Segment from The Melting Pot


Brian, Joanne, and Nathan discuss how answers to the question who could become American changed as the United States expanded west.


Night Lights by Ketsa

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BRIAN: Nathan, I’m sure you loved all that 20th century material. But I do think we should nod to our colleague, Joanne, and try to explore what assimilation was like back in the days of the early Republic and across the 19th century.

JOANNE: Well, I mean, if you’re looking at the 18th century, America is really localized. So it was possible– for example, in Pennsylvania, you have a really large population of Germans. For a while, they lived in a community that was largely other Germans. And that was possible in a localized kind of an America.

That becomes less possible as Americans really begin to spread out. And for those people, for German Pennsylvanians, what’s interesting about that is they take advantage of something that’s distinctly seen as American at the time. And that is, America is known as a place where, religiously speaking, it was assumed that your religion wouldn’t be bothered with when you went to America, that there was not so much intervention on the part of the nation into what kind of religion you wanted to practice.

So for Germans in Pennsylvania, even as they were adapting and assimilating into American culture, they were very comfortable clinging to Lutheran and German reform religious practices that let them really keep a sense of themselves, of their own identity as a people, even as they were assimilating and merging into American culture.

BRIAN: I want to hear a little more about that, Joanne Are, you saying that the fact that they did not have to be defensive about their religion allowed them to embrace other aspects of becoming American?

JOANNE: Yeah, or to be less fearful about abandoning things because they weren’t abandoning their sense of who they were.

NATHAN: I had heard somewhere that German almost became the default language in America. Is that true?

JOANNE: I don’t know about the default language. But I know that when you look at, for example, elections in early America, you had people who were asked to go into German wards in various cities and speak German and pitch things in German. And there were German newspapers. So there was a really large German population, for sure, who were German-speaking in America. And even just the electoral process was accommodated around those people.

BRIAN: Joanne, that’s German-Americans, and there were a lot of them. But what about the people who were already here? What about Native Americans?

JOANNE: Well, that’s a really good question. Obviously, that’s a huge issue throughout early America. But it particularly becomes an issue for Thomas Jefferson when he’s president because of the Louisiana Purchase, which happened in 1803, which doubles the size of the United States but also adds all these different kinds of people– the Creole, all around Louisiana, New Orleans.

There are all kinds of different people that come into the nation but, in particular, his concern is Native Americans. Because, of course, what he is most concerned about is Americans spreading west. And so what he really has to worry about is, well, what do we do with Native American peoples?

His answer to that was, well, in one way or another, they’re going to assimilate and become part of us. And he says in a number of different letters to a number of different people that he has, almost, a plan. That, among other things, we need to get them to use American manufactured goods because they won’t be able to afford them, ultimately, and they’ll probably try to pay with land.


JOANNE: And he has, sort of, a system of ways in which, without using force, America can increasingly get land to the point that, ultimately, Native Americans are a farming people like any other American farming people, and they’ve given up their old ways. He even says, at the end of one particularly striking letter, you know, we really shouldn’t talk about this in any way that they can know. Because these Native American peoples, they really shouldn’t be able to see what’s in the future for them. Which is painful. Painful.

BRIAN: Joanne, this is a very naive question, but did the white colonists ever give serious thought to assimilating into the culture that they stepped into?

JOANNE: Well, you know, that’s a really good question because some people did. And particularly, for example, traders, fur traders– this was the traders who were out west– some of them very much did marry into Native American families, sort of merge into Native American society.

NATHAN: Didn’t you see Dances with Wolves, Brian?


BRIAN: Too violent for me.

JOANNE: But no, it’s a really good point that we shouldn’t be talking about everything going one way.

NATHAN: So the Louisiana Purchase really does provide a kind of stairstep for thinking, then, about the opening of the great West. I mean, there are all of these French Creole cultures and Native American cultures that get brought in with the Louisiana Purchase. And then, you have Native American and Spanish peoples being brought in with the opening of what is, ultimately, Mexico.

And so, you think about places like Colorado and Nevada and California and Texas. And, essentially, the border crosses these places, right, and brings these people into the country in ways that really make assimilation take on entirely new meaning?

JOANNE: Right. And you know, what’s interesting about that kind of assimilation is on all sides, some assimilation and some immigration is voluntary. And some, in the way that you’ve just suggested it, Nathan, just sort of sweeps across. You’re talking about sort of a process of land passing hands and then, suddenly, change is happening.

To me, one of the interesting things about that is when you look at Americans adjusting to that fact, that that is happening, and you look at the late 19th century, there are these dime novels. And a stock character in those novels was the Mexican bandit. And the Mexican bandit represented someone who was not assimilating, was aggressively not assimilating, into American culture.

NATHAN: Who refused.

JOANNE: Right, who refused, and thus was sort of extralegal and scary, kind of a bad guy. And apparently, some of those novels also had what were, essentially, good guy Mexican characters, who were known as peaceful Mexican characters who either were willing to live separately or assimilate. So Americans, even culturally, are kind of grappling with that change.