Season 1, Episode 10 - The Yankee Diaspora: Battle of the Waterspouts

It's time to settle the Midwest! But first, a return to Brian's favorite characters: the sleigh-riding Yankees of upstate New York! Brian & Lyman discuss Albany, NY and the culture clash that occurred when New Englanders arrived in the prominently Dutch town. Also, hear about how religious fervor and urban fire changed the local culture.



L: You’re listening to Episode 10 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America. B: Lyman’s an economist and I’m a social studies teacher. For this and the next few episodes, we’re going to take a look at the westward migrations of one particular group of people: Yankees! L: That means that for this episode we’ll be talking about New York… but also Dutch drainage-pipe disputes, religious revivalism, and even the remarkable outcomes from urban fires. B: And no listener, you didn’t hear us wrong. We really are going to talk about Dutch drain-pipe technology. And it’s gonna be awesome. L: Seriously, trust us on this one.


B: So we finished up our extended episode set covering enslaved migration. Now we get to talk about some migrations that don’t involve kidnapping, murder, and violence. L: Well, we definitely will get to some violence. And we’ll have some, well, I guess you could say “dark comedy” of early American nativism. B: Great! But before we do that, do you want to outline what, and really who we’re talking about today? L: Absolutely! So for this episode, we’re going to talk about how the Northwest Territory, and especially Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, got settled. As part of that, we will particularly focus on the role of the “Yankee diaspora.” That’s a term American historians use to refer to New England-born people gone west beyond the New York/Vermont border. B: And we’re going to talk about them because…? L: Because, Brian, these are the sleigh-riding Yankees. B: Oh my gosh yes! Okay, for those who don’t know what I’m excited about, go back and listen to Episode 1. But for now… for now, just know that this episode just got way more exciting. L: Yeah. So we’ve got sleigh-riding migrants, but really these Yankees are important because they form a large share of the Americans who settle the Northwest Territory. Southerners make up a fairly small share of Northwest Territory settlers. Pennsylvanians make up a very large share, but didn’t leave quite as heavy a cultural mark. Now of course, immigrants made up a large share of the settlers: but we’re saving immigration for a different set of episodes. B: Okay then: so Yankees, by which we mean New Englanders, are the main migrant group settling the Northwest Territory. Which, can we just call it “the Midwest” now? L: Sure. B: Great. So how many Yankees move to the Midwest? And what time period are we talking about? L: Well, the Midwest takes a while to settle. Ohio is still being settled as late as 1840, even though its settlement begins in the late 1780s. Meanwhile, the settlement of Minnesota doesn’t even really begin until the 1840s, and shows no signs of real slackening until the 1880s. B: Okay, so the Midwest has a long settlement window… but we can’t do all of that in this set of episodes. L: No, so we’ll focus on the period from the late 1780s until the 1830s. Essentially once Michigan’s first wave of settlement has landed, we’ll be done. But for today’s episode, we won’t even make it past the War of 1812. B: Which, listener, should be a reminder that this is just part 1 of a set of episodes about the Northwest Territory. L: But not a 6 episode arc like for slavery--- probably just 3 episodes for the Northwest Territory. B: Okay, but back on topic, how many of these Yankees hop on their sleighs, presumably pulled by bald eagles, and go west? L: Historian James Darlington suggests that about 800,000 New Englanders left New England between 1783 and 1820. Other sources suggest something lower, like 600,000 or 700,000. But either way, big numbers. B: Yeah, that seems really big. I mean compared to the scale of migrations we talked about for slavery, these seem like huge movements of people. L: Yes, they are. And between 1780 and 1820, a net of about 550,000 native-born Americans moved to the Midwest, likely a large share coming from New England. That number does not fully include foreigners arriving in the Midwest, of course. And since it’s a net, it misses that by the end of the period some people were leaving the Midwest, headed even further west; and some people moved back east for various reasons. B: So the gross number of Americans who moved to the Midwest from 1780 to 1820 was…? L: Probably something like 650,000 people. I’d say odds are about ½ to ⅔ of that is Yankees. B: Wow, okay. So we’ve got something like 300,000 to 450,000 Yankees moving from New England to the Midwest over 30 years. That’s big. But… but since we said that total Yankee migration was between 600,000 and 800,000… where do the other few hundred thousand end up? L: Well they largely move to western New York. B: Oh, right! And I think I know where this leads us next.


B: So we haven’t discussed the ethnic makeup of the early American period. We’ll get to it some in future episodes about immigration. But for now, what you need to know is that much of New York, especially upstate New York, was Dutch. And not in the way Americans today are Dutch-American or German-American or Japanese-American: the Dutch New Yorkers spoke Dutch, attended Dutch churches, built Dutch-style houses, kept up with Dutch relatives in Holland… they were Dutch. L: The Yankees, meanwhile were, well… Yankees. B: Right: hard-headed, individualist, Puritan-descended, fiercely religious, and committed to the idea that they were the ones who were spearheading the great and God-approved American experiment. Yankees were entrusted with the task of civilizing the continent. L: So like, white man’s burden… but aimed at, ya know… the Dutch. B: That’s not entirely inaccurate. So Yankee society was organized very simply: villages surveyed a plot of land, distributed it to heads of household, built a church and school, set up a town council, and then enjoyed their little village life. Land was divided up for each son upon a landholder’s death. But that means that, over time, villages got too crowded, with too little land to go around. L: This sounds like the problem the Irish had. B: It’s exactly the problem they had… except where the Irish were a maligned people stuck on an island with no place for expansion, Yankees had… well okay after 1763 when the British closed the west, they had nowhere to go except Maine. L: Ouch. B: Yup. Cold. But after the Revolution, they could go west. And west of New England is New York. Specifically upstate New York. L: And since upstate New York is covered in at least 9 feet of snow all year around, they had to ride sleighs. B: Right. Nine feet. That’s absolutely correct. L: Anything beyond the Mason-Dixon line I just assume is uninhabitable frozen wastelands. B: Uhh… right, well, that’s not how Yankee migrants felt. New York was good land, and many communities actually developed Yankee majorities versus native-born New Yorkers, especially in northern New York where Vermonters so totally dominated the area that it came to be casually referred to as “New Vermont.” L: So these migrants are really dominating the local population in many cases. Many estimates suggest that about half the population or more of upstate New York was New England-born. In the study by James Darlington we mentioned, he looks at 526 towns in upstate New York founded between 1783 and 1820. He finds that only 126 had New York-born majorities; and notably, many New York-born individuals would still be culturally Yankee, born to New England-born parents. B: Wow. So that means Yankees really did dominate the settlement of upstate New York. L: Yeah, but there’s a bit of a statistical illusion here. Yankee migrants were very organized, setting out as family or community groups and settling together. They often sent scouting parties out a year or two in advance to find and buy good land, and organized colonization companies. The result of this was that their migrations were clumpy: they tended to all move together, and start a brand new town where they settled, or dominate an existing one. Native New Yorkers, meanwhile, had much more geographically diffuse settlement patterns, as did settlers from Pennsylvania. The result is that although New Yorkers dominated just 24% of towns, they were probably about 40 percent of the total population. B: But there were a few places, mostly older settlements predating the Revolution, where Yankees had to interact with those who already made upstate New York their home. And that leads us to the exciting tale of the Dutch waterspout debate.


B: The city of Albany was originally settled by Dutch people in 1614, and later on some Scots and Germans, as well as eventually English settlers. But the essential Dutch character of the place dominated, as we’ve mentioned. From language to religion to street names, Albany was a Dutch town. L: It was also a small town, by and large, with just 3 or 4 major streets, generally unpaved or paved with small, cheap stones. When it was formally chartered in 1686, it had just 500 residents, and was probably the largest city in the United States existing that far inland, which is why it was made the county seat for Albany County, which stretched from present day Ulster County, New York to, um, the Pacific Ocean. B: Albany: seat of the great Yorkian-Pacific Empire! L: Yeah, well, land claims were a little fuzzy in those days. But by 1710, about 1,200 people lived in Albany, over 100 of them enslaved. In 1754, Albany was the site of the famous Albany Congress, an early step in the American patriotic movement. The first non-Dutch church is built in 1717, over the loud objections of the Dutch locals. In 1733, Albany has its first non-Dutch mayor, but he doesn’t last long, and is followed by Dutch mayors. By the way, one of these Dutch mayors is one Phillip Schuyler, as in, the grandfather of Alexander Hamilton’s wife. In the 1750s, Albany had about 1,500 residents, oh and also the sheriffs of Albany and Springfield, Massachusetts arrested and jailed each other over those pesky land claim disputes. B: Hah! Yes! Just like Westsylvania! L: Uhm, yes, except in this case the Westsylvania of New York was Vermont, and they actually did gain their independence. B: Frontierspeople, man, they get it done. Ethan Allen is awesome. L: Right, but Vermont isn’t our topic today. By the time of the American Revolution, about 3,000 people lived in Albany. In 1790 Census data picks up, showing 3,500 residents, of whom over 500 were enslaved. In 1800 there are 5,300 residents, by 1810 almost 11,000, by 1820 about 12,600. B: So moderate growth in the 1780s, fast growth in the 1790s, even faster growth in the 1800s, then slower in the 18-teens. Got it. L: And, for anyone interested, all this data is on the website. So, check it out. B: But back to the story, these transitions from a completely Dutch community to a mixed but still Dutch-led town did generate some disruptions. For example, the Dutch Reformed minister began preaching in English in 1782, a huge step. But where Dutch influence was really visible was the architecture. See, English houses tended to have drain gutters like we think of today, channeling water off and to the side of the house. But Dutch houses had water spouts that channeled water out towards the street, then let it fall like a kind of faucet or runoff waterfall into the middle of the street, where there would, in a well-maintained city, be a drainage channel. L: We’ve got an illustration of this drainage system in the blog post associated with this episode. It’s kinda funky lookin’. B: To our British-influenced eyes, maybe. And yeah, when Yankees showed up, they thought these spouts were weird. So there’s one guy in particular named Elkanah Watson who left lots of journals describing this period. He was something of a crusader, devotedly doing all he could to modernize and improve Albany, from advocating for paved streets with large flagstones, to calling for public education, to, well, spearheading the destruction of the waterspouts. L: That seems like an odd crusade. B: Well, remember that these frontier towns don’t have fantastic drainage, and the roads are poorly paved, if at all. So when a rain comes, they wash out a lot. That’s a pain. But add in big waterpouts dangling overhead dumping waterfalls into the middle of the street, and it turns out navigating Albany’s roads in a rainstorm could be hard for somebody who wasn’t familiar with the area. That is to say, Albany’s rainwater runoff system was really frustrating for small-town Yankees who didn’t expect to have torrents of water pouring out in the middle of the street. L: Oh, and if you didn’t expect to find that system… B: It could be really embarrassing to be walking along, only to get doused by dirty rainwater. In fact, Elkanah Watson writes an apparently popular newspaper article about precisely this experience, describing a hapless gentleman repeatedly hit by waterspouts, hopping from dry spot to dry spot between the muddy, unpaved ruts. The result was, he claims, that the town was educated about their ignorance on the waterspout issue, everyone picked up saws, and they hacked off all the waterspouts in a single day, creating more American style houses, with side-channeled drainage. L: Wow. That’s… that’s a pretty aggressive Americanization strategy. “Hey, your house doesn’t look American. We’re going to hack at it with saws and fix it.” B: Yeah. The only issue is, this whole story… might not be true. Watson wrote his journals clearly expecting historians would use them, kept newspaper clippings of his advocacy, and generally seems to have been self-consciously interested in how history would see him. Early American researcher Liz Covart, who also has a really neat American history Podcast called Ben Franklin’s World--- L: Another plug for other Podcasts! Yay! B: Yeah, no kidding! But so Liz Covart argues that, actually, many of the changes Watson claims credit for, like paved streets and different waterspouts, actually began years before his arrival, and indeed before large Yankee movements began. The Dutch population was already changing and developing on its own, passing ordinances calling for waterspout removal and road paving well before Yankee migration picked up. However, these initiatives were often privately-funded, so inconsistently carried out. What is possible is that Yankees provided an extra impetus for reform, as well as a group deeply invested in public responsibility for things like roads and rainwater management. L: So then the Yankee contribution here might not be drainage and paving, but rather something about the role of government in providing public goods? B: Right. Watson claims credit for local projects like turnpike roads and canals too--- and that’s almost certainly exaggeration. But it is true that Yankee migrations were followed and preceded by huge infrastructure investments, like the Erie Canal, which, completed in 1825, connected Albany to Lake Erie. L: Actually, this idea that the Yankee contribution was less about specific styles and priorities, and more about the mechanism for accomplishing those priorities, namely the use of government, is really interesting, and will definitely come up more when we get to the Northwest Territory. B: There’s one other Yankee contribution we should mention before coming back to a force that really changed Albany. And that Yankee contribution is, of course, God.


L: I’m pretty sure the Dutch had religion before Yankees arrived, so I’m assuming you mean the unique forms of New England Congregationalism. B: To some extent yes, but that’s not all. Many Yankees no longer identified with the stoic and staid teachings of the Puritans or their Congregational descendents. Instead, they wanted a religious practice that was more individualized, experiential, and that could explain the unique American experience. With so many Yankees moving away from traditional structures in New England and coming to dominate new lands where local religious traditions were totally foreign, it created space for new religious movements. And those new religious movements were, as we’ve discussed before, Baptists and Methodists. L: Ah right, those suspicious, wild-eyed crazy baptists we talked about in the bourbon episodes. B: Right. Separated from their New England homes, Yankee migrants proved open to evangelization and conversion over this period. Western and central New York became intensely evangelized, with every new sect or movement setting up shop and spreading its version of the gospel, or its vision for social reform. This eventual super-saturation of the region with preaching, evangelization, and the foundation of new religious movements led to it being termed the “Burned Over District,” meaning there was no “fuel” left for evangelistic “fire.” L: Now I know we will have a whole episode devoted to religious migration later on, but I want to touch on one comment there: you said “new religious movements.” Who are we talking about here? B: Well, central and western New York between 1800 and 1850 give birth to the Mormons, Adventists, and the Shakers. Joseph Smith, who founded the LDS Church or Mormons, was born in Vermont, migrated to New York. William Miller, sort of the godfather of Adventism, was born in Massachusetts, moved to New York in 1786, where he started preaching and teaching. The first Shaker community begins in 1774 just north of Albany, but really gets going at Mount Lebanon New York in 1785. And of course the first Shakers were British immigrants. L: Wow. So three religious movements, two founded by Yankee migrants, a 3rd by immigrants. That’s pretty remarkable. B: Yup. And that Yankee-led religious revivalism led to so much preaching that… well eventually everybody got tired of it, hence “Burned Over District.” I’m not sure what that says about Yankee contributions to American culture? L: Hah! I dunno, but I do know there’s one more fire we need to talk about.


L: So before we close out this episode, I wanted to briefly return to Albany. See, over the late 1700s and early 1800s, Albany changed its physical appearance. Dutch-style wooden houses became less common, while English-style brick houses came to predominate. Eventually, the great majority of the Dutch-made buildings were replaced. B: Well yeah, because apparently anything “un-American” got hacked up with axes and saws. L: Well, no actually. What really happened was that a series of urban fires hit Albany, burning down various sections of the overwhelmingly wooden Dutch-style houses. Brick structures were more likely to survive. And after the fires, even many Dutch residents rebuilt their houses in more, quote, “American” styles. B: Was that because of the pressure to Americanize? L: Maybe to some extent, but it also seems many Dutch people wanted different styles. The old houses didn’t meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized Albany, were harder to maintain, and did not insulate or heat as well. The new brick homes were better in many regards. The only reason the old Dutch homes weren’t done in a brick style is they were older, and Albany was poorer when they were built, and brick was harder to come by. B: Oh, so then much of what seemed to Elkanah Watson and others to be “Americanization” was really just Albany getting richer, and technology progressing. L: Right. The extent to which “American” simply means “the most updated technology” in many cases, or maybe “the most expensive technology” is remarkable. Waterspouts were used because traditional Dutch homes were often rowhouses, so side-drainage didn’t work. But a city like Albany had lot sizes sufficient to yield stand-alone houses, and bricks were an even better material for either stand-alone or row-houses. B: So really, far from the vigorous proselytization of bold, persuasive Yankees like Elkanah Watson, the gradual progress of Albany away from a remote Dutch enclave into a more “American” style town was in some part just a result of the end of the frontier and the arrival of wealth. L: Right. Which, in fairness, does mean that this more networked, wealthy, modern economic model was destroying local culture. Which, um, that sounds familiar. B: Yeah, but we can get to that in the wrap-up episode. L: Sounds good to me!


B: Well, that’s it for the 10th episode of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again next time. If you’d like more information about what we’re doing here, or would like to offer us your support, join us on the web at, where you can find transcripts of our episodes, bonus nerdy materials from Lyman and me, and even a look ahead at episodes we have in the works. L: For today’s episode, we wanted to point listeners to some of the resources we found particularly helpful. Michael Barrone’s book “Shaping Our Nation” provided some of the background for this set of episodes. It’s an interesting read, and a valuable attempt to tell a cohesive story of migration in America. As it happens, Brian and I have some significant differences and disagreements with some of Barrone’s story, but especially on the Yankee Diaspora, his writing and research is extremely useful. B: We also wanted to sing the praises of Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast: it’s swell, check it out. Also, her academic writing is interesting too, so there’s that. And while you’re looking at Podcasts on iTunes, make sure to swing by our iTunes page and leave us a review. Your reviews help the dark magic of the iTunes algorithm see how awesome this show is, helping us reach people beyond just friends-of-friends. L: We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the early years of American migration with us! This is Brian and Lyman signing off and saying, “If we haven’t found a good wrap-up line by now, then we should just give up!”


Lyman's blog for this episode, complete with all the mappy and charty goodness you'd expect.

Covart, Elizabeth M. "“Dam’d Paving” Yankees and Dutch New Yorkers: The Post-Revolution New England Migration and the Creation of American Identity in the Upper Hudson River Valley, 1783-1820." The Hudson River Valley Review 29 (2012): 2-25. 

Music Credits:
The Moaners - "Yankee On My Shoulder" under CC BY 4.0
Peerless Quartet - "On A Good Old Time Sleigh Ride" under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 CA
Het Gloren - "In Holland Staat Een Huis" under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Doctor Turtle - "Let's Just Get Through Christmas" under CC BY 4.0