Diversity in the American Colonies: The Formation of English, Native American, African and German Identities Colonial North America was a multifaceted melting pot of diversities. The amalgamation of different ethnicities, races, cultures and religious organizations created a circumstance in which the identities of the English, Native Americans, Africans and Germans were far from static. The interactions between these four groups helped to build the history of North America, and as such it is pertinent to understand the evolution of their identities.
While old world traditions and increased interaction with cultural outsiders predominantly shaped the identities of English colonizers, religious appropriation and reinterpretation as well as increased interaction with European colonizers largely shaped the respective identities of Native Americans, Africans and Germans. All four groups depended on cultural improvisation to sustain their identities in the colonies. English old world traditions influenced settlement plans, social hierarchy and landholding patterns in the colonies, and thus contributed to the formation of English societal identity. When English settlers immigrated to the North American colonies, many attempted to re-create their old world societies. Zuckerman asserts that the “communities which could be constructed on wilderness coast were wholly new communities, without indigenous customs [and] without elders who had lived there all their lives. ” 2 Because they founded their colonies on unfamiliar land, replication was unattainable. However, they did successfully implement settlement plans that bore semblance to the old world.
For example, in planning the New Jersey colony, “the Scots ordered that all of the Scottish lands be granted directly to large landowners who in turn would reallocate them to their tenants and servants. ”3 This settlement plan was unique to the colonies, but not to the Scots—they practiced the same settlement patterns back in Scotland. Hierarchical relationships were also influenced by old world norms. The lack of a strong elite class within the Pennsylvanian Society of Friends directly reflected Quaker principles in England where Quakerism “had little appeal to families of rank. ” 4 Thus religious culture influenced colonial society.
Similarly, old world traditions regarding landholding were reborn in the colonies. For example, “in rural Scotland, persons born into families of tenants or cottagers rarely would have encountered even the possibility of land ownership; virtually all would have been content with a good tenancy. ” 5 Scots in the new world behaved in the same fashion; they almost never became landowners. Old world cultural inheritances therefore contributed to English societal identity in the colonies. Increased interaction between English colonizers and cultural outsiders influenced the formation of English identity by strengthening their sense of community.
Upon arrival, English settlers were bombarded by the religious, ethnic and nationalistic diversity that permeated the colonies. Landsman argues that such an environment, “rather than fostering an atomized society, worked instead to accentuate the social distinctiveness of the Scots and the importance of communal ties among them. ”6 Thus, in the face of diversity, the English separated themselves from outsiders and thereby united their community from within. English communities “were driven to define others as adversaries, as if to vindicate their own uncertain worth by assaults on those around them. 7 In an effort to emphasize their cultural importance in the colonies, they defined cultural outsiders as rivals. This cycle was evident even among Quakers who “looked upon all humanity as their kin. ”8 For example, they practiced marriage exclusivity—“out-marriage caused many disciplinary proceedings by Quaker meetings. ” 9 Therefore, even the most accepting of English colonists alienated outsiders in some ways. This estrangement almost always resulted in the fortification of respective English communities.
For instance, “The Darien plan was a nationalistic venture” sponsored by Scottish colonists to strengthen their economy. 10 This plan was exclusive and thus provoked English backlash, which fortified their sense of sodality. English colonizers brought old world traditions into the new world and strengthened their respective communities in order to protect their cultural identity in the colonies. For the English, immigration into the colonies meant facing one’s inessentiality; the colonies had high rates of mortality and weakly structured economies. 1 Faced with their dispensability, settlers discovered new means to retain their cultural identities. For example, Quakers “rejected institutions of high culture and made virtues of simplicity and hard work in a hostile environment. ” 12 They transplanted their theological cultural inheritances into colonial society and were able to perpetuate that facet of their identity in the colonies. The solidification of their communities was vital to the survival of their identities. For Scots, maintaining close relationships with prominent Scots in other colonies emphasized a Scottish identity, even across colonial borders. 3 Maintaining relationships equated sustenance of old world culture through social interactions. Additionally, English colonizers solidified their community by placing a strong importance on trust. “Among persons for whom doubt replaced basic trust in the way of one’s social group, such doubt may undermine the sense of one’s own identity. ”14 By strengthening the trust within their community, English colonists protected their cultural identities. Religious appropriation and re-evaluation played a momentous role in the formation of Native American identities in the colonies.
Native Americans were not immigrants; instead, outside forces bombarded their homeland and forced them to question their identities. Native Americans embraced different aspects of Christianity as a result of their European counterparts’ fervor for conversion. For example Spanish missionaries desired to “teach the fundamentals of Christian worship and administer the holy sacraments” in their Texas missions. 15 While many Native Americans converted, the Christianity they practiced was not entirely European. They appropriated Christianity in order to understand it in their own cultural context.
For example, “Transforming the Wampanoag’s interest in Christianity into a commitment required [the English] to filter Christian teachings through Wampanoag religious ideas, terminology and practices—a process one might call religious translation. ” 16 Because Nativa Americans understood Christianity within their own cultural framework, Silverman argues that Native Americans thought of Christianity as a continuation of their own religion, as opposed to a foreign religion. He writes, “Christianity was less a new faith brought by the English than a colonist-spurred revival of ancient Indian practices. 17 This revivalist attitude about Christianity allowed for many Native Americans to sustain their identities, as opposed to being overrun and forced to assimilate. For example, “the ‘praying Indians’’ status as Christians enabled most of them to sustain a fragile peace with the English. ”18 Instead of being altogether discounted, ‘praying Indians’ converted to Christianity, and thereby gained temporary and fragile autonomy under which they sustained their identities. Increased interaction between Native Americans and Europeans contributed to the development of Native American identity through: the pread of disease, land-loss and cultural assimilation. Native Americans became aware of European presence in North America through diseases, long before the English began to settle. Brutal waves of diseases left their mark on Native Americans through population and infrastructure decimation. For instance, “Epidemics that began in the 1550s had, by the 1700s, decimated native populations across northern regions of Mexico. ”19 The decline of Native American populations led to a loss in cultural identity as well as a dependence on Europeans for medicine and protection. The sudden loss of elites, shamans, elders, warriors and caregivers would have been a formidable blow to any society, but it was particularly damaging to one without writing since specialized knowledge died out with its keepers. ”20 Through the devastating loss of so many important figures in Native American society, their identities weakened and much of their cultural beliefs fell victims to their own doubts and fears. Subsequently, Native Americans were forced to depend on the very people who brought the diseases—“Texas provided a sanctuary for an impressively diverse, if ravaged, congregation of native peoples and displaced refugees. 21 Population loss forced Native Americans to move into physical proximity with the Europeans for protection from disease and other threatening Native American tribes like the Apaches, who often attacked their neighboring tribes. In New England, dependence on Europeans threw off what was left of the Native American infrastructure for the Wampanoag people—“sachems worried that ‘praying Indians’ would reduce or halt their tributes to them, since Indian churches and English authorities could fill sachem’s roles. 22 As the English further entrenched themselves into Native American societies, they filled the roles of Native American leaders. Further, Increased interactions with Europeans often led to cultural assimilation. For example, “missionaries faced the tall task of convincing Indians to conform not only to biblical precept but English definitions of ‘civilized manners’ including modesty in hairstyle, ornament and clothing. ”23 Through such cultural assimilation, Native Americans’ identity transformed to incorporate European culture. However, their identities also became increasingly threatened by the prospect of land-loss. Wampanoag’s were equally sore about the pace and process by which colonists engrossed land. ”24 The spread of disease, cultural assimilation and the impending fear of land-loss all shaped Native American identity. Native Americans utilized regeneration as well as cultural assimilation as means to sustain their identity in the face of conflict. Retaining their cultural identity was not an easy task. In the face of the multi-faceted encroachment of European forces, both religious and civil, Native Americans’ identities were at risk.
They used conversion to Christianity as a tool to maintain their culture. “Christianity did not pose a simple choice between tradition and change, but between some land and no land; between having a strong voice or a weak voice in centers of English power. ”25 For Native Americans, converting to Christianity was often the best choice among choices like entering into warfare and/or fighting for their land rights within unfair court systems. Although conversion did not prohibit these things from happening, it slowed the process.
For instance, Silverman argues that “embracing Christianity was not cultural suicide, similar to the process of religious translation, the praying Indians appropriated Christianity to secure their collective future as Takemmies, as Aquinnahs and as Wampanoag. ”26 Native Americans converted often with hope for the protection of their identities as comrades of the English as opposed to their loss of identity if they became third-class English citizens. In an effort to preserve their identity and traditions, Native Americans chose to subscribe selectively to European cultural norms.
Wampanoag peoples believed that “the key to future peace seemed to lie in the Christian Wampanoag’s strengthening their relationships with God, and the English. ”27 They equated a strong relationship with god to a strong relationship with the English. Cultural reforms would “send a clear message that the [Native Americans] intended to co-exist with the English. ”28 However, this co-existence was opportunistic for the Native Americans, because it became a cloak under which they were able to maintain their own traditional beliefs and customs. 9 For example; The Wampanoag stopped coloring their corpses red but instead buried their dead in coffins stained with red clay. 30 This showcases the Native Americans’ attempts to sustain their own customs within the context of English culture. Africans’ appropriation and re-interpretation of Christianity shaped their identity in the colonies. Many African slaves who arrived in the Charter Generation came from Central West African, where “Christianity continued to be the most visible element of Atlantic Creole culture in Kongo. 31 Because Atlantic Creole Africans were predominantly Christian, they believed that asserting one’s Christian identity was important. They desired to “have their children baptized” and “have Christian names in Iberian form. ”32 However, Africans’ interpretation of Christianity was unique by default, because “interpreters taught their local interpretation of Christianity. ”33 In the interpretation process, the religion picked up various attributes particular to Central West Africa thereby creating a unique Atlantic African Christianity.
Heywood argues that, “Kongolese Christianity was grounded in an Atlantic Creole tradition that combined the African and Christian religions traditions. ”34 Christianity, then, was the uniting factor among many of the slaves initially imported into the colonies. “African religious beliefs, including knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the creation of charms and amulets of support or power, came to Louisiana with the earliest contingents of slaves. ”35 This hybrid form of Christianity became the foundation from which colonial slave culture grew.
However, many Europeans discounted African Christianity as incomplete and devalued their faith. Europeans often argued that the mass baptisms of slaves were “meaningless” and without instruction. 36 Increased interaction with Europeans shaped African identities by both forcing them to assimilate and strengthening their desire for community ties. The presence of Portuguese Europeans was almost a staple of Central West African society for years preceding the boom in slave trades. Africans therefore adopted many European cultural practices that indefinitely changed their African identities. It was these Atlantic Creoles who became the founding group of Africans in those colonies. ”37 The early generations of slaves brought to the colonies were affected by their interaction with Europeans back in Africa, and therefore had already undergone identity transformations. Their interactions with Europeans in the colonies encouraged them to strengthen what was left of their communal connections. “Living near Europeans and sometimes sharing their homes, the charger generation was absorbed by European culture as it grew in America. 38 As a result, African Americans attempted to sustain their African identities through heightened interactions with fellow slaves, within their household and without. African Americans’ religious regeneration and interactions with Europeans allowed them to sustain their identity through the masking of traditions in Christianity as well as the strengthening from within of African slave communities in America. African slaves, especially in Louisiana, were very open-minded in their interpretation of religion, and the context in which they practiced Christianity.
Under the cloak of Christianity, African slaves subscribed to many beliefs and practices. One French Louisianan noted that the slaves were “very superstitious and attached to their prejudices and to charms. ”39 Africans still held onto their own religious customs even though they may have outwardly claimed to be Christian. Further, many “often kept their African names, many of which were Islamic. ”40 African American slaves continued to practice their own religions within the context of colonial Christianity thereby creating a hybrid religion.
It was under the cloak of this hybrid religion where they were able to privately sustain their own religious beliefs. This “illustrated the openness of African religious beliefs brought to the Americas: the willingness to invoke the protection of both Islamic and Christian gods to add them to traditional African beliefs. ”41 In addition to the maintenance of their traditions through religion, Africans protected their identity through the strengthening of African slave communities in the colonies.
It was not always difficult to stay in contact—“holding their slaves together in groups was important to early owners. ”42 This allowed slaves to develop a sense of community despite being forcefully removed from Africa. Even when African Americans lived in close quarters with Europeans, they were able to sustain African Creole identity because of “their ability to maintain a wide range of social interactions among themselves. ”43 They developed subtle ways in which they could stay connect when it was difficult to do so.
Those who shared a common language were more inclined to stay connected; “Africans could not be confined to their masters’ estates and isolated from contact with other Africans belonging to the same language community. 44 Religious regeneration as well as the strengthening of African slaves communities in the colonies facilitated the preservation of African cultural identity. The Germans reinterpreted Moravianism in the colonies as a consequence of their newfound religious freedom and desires to promote ecumenicalism.
Moravians in Germany had suffered long-lasting oppression by the Orthodox Church. Their beliefs “challenged orthodox state-church authority and beliefs regarding gender, marriage, sex and community. ”45 These challenges to orthodoxy sustained as Moravians migrated to America, but the religious diversity in Pennsylvania (their central migration destination) allowed them to practice their beliefs relatively free from church oppression. Moravians and other radicals “did well in Pennsylvania and praised the libertine religious culture of the colony. 46 Without the existence of regulated oppression, German Moravians fully embraced their religious beliefs, both publicly and privately. For Example, Moravian women preached in the colonies. Fogleman writes “many Moravian women worked in tandem with their husbands or other men, visiting, problem-solving, teaching and holding informal or liturgical meetings. ”47 Thus, their newfound freedom in Pennsylvania allowed Moravians to more fully immerse themselves in their religion. In addition, they promoted their desire to unite all Christian sects.
Even in the old world, “Moravians began planning their next ecumenical adventure in tolerant, diverse and disorganized North America. ”48 North American colonies lacked strong religious and political organization, and Moravians capitalized on that—they promoted ecumenical beliefs to any group that would listen. “Moravians preached to ethnically, religiously, and linguistically mixed crowds in church buildings, houses, barns and open fields. Sometimes their itinerants preached in several languages on the same day to achieve this purpose. 49 German Moravians took advantage of the diversity and freedom in Pennsylvania to promote their universal religious beliefs. Because of their increased interactions with the Native Americans and other cultural outsiders, German Moravians battled English claims that they were domineering rivals of Christian orthodoxy. The same religious freedom that allowed Moravians to flourish in the colonies was an obstacle to their outreach. Moravians’ views “threatened religious and social order as they [orthodox Christians] understood it. 50 Because of this threat, many orthodox believers feared that the Moravians would gain control over other cultural groups. Further solidifying Orthodox fears, Moravians gained an advantage over others in areas like healthcare, schooling and pastoral services. Fogleman writes, “the ecumenical Moravians attained an overwhelming early advantage over their orthodox opponents and this impressed those immigrants who were looking for pastoral care, not dogmatic purity. ”51 These early interactions bolstered a strong relationship between Moravians and immigrants.
In addition, Moravians preached to Mohican Native Americans—“Mohicans and Delawares accepted the offer of Moravian missionaries and this heightened white hostility toward the Moravians. ”52 The Moravians’ public relationship with Native Americans struck fear into the English because it allowed for the possibility of a military alliance between Mohicans and Moravians, regardless of the likelihood of such an alliance to form. 53 The Moravians “faced numerous enemies in Europe and the Americas. 54 Demonized Moravians defended their actions and beliefs, even in the face of extreme opposition from English colonizers. German Moravians preserved their individuality in the colonies by re-interpreting their religion to fit the colonial context and defending their morality—both circumstances led them to deepen their commitment to Moravianism. Although their commitment to their religious beliefs required Germans to constantly defend themselves, it also forced them to stay united from within.
In the chaotic colonial context, religion served as a unifying force for Germans. Fogleman writes “the vast majority [of Germans] lived in dispersed settlements in and around Pennsylvania, in which the nearest church was the center of most of the community that these colonists had. ”55 Religion and places of worship united German immigrants in the colonies and allowed them to sustain their individuality in an atmosphere of diversity.
German religious fervor in the colonies also caused religious outsiders to isolate the Moravians as foreigners, thereby forcing Moravians to gain support from within. Some argued “it was the existence of dangerous groups like the Moravians that made it even more important to protect church boundaries. ”56 Believers in Orthodox Christianity shunned the Moravians and this buttressed a strong religious sentiment. Moravians “deepened their commitment to beliefs and practices. 57 So, the forces that alienated the Moravians from others correspondingly solidified their German Moravian identity in the colonies. Identity is defined as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. ” European identity was most principally shaped by old world traditions and increased interaction with cultural outsiders in the colonies, while Native American, African and German identities were most predominantly shaped by religious reinterpretation and appropriate as well as interaction with Europeans.
Europeans transplanted their old world traditions into the new world as a tool to sustain their identity in a land where they felt dispensable. They also alienated cultural outsiders as a means to strengthen trust within their respective cultural communities. Native Americans and Africans sustained their culture by reinterpreting Christianity and solidifying their respective communities in the colonies. While English, Native American, African and German circumstances substantially differed, each altered their respective identities fully.