July 1, 2022
David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is my favorite genealogy book. I’ve recommended it dozens of times over the last twenty years. Most of the folks I’ve recommended it to later told me how much they’d enjoyed the book. They all agreed it was “must reading” for anyone who wants to understand America’s past and present.
Why is a 900 plus page historical tome so popular with genealogists? The main reason is that the book describes four different sets of early settlers to America: the Puritans, the Cavaliers, the Quakers and the Borderers (often referred to as the Scots-Irish, although most of them didn’t come from either area).
The four groups came from different areas of England and settled in different parts of what became the United States. The Puritans, of course, settled in New England where they could follow their own religious preferences. The Cavaliers settled first in the Virginia area and were looking for financial gain in the New World. Many were also aristocrats who were fleeing the English Revolution and the overthrow of the Monarchy. The Quakers settled in Pennsylvania and its surrounding areas in Delaware and New Jersey. Like the Puritans, they were looking for religious freedom.
The Borderers, who came from the borderlands between England and Scotland, were happy to settle along the borders of the American colonies from New England southward. The Borderers were not so much looking for a new land as they were expelled from their old lands. The Borderers were a nuisance because of their rough, violent ways, and the English wanted to replace them with more tractable people.
Each of the four groups had different customs in England which they brought with them to America. The book calls them folkways. These folkways include everything from architectural styles of houses to the ways the sexes interacted with each other. They even encompassed the way the settlers prepared their food. For example, New Englanders typically boiled all their foods while the southern Cavaliers tended to fry most foods. The final section of the book describes how these various folkways still influence modern American life.
For any genealogist who has Colonial American ancestors who came from England, this is fascinating reading. In some cases it can help a genealogist start to think about what part of England his ancestor came from based on where he settled in America. It can also help us understand why our families might still practice certain folkways centuries after they arrived in America.
Even if we don’t have Colonial English ancestors, our ancestors were certainly influenced in subtle ways by the folkways that the English settlers brought with them. This makes Albion’s Seed worthwhile for anyone who is interested in American history. I’ve read the book numerous times over the last few decades and will probably read it again. I learn something new each time I re-read it. I still recommend it to genealogists.
The book is available in paperback from Amazon. Many local libraries will also have copies, or it can often be borrowed through Prospector or other shared library systems.