How four British migrations defined America

They came from different places and with different ideas, which still resonate today.

​Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers came from and went to different places.

Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers came from and went to different places.

Credit: JayMan
  • Early British settlement of the American colonies came in four distinct waves, from different places.
  • Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers had their own ideas of what America should be.
  • Some of the cultural fault lines in today's America can be traced back to those differences.

Four 'folkways'

Quaker pioneer William Penn (center) treating with the Delaware Indians for the purchase of what was to become Pennsylvania.

Image: Frieze by Constantino Brumidi (1865) in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol; via Architect of the Capitol - Public Domain.

How many Americans are of British descent? It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Is that because, in an age of hyphenated identities, the founding one is still the default? Or has that identity become so amalgamated that it is now irrelevant? Perhaps the correct answer is: a bit of both.

In the 1980 Census, 61.3 million Americans (32 percent) self-reported British ancestry; most claimed English descent (26 percent), followed by Scottish (4 percent), and tiny amounts of Welsh (<1 percent) and Northern Irish. In the 2010 Census, that figure had dropped to 37.6 million (14 percent), with just 8 percent reporting English heritage, 3 percent Scottish and 2 percent Scotch-Irish.

The precipitous drop in self-reported British antecedents corresponds in part with the rise of those who identify as (unhyphenated) 'American', up from 12.4 million (5 percent) in the 1990 Census to 20.2 million in 2000 (7 percent) – the largest growth of any ethnic group in the 1990s.

However, back around the year 1700, about 80 percent of the population of what was to become the United States were of English (or Welsh) descent, with about 11 percent of African origin, and the rest being Dutch (4 percent), Scottish (3 percent) and other European. The imprint of the British on early American society was overwhelming, diverse and long-lasting: the regional and cultural differences between the settler groups created distinct regional and cultural identities in America.

That's the argument made by David Fischer, a history professor who in 1989 published a 900-page treatise on early migration to North America called "Albion's Seed." He identified four British 'folkways' that came over to the other side of the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries (see map), each with their own ideas about the liberty they wanted to find there.

From exodus to flight

\u200bMap showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society.

Map showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society.

Credit: JayMan

1. The Exodus (1629-41)

  • About 21,000 Puritans, migrating from East Anglia to New England.
  • These religious fundamentalists believed in 'ordered liberty': everybody had the right to live by their own rules, and the duty to live according to God's law.
  • The Puritans were a major influence on the culture of the Northeastern U.S., especially in terms of business and education.

These religious fundamentalists are the ones who came over on the Mayflower and gave America Thanksgiving and the self-image of being a 'City on a Hill'. Puritan society was gloomy and repressive: 'exceeding the bounds of moderation' was a punishable offense, and even just 'wasting time' got you into trouble.

The other side of the coin: life was very well-ordered. There was little income inequality and crime rates were low. Not only was charity towards poor the rule, being uncharitable was, yes, a punishable offense. Domestic abuse was punished severely. Women had a relatively high degree of equality. And government operated via town assemblies in which all could have a say.

2. Cavaliers and their Servants (1642-75)

  • Some 45,000 Cavaliers drawn from English nobility and their indentured servants, migrating from the South of England to Virginia and the Lowland South.
  • These aristocrats believed in 'hegemonic liberty': dominion over self, and others. In other words: keeping slaves was okay, but domination by others was not.
  • The Cavaliers were the foundation of plantation culture in the South.

The Cavaliers came from the losing side of the Civil War in England, which was now led by the Puritan-inspired Oliver Cromwell. Royalist, Anglican, and aristocratic, they brought along with them their indentured servants – more than 75 percent of the total migration – hoping to recreate in Virginia and environs the socially stratified agrarian society they had left behind.

When their servants began dying en masse, they started importing African slaves, laying the groundwork for the race-based slavery system that underpinned the economy of the South until the end of the Civil War.

3. The Friends' Migration (1675-1725)
  • Around 23,000 Quakers, migrating from Northern England to the Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania, and later to the Midwest.
  • These religious liberals believed in 'reciprocal liberty': granting others the freedoms they wanted for themselves, including the right to vote, to own, to be free, to worship, and to a fair trial.
  • Quakers had an important impact on the industrial culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions of the U.S.
Halfway between the fun-hating Puritans and the pleb-hating Cavaliers, the Quakers seem modern and likeable. Believing everybody intrinsically good, they practiced tolerance, pacifism, gender equality, and racial harmony. They opposed slavery, the death penalty, and cruelty to animals and children.

Quakers replaced a wide range of social acknowledgements according to rank (bows, nods, grovels) by a single, neutral equivalent: the handshake. Quakerism was perhaps one of the first Christian denominations to become indistinguishable from liberal, secular modernity. On the other hand, they were even more prudish than the Puritans. Doctors had a hard time treating Quakers because they described everything from their necks to their waists as their 'stomachs', and everything below as their 'ankles'.

4. The Flight from Northern Britain (1717-75)

  • Some 250,000 'Borderers', migrating from the Anglo-Scottish borderlands and Ulster to the Backcountry of Appalachia.
  • These individualists believed in 'natural liberty': freedom to do as one pleases, without interference from society or government.
  • Borderers contributed to the rural culture of America's South and the ranch culture of its West.

Inhabiting the border regions between Scotland and England, and between protestant settlers and catholic natives in Ireland, the Borderers were used to violence and lawlessness, and to lives that were nasty, brutish and short.

It is no coincidence that they ended up in Appalachia, at that time itself a violent border region. It was the kind of world they knew. Borderers were wary of government, prone to violent family feuds, and not bothered by traditional morality. By one estimate, in the year 1767, 94 percent of all 'backcountry' brides were pregnant on their wedding day. These Borderers were not much beloved by other settler groups in America. One Pennsylvanian writer called them "the scum of two nations". But the Borderers also contributed vigorously to the success of both the American Revolution and America's westward expansion.

'Blue' vs. 'Red'?

Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War.

Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War.

Credit: Lithograph by John L. Magee (1856); Public Domain.

It's tempting, and perhaps not entirely unjustified, to see in these four strains of British 'folkways' the antecedents of some of America's current cultural divides. One might for example see Puritans and Quakers as constituting elements of the 'blue' tribe, while Borderers and Cavaliers could be considered the ancestors of the 'red' tribe.

But thinking of America as a "death match between Puritan-Quaker culture and Cavalier-Borderer culture", as one commentator put it, is perhaps a bit too easy. There may be plenty of overlap within either pair, there is also much to distinguish each from the other. And then there are other and subsequent migrations contributing to and complicating the picture.

Nevertheless, a bit of cultural archaeology can be illuminating, if only to see where the bodies are buried.

Strange Maps #1049

Got a strange map? Let me know at

Update 30 September: image reference for the map was changed to reflect the original source and producer of the map in question.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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