Yankee Migrations into Michigan

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The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier
Susan E. Gray, 1996

I thought after the previous longish criticism of
Carolyn Merchant's Ecological Revolutions, I'd give an counter-example of a book I thought did a good job trying to get at the mentalities of rural people. I don't want to give the impression I don't like mentalities. I'd love to know what (especially rural) people were thinking in the past. But actual people, not so much "The People." So here's an example.

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders” (1).  Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and Lois K. Mathews’ 1909
Expansion of New England.  The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central” (3).  Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality” (5).

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups” (11).  The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital.  This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties” (12).  The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual.  Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families” (18).  In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “ ‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church” (176).  Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic” (8).  I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

Michigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office.  Although “open only 169 days in 1836...it took in $2,043,866.87.” (44)  Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk” (45). The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says; but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades.  “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.”  The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War” (47).

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, who she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo.  She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette” (152). In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah Upjohn...as supervisor” (154). Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of famous industrialist W.E. Upjohn.  Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848” (157). “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside” (159). The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites (167-8).

Gray's monograph on Michigan Yankees is probably unknown by most historians not particularly interested in Yankee migrations or the region. That's unfortunate, because Gray's approach balances historiographical consciousness, a theory of the
mentalities of her subjects, and a ton of actual evidence. Citing primary sources, you might argue, is easier when you restrict the scope of your study the way Gray did. It might be harder for Carolyn Merchant to assemble a convincing display of primary material that would be specific enough to anchor her narrative but general enough to support her much more global claims. But maybe that's the point.