Before you make the effort to read this, I should warn you that when I told it to Chanthaboune, she said, “Have you noticed how hard it is sometimes to recognize the interesting bits?” When I explained why it was really very exciting, she said, “Did you know that you can open bananas from the bottom?” But I think it is a worthwhile object lesson in how assumptions affect research.

Yesterday was family history day, and I was following up the new direction LikeWowMom pointed out to me. I have a branch of the family that I have always thought of as “the Midwesterners,” whom I have found hard to get information on. They are all in Missouri by the beginning of the 20th century, and I can follow them back to Illinois and Ohio, but there — in the mid-1800s — I stick. 

As I worked, I realized that I had hindered my study of my Midwesterners by making two false assumptions.

First, I was thinking of them all as Midwesterners. Here is what the Yarn Harlot says about regions of the U.S.: “I have remarked several times now that (not that I would ever dream of pressuring you) it would be much easier for travellers if you would contemplate dividing your country into geographic regions based on geography, rather than attitude. ”  She has a point. Even books on the regions of the United States do not always agree with one another on the divisions. But it is not only attitude and subcultures. Often there are historical differences that affect the character of a region.

Now, here is what I know about the Midwest: Missouri. I know a lot about Missouri. I figured that the Midwest just went on from there until you hit the West, the East, or Canada. As you travel north, I thought, it gets colder and the people get that really cute accent, but otherwise it is basically all the same region.

This is false. Ohio and Illinois, where my people were hanging out, are part of the Great Lakes Region, not the same thing at all as the Plains States. They had an entirely different sort of history in the 19th century, filled with industry and technology (they were building the Erie Canal, for one thing) and a great influx of immigrants through Pennsylvania.

This leads me to my second false assumption.

United States history is largely a story of migratory patterns. The one I am familiar with in my own family history is the classic. You are in Western Europe in the 1600s or 1700s, being a younger son or a religious dissident or a criminal or something, so you head for the colonies. Some of your offspring stay in the place where you settled, and some move south. Then, in the 1800s, some of their offspring move west. Most moved pretty well straight across the country once they headed west. The folks from North Carolina went to Louisiana, the folks from Virginia went to Missouri. Once they got there, they did much the same things their grandparents and great-grandparents had done back when they were colonists.

While I have lumped my Midwesterners together, the fact is that the ones who went from Virginia to Missouri behaved in this very typical way, growing sorghum and so on. But then there were the others. These folks who turned up in Ohio in the 1800s, claiming on the census to have been born in Maryland or that their parents were from Pennsylvania.

I had always figured that those folks had colonist forebears in Maryland or Pennsylvania, and that they were being ordinary pioneers, travelling west through Ohio and Illinois to Missouri. But somehow when they got to Ohio, they behaved oddly. They began romping back and forth from one state to another, turning up on the census with husband and wife living apart in different states, and sometimes not turning up on the census at all. I could not imagine what was up with these folks. Were they merely more exciting than the southerners? Was there something in the air in Ohio?

Once LikeWowMom clued me in to the canals, I began to see another possibility. These people were not descended from colonists. They were not farmers. They were probably the children of later immigrants. And if they worked on canals — well, many things became clearer. After all, it is possible that you could build a canal by getting all the local farm boys down to the canal to work on the bits in their own towns, hoping they would all end up forming a canal in the end, but it may well be that there were crews of canal workers. If so, they might have travelled from one place to another. When the canal they were working on was finished, they might have gone to another place, where another canal was being built. Depending how long it took to build a canal, they might even have left their wives and children with some relatives while they were working on it.

Obviously, I have to learn more about this, but I have found that the towns where my folks lived in Ohio and Illinois were the sites of canals built in the 19th century. It seems that I may have been looking in the wrong places for these ancestors. I need to look at 19th century immigrants, for example. And perhaps there are records of canal workers to check. I may still never find out more about these folks and their heritage, but at least I can now stop looking in the wrong places.

Ishmael says something about these migration patterns, by the way. He says that tribal peoples could not have gone, as my ancestors did, from being Virginians to being Missourians. If the Shoshone got crowded, they could not decide to go be Arapaho. This, Quinn says, provided a natural incentive to keep populations small and distinct, and thus lessened the chances of famine. In fact, tribal peoples moved in on one another with some degree of frequency (all the “native” peoples where I live, for example, moved here from other parts of the country), though never with the fervor shown by the European immigrants to the Americas. “Fervor” is probably the wrong word, but I don’t want to suggest that they were vulpine or rapacious or anything, becase they honestly believed they were doing the right thing. And I am descended from them. And there is every evidence that, in spite of their doing things which we now regard with horror, they were essentially nice people. No doubt we are currently doing many things which our own descendants will regard with horror.

While contemplating these deep questions, #2 daughter and I made a CD case for a new graduate friend of ours from a pattern we found at this marvelous site. I am directing you to their intriguing philosophy page, where they talk about materialism, and why you should make things yourself. We added a CD from the group Apocolyptica, which is a heavy metal cello ensemble. Really.