husbands and wives walking side by side, followed by children, servants, and dogs. A law of 1640 required men to carry arms to   meetings, and sentries were posted at the door; after the service, the men left the meeting first.[10] After the townsfolk entered the meetinghouse and took their seats, the minister and his family made a grand entrance. As the minister climbed into the pulpit, the entire congregation rose to their feet.
An important part of every service was the ritual of purification. The members who committed various sins were compelled to rise and “take shame upon themselves,” they often wore signs that declared their misdeeds.[11] The sermon was the most important part of the service. It could last up to two hours or longer. The preferred style of preaching was a relentless cultivation of the plain style. Fischer states, “[a] modern reader may see these sermons as dull and dreary but the Puritans listened attentively, sitting on the edge of their seats.”[12] When praying Puritans did not kneel, they prayed on their feet, standing upright, looking God in the eye. At the end, psalm was sung. Puritans also cherished worship meetings because this was the only time when everyone in town got together.
            Unlike the Puritans, religion was not central to the origins of those who migrated to the Chesapeake colonies. The religious life of Virginia was ceremonial, liturgical, hierarchical, and ritualist. Although it was not expected of everyone to share the same views and opinions, everyone was compelled to join in the same rituals. The Anglican service had a liturgical quality that distinguished it from the “meeting and lecture” style of New England. The Cavaliers commonly used the Book of Prayer, which included the “Declaration on Kneeling,” which the Puritans strongly disliked.[13] Also different from the New Church was the length and delivery of the sermon. In Virginia, sermons usually lasted about twenty minutes and it tended to be less theological, more pietistic.[14] The sermon was secondary in Anglican worship, music however, was essential to the service. It was more important to the Anglican Church than it was to the Church of New England. Virginians employed singing complex four-part hymns and anthems.  
            The Friends’ migration was about its religious purposes and inspiration. The foundation of their faith was the Bible. Their beliefs came from the New Testament. They developed a “system of religion” which repudiated the Five Points of Calvinism. At the center was a God of Love and Lights whose benevolent spirit harmonized the universe.[15] Puritans worshipped a different deity, one that was capable of love and wrath. Fischer describes this deity as one that is “a dark, mysterious power who could be terrifying in his anger and inscrutability.”[16] Anglicans “knelt before a great and noble Pantocrator who ruled firmly but fairly over the hierarchy of his creatures.”[17]
            The worship of Quakers centered on the Inner Lights and the movement of the Spirit. Such meetings took place once a week, or several times a week. Worship meetings went through a strict sequence of ritual stages. First, the gathering took place. The Quakers quietly arrived; frivolous conversations, laughter, smoking, spitting, and chewing were all forbidden. The second stage is referred to as “turning the mind to the light.” This stage was a moment of silence while waiting for God in the light.[18] The third stage consisted of people rising and speaking, often preaching or praying. The fourth and final stage was a return to silence, as Quakers would shake one hands and leave in “quiet dignity.”[19] The worship service took place inside a room suffused with light, which was symbolic of their beliefs. Anglican churches as well as the meetinghouses of Puritans were sometimes so dark ministers would complain that they were unable to read their sermons.
            The Borders religious denominations were mixed to include Anglican, Roman, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Protestants. The worship services tended to be intense. The sermons and hymns were abounded with military metaphors.[20] Prayers were invoked for vengeance and the destruction of enemies. The Borders brought with them the tradition of field meetings or prayer societies, for which they had been persecuted for back, home in North Britain. This outdoor gathering could last for several days attracting thousands of people. The preachers were praised for their skills. The intensity of the group was astonishing. The displays of emotions and shouting were heard and felt from a half a mile away.[21] They also introduced another form of worship which was a ceremony of fellowship called the “Feast of Fat Things” or the “Love Feast”; outdoor ceremonies began with prayer and preaching, then climaxed with a great shout and ended in a Christian “love feast.” These feasts involved eating bread and drinking wine. One observer failed to see the “love” at one particular feast because the members were “often in contention and quarreling, back-biting and slandering.”[22] Fischer lists the “ingredients” of backcountry religion: the camp meeting, the Christian fellowship, the love feast, the evangelical preacher, the theology of Protestant fundamentalism, and born-again revivalism.
            The groups’ attitudes towards religion influenced their actions in terms of marriage ways. The average age of males was twenty-six and females were twenty-three. A high number of Puritans never married. They suspected that failure to marry was a sign of God’s ill favor. They also believed that matrimony was a sacred union that must be solemnized by a priest. This union was not a religious ceremony but a civil ceremony. Puritans cherished true love and the notion of falling in love. Once the courtship ritual between the couple was complete, the next steps were the marriage and wedding rituals. The Puritans followed the Church of England’s five step process of espousal. The process began with a betrothal ceremony and then the couple made a public announcement also known as posting banns.[23] The ideal time for a marriage was in November, the Puritans favorite season.
The wedding was performed at home by a magistrate in a simple civil ceremony. There was no exchanging of vows or wedding rings. The wedding was a small celebration that included the singing of psalm. At the wedding, dancing and excessive drinking were forbidden. On the wedding night, the bride dressed in a special gown and put to bed by friends who accompanied the couple into the chamber. Puritans allowed divorce in extenuating circumstances such as in the event of adultery, if the contract was fraudulent, and in the case of physical violence.
In Virginia, males and females were younger when they got married. The men were about twenty-four and the women were eighteen. Marriage was a sacred union in which everyone was expected to achieve. Any bachelors and spinsters in the colony were considered unnatural and even dangerous to society. Both New England and Virginia rejected the idea of celibacy. Unlike in New England, divorce did not exist because marriage was regarded as an indissoluble union.[24] Virginians also followed the Church of England’s five step process of espousal. November and December were favored for wedding ceremonies.
Virginians partook in two wedding ceremonies. The first was a Christian ceremony in church or at the bride’s home and always with a minister according to the laws of the Anglican Church and the Book of Common Prayer. The second ceremony involved jumping over a broomstick. This was the only type of wedding ceremony that was permitted for slaves; it quickly took on a special meaning for blacks.[25] The ceremonies were followed by a fancy ball, which included a feast and a house party that went on for days. The groom gave his guests expensive gifts. The families of yeomen farmers celebrated on a smaller scale but customs were the same. Marriages were unions of properties as well as persons. Unlike in New England, love was not a necessary precondition for unions.[26] In Virginia, marriage between first cousins took place; this practice was condemned by New England.
Quakers tended to be a little older when they married. The men were usually twenty-seven and the women were twenty-four. There was a strict set of marriage customs that specified who one might marry, how, when, where, and why. They believed that marriage should be based on the idea of “pure and true love.” They strongly believed that marriage is a union between sweethearts. Quaker moralists demanded that love must be a part of every marriage; it must precede marriage just like in New England. They also forbade unions between first cousins. The wedding ritual was a complex and lengthy process. All parents had to consent to the marriage taking place. Once it was decided that the couple could marry, a supper is then organized for their families and close friends; invitations were then sent out. The wedding took place where the couple quietly declared their agreements to marry. It was not a grand affair. Everyone would sit quietly and then quietly go home. The newlyweds went to the home of the bride’s father and lived there for two weeks, and then afterwards the newlyweds settled into their own home. A long period followed in which the newlyweds welcomed visitors. Quaker ceremonies were plain but the process was complex; it was an agreement between man and woman as well as couple and community.    
The Borders were the youngest group to get married. Men were typically twenty and the women were around nineteen. The wedding rituals were not complex or lengthy. The Borders were the liveliest of them all. The wedding ritual was an all-around grand affair. On the wedding day, the groom’s friends mounted and heavily armed stopped by cabins to fire a volley and pass around a whiskey bottle.[27] The bride’s friends also heavily armed would use felled trees along the road to create entanglements of grape vines and branches to block the passage of the groomsmen. The two parties would come together and stage a contest in which the champions raced for a beribboned bottle of whiskey.[28] Afterwards, the bride is brought into the room by the best man, not her father. Once the ceremony has ended, there is an abundance of kissing, drinking, whopping, and high hilarity. A dinner and dance then took place, followed by plenty of games. The festivities could last for days. Even the poor border families spent much on weddings.      
            Magic ways were intertwined into the religious attitudes of these four groups. Fischer describes each group of being obsessed with magic in some way, shape, or form. The Puritans, he argues, are obsessed with witchcraft. He states that they lived in a ‘world of wonders,’ believing that unicorns lived in the hills and mermaids swam in the waters off Cape Ann. They brought with them several forms of magical obsession. One of these beliefs was providential magic. They were constantly searching for God’s purposes in the world. This led them to study nature with an intensity that played a critical role in the birth of modern science.
This intensity was also demonstrated in their obsession with “wonders” that could possibly be signs of God’s providences in the world.[29] Puritans kept meticulous records/diaries stating wonders that presented themselves such as bodies appearing without heads, animals changing shapes, dancing dishes upon table tops, doors and windows flying open and then slamming shut. They spoke about God and the Devil speaking to them through the mouths of children. The 17th century was filled with people searching the world for supernatural signs  Puritans were concerned about forms of magic that could usurp God’s powers such black magic as well as white magic; more than 95% of all formal accusations and more than 90% of executions for witchcraft in British America occurred in the Puritan colonies.  
            The Cavaliers are described as being obsessed dealt with fortune. The quality of their obsession with magic was not the same as in Massachusetts. No person was ever executed for witchcraft in Virginia; courts punished false accusations of witchcraft. These punishments often included heavy fines and costs against a person(s) “who denounced their neighbors as minions of the Devil.”[30] Virginians were more interested in other forms of magic such as studying stars, planets, spheres, and portents- not as signs of God’s purpose but as clues to their own fate. Gentlemen kept “fortune books,” which were compilations of magical and astrological lore for good luck in love, marriage, sex, health, and travel.[31] Their interest in fortune was linked to their obsession with gambling. They constantly made bets on horses, women, cards, cockfights, backgammon, prices, as well as the weather. In Massachusetts, gambling was strictly forbidden. For Virginians, gambling was a symbol of social status and social bonding. Whereas the Puritans searched for God’s redeeming providence in the world through nature, Virginians sought assurance in gambling, more precisely in their dice, which held clues to the cosmos as well as a token of each person’s place within it.[32]   
            The Quakers obsession with the supernatural took shape within Spiritualism. There were some accusations of witchcraft but there were no laws against witchcraft. However, Quakers were unwilling to persecute witches themselves and were unable to prevent persecution by others.[33] Much like the Puritans, Quakers were not into black magic or white magic. Unlike the Cavaliers, the Quakers were hostile towards astrology. They believed that “the brightest heavenly star paled against the shining of the light within.”[34] The idea of the Inner Light led them to a form of superstition called spiritualism. On numerous occasions, Quakers tried to communicate with the dead and raise them from the grave. They were also believers in the power of the Holy Spirit and reincarnation. There are many accounts of Quakers performing healing miracles. Sometimes their concerns for animals were tied into their belief of reincarnation. It is believed that when a man dies he changes into an animal and sometimes vice versa.[35]
            The Borders obsession is centered on sorcery. They strongly believe in witchcraft, wizardry, and diabolical magic. Their witchcraft was not the same sort of witchcraft obsession among the Puritans. In the backcountry, Borders had witchmasters who cured diseases, inflicted by the influence of witches; no one was executed for witchcraft. Comparable to the Virginians, Borders also had an affinity for astrology. It was believed that the stars and planets had a power over earthly events for example, one should plant flowers in the blooming days, under the sign of Virgo.[36] The Borders were also strongly attached to experimental sorcery or secular superstition. This consisted of conjuring, charms, spells, omens, sorcery, which were used to control any possible emotion and for the execution of any imaginable purpose in the world. Most of this folklore was brought from Ireland, Scotland, and the north of England but many influences came from Native Americans, Africans, Germans, and many other cultures, which demonstrate the diversity in the backcountry.
            In Albion’s Seed, Fischer develops a model for the way in which American culture constructed itself. The basic thesis of this study is that although less than 20% of the present U.S. population has British antecedents, our British genesis is still the dominant factor determining our culture. This formative British culture, however, was not monolithic. America still reflects the social, class, and religious divisions of 17th and 18th century Britain. A study as extensive as this has to take an interdisciplinary approach. Fischer, using graduate students at this university, Brandeis, sorted through various sources both quantitative and qualitative. He employed the data of linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists. He also does a great job of incorporating well designed maps, tables, graphs, charts, and line drawings. Albion’s Seed is a great source for those wanting to study this part of American history.

[1] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 7.
[2] Ibid, 14.
[3] Ibid, 212.
[4] Ibid, 419.
[5] Ibid, 434.
[6] Ibid, 613.
[7] Ibid, 614.
[8] Ibid, 18.
[9] Ibid, 20.
[10] Ibid, 120.
[11] Ibid, 121.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 336.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid, 426.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, 523.
[19] Ibid, 524.
[20] Ibid, 618.
[21] Ibid, 707.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid, 81.
[24] This tradition of jumping over the broom became a part of many slave marriages. The tradition continued after the institution of slavery ended. Ibid, 281.
[25] Ibid, 282.
[26] Ibid, 283.
[27] Ibid, 671.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid, 126.
[30] Ibid, 340.
[31] Ibid, 341.
[32] Ibid, 343.
[33] Ibid, 528.
[34] Ibid, 529.
[35] Ibid, 530.
[36] Ibid, 710.

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