Cultural Identity in the Early English Colonies in North America

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. English Immigration to North America
2.1. The First English Settlers
2.2. Divergence in Four Colonial Cultures
2.3. The Four Great Migrations

3. Englishness of the English Colonies
3.1. Cultural Identity and Difference
3.2. Americanization: The Development of an American Cultural Collective
3.3. American Identity

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

Many text books write about a special relationship when referring to the US and Great Britain both in former days and at present. The Englishness of the English colonies in North America is sometimes given as a historical reason. When searching for literature about Englishness, hardly any useful information about the concept in relation to the North American English colonies could be found. The term Englishness mostly refers to manifest cultural English practices like landscape gardening, the English language or Englishness is displayed and lived in the Indian or Caribbean colonies. Diller et al. for example edited a publisher’s compilation under the title “Englishness” (1992) which comprises articles such as “Picturesque England”, “The English Railway Enthusiast” or “Proper English: Myths and Realities”. It soon became clear that when writing about the culture of the English settlers in North America, the central question should not ask for Englishness, but for a specific definition of Englishness in terms of the topic and for how English the English Colonies in North America had been. Thus, this paper will not examine how English the settlers’ gardens were organized and how similar their pronunciation was to that of the mother country’s inhabitants. It will rather investigate in the nature of the English cultural values and norms the settlers had brought with them, to which extent they preserved them and how it came that their culture and identity became American. Therefore it will describe and document artefacts of their cultural self-concept; it will compare several different English colonial societies and their way to cope with the new environment.

The history of English settlement in North America starts in 1607 when disregarding Indians and some earlier attempts of settlers which were abandoned or not documented further. Thus, American history and civilization started with English settlers. But were they still English when they arrived in the New World? Were they not Americans from the early colonization on? Did they not leave part of their Englishness in the mother country when they entered the ship to cross the Atlantic? And did they all have the same motivations and attitudes to leave England? In order to examine their culture and to highlight obvious implementations of an evolving American cultural pattern, this paper will try to examine the settlers’ identities, thus what they identified with and what they disclaimed. It will deal with the question whether one can speak of an American culture or national feeling before the American Revolution i.e. before the United States had become a nation. It will try to conceive or grasp the sensations of the population, their attitudes and feelings about their cultural and national identity.

2. English Immigration to North America

The USA is known as an immigration country. Considering the multicultural society which has been compiled by many different nations, this labelling might seem appropriate. But when contemplating the beginnings of North American colonisation, we have to speak in other words: According to Samuel P. Huntington the distinction between the terms ‘settler’ and ‘immigrant’ is very important though often blurred or disregarded. “Settlers before Immigrants” is the title of one chapter of “Who are We?” (2004), Huntington’s book about the challenges to American national identity. Huntington claims both President Roosevelt’s utterance that all Americans were descended from revolutionists and President Kennedy’s proclamation and book title “A nation of Immigrants” to be misleading. Huntington’s most crucial reason for the need of distinction between the concepts of settlers and immigrants is their performance: “Settlers leave an existing society, usually in a group, in order to create a new community, a city on a hill, in a new and often distant territory. […] Immigrants in contrast, do not create a new society.” (2004: 28). The first Englishmen who came to North America were thus no immigrants but settlers. They did not move from one society to another but left their mother country to create something new. Huntington mentions that the term immigrant had even not appeared in English usage until America’s 1780’s and Merriam Webster’s online dictionary quotes the term to have emerged in 17891. A further aspect is the social orientation of settlers which is distinct from that of immigrants. Settlers are “imbued with a sense of collective purpose” whilst immigrants “individually define their relation to their old and new countries” (ibid.) as they confront with an already existent collective identity which they are demanded to adapt or assimilate to, though identities are recurrently renegotiated, confirmed and changed.

One very obvious aspect of the distinction of the first settlers and following immigrants is quite pragmatic: The first settlers were facing a much bigger adventure. They came to the New World when there was no infrastructure, no fields and only very basic means to establish a living. They were used to the English civilization and had to begin anew, first of all by fighting against wilderness, dense forests and mostly hostile Indians, thereby their objects and motives and their cultural and social belonging often being called into question. Furthermore, “founding a colony was immensely expensive.

Stocking a venture with settlers and supplying them over the years until they built an infrastructure and could feed themselves meant constant outlay” (Ordahl 1993: 83). This is the reason why most of the English colonies had been fostered by private enterprise. The English government gave a charter to a private company such as the Virginia Company which thereby enabled the enterprise to settle a certain area of land, to cultivate it and to trade with the gathered products. The Crown appreciated the mercantilist interest of the colonisers but they did not – in the first instance – grant the financial support they needed. England wanted to establish trade relations to the colonies because they knew that the New World was rich in resources like gold and silver. Besides this commercial interest, the English government did not take a special stock in the early colonies but rather treated them with ‘benign neglect’ as Horst Dippel remarks (wohlwollende Vernachlässigung, Dippel 2005: 8). This policy would from the beginning coin some characteristic features of the developing societies. Only later, during the 17th century the interest of England in its thitherto 13 colonies slowly increased.

However, Huntington’s pamphlet is very controversial. Immigrants who came to the colonies the first settlers had established also had a great stake in the construction of cultural identity as there was not a nation yet and no American collective identity. In order to examine the cultural identity and self-concept of the early settlers we must at the outset regard the groups of people who came to North America and their constellation, their connection to the metropolis as well as their motivation to leave the mother country, be it as a member of the first settler-groups or as a later immigrant into the settler-societies. Although, this paper cannot give a comprehensive survey of all the groups that immigrated and of all the aspects which could be of interest, it will try to outline some crucial characteristics of the most important groups and give as much information as is needed to apply and understand the concepts cited.

2.1 The First English Settlers

As there had been many attempts of smaller groups to settle North America which had partly succeeded, had partly been abandoned after short time or where settlers had even disappeared (the Lost Colony), this chapter will only list the English colonies which have evolved constantly into English colonial societies and build a basis for the discussion of the paper’s central questions.

English colonial Settlement began in 1607 with a trading post at Jamestown in the Old Dominion of Virginia. King James I had granted a charter with which a group of around 100 men, among them Captain John Smith, could set out for Chesapeake Bay. They founded Jamestown which was named after the river James along whose banks settlers rose great plantations of tobacco. In 1620 the population counted around a thousand settlers. People had come to the New Land under poor conditions and found mostly raw nature which they had to cultivate first. Tobacco was welcomed import goods in England and the economy was flourishing from 1614 on (USINFO 2005: 12).

The next group of settlers were Puritans who came to what is now Massachusetts in 1620 and founded the colony of Plymouth i.e. New England. They were separatists and had left England during its religious upheavals because they did not believe that the Established Church could ever be reformed (ibid.: 13). On the Mayflower they arrived at Cape Cod on November 11 and settled in Plymouth because of its well-located harbour. They had to start building their settlements during the winter, when many of them died of disease and cold.

The next English settler groups came rather in waves. Delaware Valley offered a haven for Quakers who were discriminated in England. The proprietor of this colony was William Penn who was given the area by King Charles II. He called it Pennsylvania after his family Penn Sylvania. The nearby Maryland was another area where English settlers arrived. George Calvert, an English politician, had sought to create a refuge for oppressed English Catholics in the New World. The hinterland was colonised from 1717 by settlers from the North of England, from Scotland and from the North of Ireland (Adams 2004: 8).

The English (and British) settler societies were thus made up of groups of people from very distinct regions and places all over England and later Britain. They had come for very different reasons and found individual fruition of their dreams in the New World. In favour of the paper’s objective to analyse the culture of the first English settler societies in detail, the next chapter will propose a containment of these societies.

2.2 Divergence in Four Colonial Cultures

David Hackett Fischer coined the idea of “Divergence in Four Colonial Cultures”. An essay2, carrying the same title, was published in Ordahl Kuppermann’s compilation “Major Problems in American Colonial History” (1993). The essay is a recapitulating depiction of the conclusion of Fischer’s renowned book “Albion’s Seed” which was published in 1989 by Oxford UP in New York. The essence of the book is quite controversial, because Fischer claims the North American society to be profoundly influenced by the folkways of four big groups of English settlers while he disregards in this sense all the other nations who had colonized North America. However, this paper will not discuss the precarious claim of ‘Albion’s Seed’ in detail. It will though adopt Fischer’s approach of the Four Great Migrations as this division presents a very intelligible and clear depiction of the four largest English colonies in their development. Moreover, Fischer’s hypothesis of cultural divergence is very interesting and provides a good basis for discussion as it is juxtaposed to the Jack P. Greene’s (1998) concept of convergence of the cultures of the English settler societies which will be displayed in detail later on (cf. subchapter 3.1).

2.3 The Four Great Migrations

Fischer views the Four Great Migrations as four folk cultures with very distinctive characters, influenced by factors such as their English or British origins in terms of religion, region or generation and their development in North America dependent on environmental aspects, immigration and race or expansion of regional cultures.

He contains the Four Great Migrations starting with the English Puritans from the eastern counties who had followed the Mayflower-Puritans to Plymouth. This new wave of Puritans came in the years between 1629 and 1640 (Hackett Fischer 1989: 569). Captain John Winthrop arrived in 1930 with 700 settlers on eleven ships at the shores of Massachusetts Bay. They had been given a grant by King Charles I. Puritan religious practices had been widely prohibited in England (USINFO 2005: 13), so the New World offered an opportunity for them to live their lives according to their strict religious belief. The colony had a local authority and was thus able to conduct a spiritually based system:

Under the charter’s provisions, power rested with the General Court, which was made up of “freemen” required to be members of the Puritan, or Congregational,Church. This guaranteed that the Puritans would be the dominant political as wellas religious force in the colony. (ibid.: 14/15)


1 Marriam Webster OnLine at (02/12/2008)

2 The essay is composed of excerpts from the conclusion „Four British Folkways in America: The Origin and Persistence of Regional Culture in the United States” of „Albion’s Seed“. Cf. Fischer 1989: 569.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Cultural Identity in the Early English Colonies in North America
Technical University of Chemnitz  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik )
Hauptseminar "British and American Relations since 1607"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
429 KB
Cultural, Identity, Early, English, Colonies, North, America, Hauptseminar, British, American, Relations
Quote paper
Noemi Donner (Author), 2008, Cultural Identity in the Early English Colonies in North America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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