Peopling a White Nation

While it is common knowledge that the Founding Fathers envisioned the U.S. to be white , most of us of European descent avoid (or don’t think about) situating the history of our own families within an intentional project aimed at peopling a white nation. A very common story among white people (not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) focuses on impoverished European immigrant ancestors who underwent great hardship for a fresh start in a new land.

Without diminishing hardships many European ancestors endured, it is important to place European immigration within the context of policies and practices designed to create and people a white nation, not for the purpose of fomenting guilt, but rather to understand how we are part of the historical construction of white privilege. I believe we cannot dismantle white privilege without examining closely how our families have participated in its construction (even if they did not realize that), and benefited from it.

To create a white nation, European colonists and their descendants decimated the indigenous peoples; another blog will look at that process in more detail. People of African descent were recruited, then captured and enslaved, as laborers rather than citizens. At the same time, during the 1700s and 1800s, the U.S. and state governments recruited and welcomed Europeans; there were no restrictions on immigration until 1874.

That much, you probably already know. An interesting question that is discussed much less is this: After the Revolutionary War, how did Europeans know to come to the U.S., trusting there would be land and opportunity for them when they got here? What role did official policies play in the process of getting them here?

I can piece answers to these questions together, but finding clear documentation of intent written in policies is difficult. (I welcome anyone who wishes to elaborate more on what I’ve been able to find, in the form of a guest blog.) Many histories simply mention that European immigrants were actively recruited, without specifying who recruited them and how this was done. An example is the Agricultural History of North Carolina.

European immigrants were offered land, or recruited for work. The Land Ordinance of 1785 set out the process for surveying land, dividing it into parcels, and selling it. First buyers could get land for a nominal fee, using a homestead process under which a head of household only had to live on the parcel (40 acres was common) and improve it for a given number of years. Subsequent laws, such as the Preemption Act o 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862, extended this process. The overwhelming majority of homestead land went to white people, a large percentage being European immigrants. (For more information about land policies, see The Great American Grid or Andro Linklater’s Measuring America.)

After the Civil War, Black Freedmen, supported by a few white allies such as Thaddeus Stephens, tried to get the same policy of access to land (known as “40 acres and a mule”). Indeed, toward the end of the Civil War about 10,000 newly freed slaves were temporarily granted defeated slaveholders’ land, but it was subsequently given back to the former slaveholders, and land for Freedmen never became policy.

Land speculation is another line of inquiry that can be traced. Speculators obtained land from a variety of sources, such as government-issued land warrants in payment for military service, or purchase of large tracts from the U.S. government or state governments. Looking to make a profit, speculators, sometimes working with transportation companies, then recruited potential farmers to buy smaller parcels of land, which had the effect of funneling Europeans and white Americans westward. In the library, using the search term “land speculation” for a history database will yield many articles, usually reporting studies of specific counties during specific points in time.

Many industries recruited European workers. I’ve been able to do some tracing of industry-based recruitment by identifying the work immigrant ancestors did, then going to the academic library to find out more about that industry during that timeframe and place. For example, on cotton plantations in Mississippi, slaves initially worked both in the fields and in the mills. By the 1850s, however, as plantations expanded, planters increasingly working slaves in the fields, leading to labor shortages in the mills. Looking elsewhere for workers, some mill owners began to import workers from Europe as well as from the North, although, as R. M. Miller explained in “The fabric of control: Slavery in antebellum Southern textile mills” (published in The Business History Review in 1981) mill owners still preferred slave labor over white labor mainly because slaves were cheaper and could be controlled more firmly than whites. This library digging, however, helped me understand how a European ancestral family wound up in Mississippi right before the Civil War, and how their arrival was supported by racism and labor policies.

Advertising for Peopling a White Nation

Poster Recruiting White Immigrants

Some information about advertising to potential European emigrants is available. The poster to the left appears in Houghton-Mifflin social studies material for classroom use. The teachers’ guide “The Forgotten Gateway,” which details immigration into Texas, features several more great examples of recruitment posters that were used both in the U.S. and in Europe. In addition, individual states worked with transportation companies to recruit immigrants, who often came in a group with a leader. Jonathan Wagner, in his book A History of Migration from Germany to Canada, 1850-1939, briefly notes that German immigrants went mainly to the U.S. rather than Canada because U.S. states worked with transportation companies to publicize, recruit, and create transportation packages, while Canada did not. In some cases, whole villages were recruited from Europe and transplanted to the U.S., such as the German village of Esperke documented by Robert Frizzell in his book Independent Immigrants.

After some of the first European immigrants acquired land, letters they wrote to family and friends in Europe also served as recruitment devices. For example, a widely published German account, Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerikas, written by Gottfried Duden and published in 1829, eloquently romanticized the bounties and freedoms of farm life in Missouri, encouraging countless Germans to follow in his wake.

What I would like to emphasize here is that most of us who are white descend from people who benefited from explicit policies and practices to recruit Europeans and settle them on land from which indigenous peoples were dispossessed, or give them jobs in industries people of color did not have access to, in order to people a white nation. What European ancestors did after they arrived varies widely — some prospered, some lived modestly, and some bungled opportunities badly. But there was a policy context that must be taken into account when considering the histories white people inherit because white privilege is a definite part of that inheritance.

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