I had never heard of Albion’s Seed until Pat Richley-Erickson introduced her study group in January of this year. The book is about 900 pages, first published in 1989 and only costs about $12.00.
Author David Hackett Fischer is a university professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History for Washington’s Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History) in 2005. He is also the prolific, highly acclaimed author of Paul Revere’s Ride, Champlain’s Dream, Liberty and Freedom; A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas and Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States.
Professor Fischer can be summed up in a couple of words – he’s a cultural historian. I’ve always loved history, but it’s not always easy to have a sharp mental image of what our ancestors’ lives were like.
Albion’s Seed provides that and much more. Four early British immigrant groups – the Puritans, distressed cavaliers and indentured servants to Virginia, the Quakers and the Scots-Irish – are examined from the standpoint of their lives in England and what they brought with them in terms of cultural folkways that still influence American life today.
Cultural influences such as education, views on religion, child-rearing, designing and building towns and economies were heavily influenced by the regions of England from which the colonists came.
I have long New England branches on my family tree and learned more in those 200 pages than I think I ever knew, or thought I knew, about their lives before, right down to the New England saltbox house.
Another interest of mine has always been words, their origins and roots, and how they came to be in the English language. I truly laughed when I read about the East Anglia British origin of the very Massachusetts practice of adding an R to the end of a word that finishes with a vowel. Follow was the example used, as it was pronounced foller. I quickly learned to answer my Massachusetts relatives when I heard Linder. Other sounds were dropped, as in whale, where the H used to be pronounced, but is now spoken as wale.
Like the Puritans, Virginians also brought new words into American English. Howdy, grit (as in courage) and botch were all in their vocabulary and spread to mainstream America.
I was just as amazed to discover that almost 75% of immigrants to Virginia were indentured servants, meaning they couldn’t afford to pay their passage and they were far less educated that those who could. Indentured servants were few, in comparison, in New England.
Although Virginians and Puritans, both English, were settled in their new homes in roughly the same time period, their views on life were markedly different.
The largest group of Quakers arrived to the mid-Atlantic states from the North Midlands of England. Their influence on society was a bit different, as this area of colonial America was already an ethnic melting pot.
The fourth group, the Scots-Irish, from northern Britain and Northern Ireland, were a scrappy bunch and used to fighting for their rights. They tended to settle in the frontier lands of the colonies and made their way westward. They, too, have had a profound influence on modern life.
What I love about the format of this book is that the list of cultural traits of each of these four groups is compared and contrasted. Life in the colonies was a very different experience, depending on the colony in which one lived.
The quote by reviewer Michael Kammen, Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, on the cover of the book says it all: The finest work of synthesis in early American history in more than fifty years.
This book is required reading for any serious family historian. You’ll never know how much you didn’t know until you read Albion’s Seed. As the title of this post says, it is a fascinating book.