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New Sweden, the Quakers, & the Midlands:
A Study of America’s Middle People

Peter Minuit arriving with his colonists in the New World.

3,727 words

On March 29, 1638, a group of men on the ship Kalmar Nyckel established the New Sweden colony on the Delaware River. They had set sail from Gothenburg, Sweden four months earlier. The Swedes were led by the Dutchman Peter Minuit (c. 1580-1638), a former director of New Amsterdam who had been released from service with the Dutch under a cloud of scandal. Minuit then sold his services to the Swedes. His new colonists were not all Swedes, but also included Dutchmen and Finns.

The colony of New Sweden was very short-lived, lasting only seventeen years, but its impact was both enormous and underappreciated. It was the “forest-Finns” who made much of the impact. In the seventeenth century, Finland and most of the eastern Baltic littoral area was part of the Swedish Empire. Additionally, many Finns had moved into the forests of Sweden proper and were engaged in slash-and-burn farming. The Swedes found this practice uneconomical, outlawed it, and then transported those forest-Finns caught in the act to New Sweden.

The Colony of New Sweden prior to being conquered by the Dutch in 1655.

The late Terry G. Jordan and Matti Kaups have proposed that the forest-Finns’ ability to move into virgin wilderness allowed the English, Dutch, and Germans (what they call Germanics) to quickly settle what would become United States: “. . . [T]he ethnic Finns who formed a substantial part of the population of the colony of New Sweden, founded on the lower Delaware River in 1638. More specifically, the eastern, interior Finns of Karelian and Savoan back-ground, bearers of a well-developed, beautifully preadapted forest colonization cultural complex, were the most significant shapers of the American backwoods way of life.”[1]

By the time of the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania colony, which was the only colony whose capital district was home to a considerable number of forest-Finns, extended much further inland than the other English colonies in Tidewater, the Carolinas, or New England. The professors argue, “. . . Germanic core folk were incapable of pushing the settlement frontier rapidly forward, though their farming techniques were certainly more conservational than those of the backwoods people. Had Palatines, Yankees, or planters led the way, the United States might have remained an Atlantic littoral state, an eastern ethnic enclave like French Quebec.”[2]

It wasn’t so much Pennsylvania which extended inland, but the Pennsylvanian settlers. They migrated from their hearth in old New Sweden, moved south along the valleys west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and ended up in what is now Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.[3]

The forest-Finns’ technique in moving the frontier forward was to make use of the axe and their existing slash-and-burn cultural knowledge to quickly turn virgin forest into a viable, but crude, frontier farmstead. They didn’t focus on digging up tree stumps and creating a long-term, sustainable farm as the Pennsylvania Dutch did. Instead, they planted corn and other crops around the stumps and burned the wood that couldn’t be used as lumber. The forest-Finns tended to clear out a farmstead and then sell the land to a farmer looking to settle permanently, such as an English Quaker or Pennsylvania Dutchman, and then move on.

The forest-Finns brought to America the commonplace zig-zag “worm fence,” or “snake rail fence” or “split-rail fence.” Additionally, the forest-Finn’s cabin-building techniques caught on with the mostly Scots-Irish backwoods culture and then spread across North America. These cabins include the dogtrot cabin, as well as cabins with an overhanging ridgepole-and-purlin roof. There is also the half-faced cabin, often called the hunter’s shanty.[4] The notches which allow the logs to interconnect in American frontier cabins match the type of notches found in cabins in Finland.

A “snake rail fence” is pictured below and consists of logs, split in the Abe Lincoln manner, and stacked together in a zig-zag fashion. A “dogtrot cabin” consists of two rooms or pens connected by a roof, with a large, open porch between the pens.

From top: the “worm fence” and dogtrot cabin. Both originate from New Sweden’s forest-Finns.

Of course, the word “cabin” is of British origin, and many cabins in America match the dimensions of the cabins in the North England Marches, but the forest-Finn influence on backwoods culture is undeniable.

The forest-Finns of New Sweden expanded demographically in the Delaware Valley: “. . . William Penn, discussing the resident ‘Sweeds (sic) and Finns’ of his colony noted that ‘they have fine Children, and almost every house full,’ adding that it was ‘rare to find one of them without three of four Boys, and as many Girls,” and some with ‘six, seven and eight Sons.’”[5] The New Swedish forest-Finns also intermarried into the wider Anglo-dominated Pennsylvania culture: “A wider mixing began with the arrival of other ethnic groups from Europe. The settlers derived from New Sweden displayed no determination to isolate themselves or to marry within their group. . . . Early records reveal marriages of Delaware Valley Swedes or Finns to English settlers as early as 1644, to Dutch by 1656, Welsh by 1680, Scots by the 1670s, and Huguenots by 1656.”[6]

Of all the colonies, New Sweden had a reputation for fewer Indian troubles than, say, Jamestown, where Governor John Ratcliffe (1549-1609) died while being skinned alive by Indian women using sharpened oyster shells. New Sweden’s good relations with the Indians was due to luck. The local Lenape (or Delaware) Indians were relatively peaceful. Regardless, one New Swedish missionary to the Indians wrote that he was tired of the “great danger of death night and day in a heathenish country, among these ferocious pagans, who for every year have threatened to slay us completely.”[7] Additionally, there were occasional murders between the two races.[8]

The New Swedes were not viewed as being socially inferior in any way. Indeed, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Morton (1725-1777), was of Finnish, New Swedish descent. Additionally, the number of New Swede settlers exceeded the number of Mayflower passengers. Today, Mayflower descendants number between twenty to thirty-five million. The number of New Swedish descendants must be nearly as high. Variants of names such as Clemson, Justice, Rambo, and Vanneman[9] are of exclusive New Swedish origin, and these surnames are common throughout Appalachia and the Midwest.

New Sweden and the Quakers

The Quakers, a religious sect which developed from the Protestant theological ideas of George Fox (1624-1691), might today be regarded as a peculiar people in Rhode Island, where there was religious liberty for Protestants in colonial times, if not for two things. First, William Penn (1644-1718), a wealthy, politically connected upper-class Englishman, converted to the faith and promoted it. Second, the New Swedes made the Delaware Valley safe for a white pacifist sect. The mere presence of the Swedes had helped to physically move the Indians away from the poorly-defended Quaker Utopia: “William Penn purchased the site of Philadelphia from the three Swanson brothers, who in exchange were granted land in a remote place.”[10]

The geographical area of the American Midlands described in this article match what Colin Woodard and David Hackett Fischer describe in their books on the regional cultures of the United States. It is an area which begins around the Delaware River Valley, extends east into southern New Jersey, then west across central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and then expands westward from there.

The northern and southern boundaries of the Midlands are somewhat fuzzy. The “founding father” of mainly Appalachian West Virginia during the Civil War was Francis Harrison Pierpont (1814-1899),[11] who was of Quaker origins. West Virginia is a state which straddles the backwoods, mostly Scots-Irish Appalachian region and the Quaker-German industrial Midwest. Milwaukee is a very Midwestern city surrounded by what is, culturally speaking, greater New England.

The Midlands: Colin Woodard’s reduced Midland’s Culture[12] in light blue on top and David Hackett Fischer’s[13] expanded Midlands in light grey on the bottom. If the Midlands decides on something, the rest of the United States follows.[14]

 

Another view of the Midlands, from John C. Hudson.[15]

The Quakers are important because their ideas have had a deep influence on America, and because of them, America is far more German than the other former British colonies. Part of Middle America’s Protestant, and often ethnomasochistic, universalist values originate with the Quakers that settled in what was New Sweden in such large numbers that they demographically overwhelmed the area and made it their own after the British gained control of the Dutch colonies in North America in 1664. The Quakers are a Protestant sect that originated in England’s northwest and Midlands.[16] In the Middle Ages, the Norse language was spoken in that region because many Scandinavians had settled there during the Viking Age.[17] “. . . [T]he Quakers had nothing like the Puritans’ Hebraic idea of a chosen people, nor anything comparable to the Anglican gentry’s fierce pride of rank and nationhood. They looked upon all of humanity as their kin.”[18]

While the Quakers view all of humanity as their kin, their ideas were only transmitted in a very limited way across humanity. As discussed above, Quaker ideas had a powerful hold over England’s northern Midlands, but less of a grip in other parts of England. Quakerism also made inroads in Wales, as well winning some Irish and Dutch converts.[19] The largest non-English group to come to William Penn’s utopia was the German Protestants. They would come to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

These German convert/supporter immigrants were initially from the Rhineland Palatinate. William Penn himself traveled as a Quaker missionary to the Rhine Valley, and by 1683 German Quakers had established themselves in Pennsylvania. They were followed by Palatine Germans of other Protestant denominations. Most of the Pennsylvania Dutch arrived in the United States between 1749 and 1755. Like the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, “Fancy” Pennsylvania Germans assimilated quickly[20] into the broader Anglo folkways, while those of the “plain” persuasion, such as the Amish or other peculiar sects, continued to speak German.

Until the First World War hurried total assimilation, German was widely spoken throughout the Midwest, probably due to new waves of Germans arriving as the older waves assimilated. Recruitment of German settlers in the Midlands continued after the pattern set by William Penn for the following two centuries, but the Germans started to be drawn from places further out from the Rhineland. When describing the Germans who moved to the Great Plains after the Civil War from their communities in the steppes of south Russia, Ian Frazier writes, “Almost all of these immigrants were people who had been adrift in Europe since the Protestant Reformation 350 years before. Basically, the German Catholics were persecuted for saying that the Reformation went too far, and the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish for saying it didn’t go far enough.”[21] All found prosperity and liberty in the Quaker Midlands.

Between 1692 and 1750, the culture of the Delaware Valley solidified as a mostly German-Anglo bunch, atop a small New Swedish foundation, within a Quaker framework. However, there were still some problems. The Quakers had a hard time reconciling their beliefs with the difficult decisions needed to govern. Colin Woodard writes, “Early Pennsylvania was an economic success, but its Quaker-run government was a complete disaster.”[22] Records weren’t kept, Governors were quickly replaced, and the bickering over trifles was embarrassing. The Dutch, Swedes, and Finns downriver from Philadelphia got so tired of the foolishness that they formed the Delaware colony in 1704. For that and other reasons, the Quaker settlements on the east side of the Delaware River were merged with another colony to form New Jersey.

Quaker culture does provide a sober, tolerant base for an industrial culture: it attempts to cut away cruelty – for example, a humane “penitentiary” to house criminals rather than a dungeon was originally a Quaker concept. Quakers stand for peace, tolerance, and belief in the goodness of man. Their ideas of religious liberty are the envy of the world, and Quaker culture continues to influence American Christianity to a high degree. Any denomination which believes that “God is love” is influenced by Quaker ideas. It is not an exaggeration to state that the myriad of Protestant sects which have and do influence American culture exist within a tolerant, cooperative Quaker framework.

However, the problems with Quakerism deserve further remarks. As mentioned earlier, Quaker-style Christianity really only works within a close-knit ethnic group, in this case northwestern Europeans. While there have been some (mostly symbolic) conversions from other races, it has always been essentially a white thing. Additionally, protecting themselves in a racial conflict is arguably somewhat beyond Quaker capabilities.

The Midlands cultural area extended from its origins along the Delaware into western Pennsylvania, and experienced fewer Indian troubles than other European colonies in North America, but racial problems always eventually arose. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and following Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763), the Quaker government of Pennsylvania got its overdue race war. The first to attack were the formerly peaceful Delaware Indians. The Quakers had a difficult time coming to grips with the crisis. Quaker politicians resigned in a flurry of empty virtue-signaling rather than vote for military appropriations, refused to fortify the Delaware against French pirates, and had a tough time figuring out how to help the western pioneers in Pennsylvania when dealing with ferocious Indian attacks.

The Indian attacks fell hardest upon the Germans. The Pennsylvania Dutch historian Henry Richards writes:

The history of the French and Indian War, in the more settled part of eastern Pennsylvania, is practically the history of the early German settlers in Pennsylvania. They did not do all of the fighting, but they did most of it; of the homes destroyed theirs were by far the greater number; other lives were lost, and others carried away into captivity, but not many. The strange anomaly of the whole record lies in the fact, which has already been stated, that, of all people, they alone always treated the red man with unfailing justice.[23]

After the French and Indian War, the Pennsylvania government became secularized, with ex-Quakers and Anglicans taking a leading role in politics, but the Quaker influence remained heavy and continued to expand westward.

Quakers Today

Quakers, believing in the goodness of man, still continue to naïvely become involved in various disastrous utopian schemes. Currently, American Quakers are unthinkingly supporting the Muslim “refugee” wave despite mounting evidence of its problems.[24] Quaker peace activists are prone to virtue-signal in the midst of conflict. In 2006, the Quaker Tom Fox was kidnapped and murdered by Iraqis while on a “peace mission” in Baghdad. In 1965, the Quaker Norman Morrison fatally set himself on fire under the window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office to protest the war in Vietnam. None of these actions put a stop to any wars and were a burden on American military policy.

Quakers also got mixed up with the “Civil Rights” movement. The editor who tuned Harper Lee’s manuscript about “bigots” in the South into the masterpiece of propaganda that is To Kill a Mockingbird [25] was Therese von Hohoff Torrey,[26] a Quaker. To Kill a Mockingbird is a dangerous, partisan book of “civil rights” agit-propaganda. It deliberately obfuscates black criminality via a cast of lovable white characters, hateable white “bigots,” and supposedly helpless and noble blacks.

One must wonder how many dangerous “gentle giant” blacks were given a pass following the release of To Kill a Mockingbird by guilt-ridden Protestant whites. In 2014, college freshman Hannah Graham was raped and murdered by Jessy Leeroy Matthew, Jr. The hulking Negro had actually been involved in several sexual assault cases prior to Hannah’s murder, the first at Evangelical Protestant Liberty University, where officials let him off. Evangelical Protestantism is, in fact, deeply influenced by Quakerism, and its various denominations work together under the Quaker framework of cooperative religious liberty. Again, one can only wonder.

When the Quakers Decide on Something . . .

This isn’t to say that Quakers and their Midlands cultural allies among the peculiar sects are responsible for all the foolish utopian schemes in the United States, or that they are a mortal enemy of the Alt Right. Quakers are so even-minded that they often stumble upon great truths. Quakers are one of the few American Protestant denominations that have a realistic view of Israel.[27] One must wonder if the Iraq War would have occurred if there had been a Quaker President rather than a Christian-Zionist one when 9/11 happened.

When the Quakers decide on something, the rest of America follows. At the Continental Congress, the Quaker John Dickinson (1732-1808) was the key, fair-minded Midlander who turned the metapolitical corner that got America to declare its independence from Great Britain. He wrote the Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, which clarified the case for independence in the 1760s, and he was also the one who attempted a last peace effort with Britain, the so-called Olive Branch Petition. He refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, but served as a General in the Pennsylvania Militia, and later as a Private in the Delaware Militia during the war. He also wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. Dickinson’s actions were quite fair-minded and mid-spectrum. When he acted as the political expression of his Midlands people, the rest of the nation followed. Additionally, the first three states to ratify the US Constitution – Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey – were once part of New Sweden and had large Quaker populations.[28]

It was the people of the Midlands who eventually made the abolition of slavery possible. The Quakers had been opposed to slavery almost from the outset, but tolerated it in the South. However, as the tensions over the institution mounted, they shifted from a not-for-me tolerance to abolitionism. Colin Woodard writes, “. . . [S]lavery would push a narrow majority of Midlanders into the Republican camp. Careful forensic analysis of the 1860 presidential vote by late twentieth-century political scientists has shown that this shift in Midlander opinion – particularly among Germans – tipped Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana in Abraham Lincoln’s column, giving him control of the White House.”[29]

The Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss Affair was a mortal blow to American Communism, and it was decided by three Quakers in a public conflict that was much like a three-way shootout in a classic Spaghetti Western. In the late 1940s, then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon, himself a Quaker,[30] became convinced that the Quaker Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy when his accuser (and Quaker convert) Whittaker Chambers testified that Alger Hiss had used the Quaker plain speech (using the informal “thee” and “thou”) with his wife.[31]

When the people of the Midlands Culture want America to do something, it happens. In November 2016, the Midlands culture was again the electoral kingmaker. Midlanders were even in their support for Trump and Hillary, causing Trump to win.[32] If one has a vision for Americans to follow, it must be spoken in a Middle American accent.

 

Notes

1. Terry G. Jordan & Matti Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: An Ethnic and Ecological Interpretation (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 39.

2. Jordan & Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier, pp. 102 & 103.

3. The expansion of the frontier. Notice the bulge where Pennsylvanians settled by moving along the valleys west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

4. Terry G. Jordan, “The Material Cultural Legacy of New Sweden on the American Frontier.”

5. Jordan & Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier, p. 65.

6. Ibid., p. 86.

7. C. A. Weslager, New Sweden on the Delaware: 1638-1655 (Wilmington, De.: Middle Atlantic Press, 1988), p. 105.

8. No European power really had peaceful relations with the Indians. When the Dutch conquered New Sweden in a nearly bloodless battle, the Indians near Manhattan Island saw that there were fewer soldiers in New Amsterdam and made their move: “A fleet of sixty-four canoes carrying at least 500 Indian warriors made a surprise landing at New Amsterdam; Indians began to run riot through the town. That evening they were joined by an additionally 200 warriors. The Dutch burgher corps went to the defense of the residents, and the Indians crosses the river and began a three-day orgy of murder, arson, and robbery. Statin Island and the settlement of Pavonia were completely laid waste.” Ibid., p. 173.

9. For a complete list, see Jordan & Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier, p. 238.

10. Jordan & Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier, p. 83.

11. Governor Pierpont’s great-grandparents are buried in Fairfax Friends Cemetery.

12. Reid Wilson, “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?”, The Washington Post, November 8, 2013.

13. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 833.

14. In his bestselling book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Viking, 2011), Colin Woodard writes, “While less cognizant of its national identity, the Midlands is nonetheless an enormously influential moderating force in continental politics, as it agrees with only part of each of its neighbors’ strident agendas” (Kindle Loc 166). In the same book, he later writes, “It is Middle America, the most mainstream of the continent’s national cultures and, for much of our history, the kingmaker in national political contests.” (Kindle Loc 1529).

15. John C. Hudson, “Yankeeland in the Middle West.”

16. HBD Chick, “On the Topographical Origins of the Quakers.”

17. For more on the Scandinavian impact on Northwest England, see Geoffrey Leech, “The Unique Heritage of Place-Names in North West England”;  Stephen Lewis, “North Meols and the Scandinavian Settlement of Lancashire“; and Stephen Lewis, “The First Scandinavian Settlers in North West England.”

18. Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 430.

19. The famous westward pioneer Daniel Boone was of Quaker origins, and was of partial Welsh descent through his Quaker grandparents, Edward and Elizabeth Morgan.

20. Literature related to the assimilation of the Germans is actually mixed. David Hackett Fischer argues on page 432 of Albion’s Seed that the upper-class Germans in Pennsylvania Anglicized quickly. Colin Woodard argues in his book, American Nations, that the Midland Germans resisted assimilation. After doing my own research, I concluded, as I state above, that aside from particular sects, the Germans were fast assimilators. The impression that their assimilation was slow was due to the arrival of new immigrants.

21. Ian Frazier, Great Plains (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), p. 190.

22. Woodard, Colin American Nations, Kindle Loc 1617.

23. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards, The Pennsylvania-German in the French and Indian War (Lancaster, Pa.: Pennsylvania-German Society, 1905), p. 43.

24. José Luis González, “Refugee Children Drowned by Policy.”

25. Jonathan Mahler, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.”

26. Wikipedia, “Tay Hohoff.”

27. As in, for example, the Quaker Palestine Israel Network.

28. Gordon Lloyd, “Ratification of the Constitution.”

29. Woodard, American Nations, Kindle Loc 3051.

30. Marjorie Hyer, “Quakers Bar Pressure to Expel Nixon.”

31. Mark Weisenmiller, “Spies Who May or May Not Exist: The 1948 Hiss-Chambers U.S. Spy Trial.”

32. Colin Woodard, “How Colin Woodard’s ‘American Nations’ Explains the 2016 Presidential Election.”

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2 Comments

  1. Pera
    Posted April 28, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    “There are today at least 25 million descendants of the Swedes and Finns of the Delaware. At least half of these, perhaps more, have one or more Delaware Finns in their family tree. ”

    http://www.askovuorinen.fi/page30.php

  2. Carpenter
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    As someone from Pennsylvania, I found the outsized importance of the “Forest Finns” in this article a little puzzling. I am sure they had a large impact in clearing the area around Philadelphia, but let’s not exaggerate. The statement that there were more Forest Finns in and around Philly than Mayflower Pilgrims therefore there must be many more present-day descendants doesn’t hold up either.

    The Scots-Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch pushed the frontiers in Pennsylvania. Look at the PA Dutch inventions of the covered wagon and long rifle. Almost all the Scots-Irish who later traveled down the Appalachians entered the colonies through Pennsylvania, driving out and fighting the Indians along the way: look up the Paxton Boys.

    On PA Dutch assimilation: certainly those in and in the immediate vicinity of the cities of Philadelphia, Reading, Lancaster and York assimilated to English-speaking rather quickly. However, the farming communities and outlying areas often spoke German for generations. My PA Dutch great-grandfather spoke Pennsylvania Dutch and he lived into the 1960s. Assimilated PA Dutch, who were often in positions of power and influence, pushed the idea that speaking PA Dutch was holding people back and that it was uncultured. People I know can remember their grandparents speaking Dutch and thinking it was just silly, quaint, farmer stuff.

    You’re pretty much right about the Quakers though.

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