The idea of mapping "culture areas" is controversial because cultures evolve and people move on. At any moment in time, you may be able to map the changes that various people have made on the land, the house styles they built there, the dialects spoken, the birthplaces shown in a recent census report. But, especially in America, where people were always restless, many older cultures mingled and changed, and even the built environment was in a constant state of adaptation and change, it's hard to draw any kind of stable picture of settlement on a map.

Hopefully, new technologies and techniques of doing digital history will lead to more dynamic ways to map cultural movement and evolution. But until then, we can only do approximations. We've worked with the best maps of cultural landscape change we could find, and simply to suggest the movement of New England people over time from an original Eastern seaboard "cultural hearth", animated it with FLASH.


As the map attempts to show, most Yankees moved outward from the original Eastern seaboard colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island into contiguous land, settling Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, Northern New York, and large sections of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. But groups of enterprising New England pioneers also settled in Natchez, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; Austin, Texas and Key West, Florida and left strong impressions on parts of Canada, Nebraska, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.


Yankees began to migrate beyond colonial Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island as early as 1640. By 1800, the migration stream had pushed into Northern Pennsylvania, the Ohio River Valley, crossed Northern New York into the Genesee and was moving into the Connecticut/Ohio Western Reserve. By midcentury it covered the northern part of "The Old Northwest." A distinctive Yankee regional influence continued to be felt across the northern tier of the United States as late as the Civil War.

For an idea of Yankee settlement patterns at the beginning of the twentieth century, visit the Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection Cultural Landscapes Homepage and search for "United States. Census office. 11th census, 1890." Wade through this fascinating document to the maps showing the geographical pattern of religious denominations in the U.S. The map showing distribution of Congregational Churches is a rough guide to the persistent pattern of New England settlement. Other maps in this section show the growing religious and ethnic diversity of New England itself. In the coming months, we will try to republish other hard to find maps from which we derived our own.


Yankee pioneers were mainly yeoman farmers of the "middling sort" - the sixth and seventh generation descended from Puritan dissenters, who had come in family groups from all parts of England, though predominantly from East Anglia. They were diligent, orderly, literate, with a talent for working wood, and putting things together out of almost nothing. Mostly pious Congregationalists, they "raised up their children in the way they should go."

Despite popular misconceptions, the Puritans were earthy, lusty people who had large families, loved bright colors, fine fabrics and handsome furniture. While it is true that they - and their Yankee descendants - sat for long hours listening to difficult sermons in unheated meeting houses which they declined to decorate, frowned on the theatre and disliked "light" conversation, they prized wit, good singing and hard cider (not to mention rum and "flip"). Having settled in tight religious communities of like believers, they were convivial among their kin, but less inclined toward strangers.

Yankee farmers had a strong desire to possess the land, clear it and make it yield. They were practical, frugal and regarded as tough negotiators. Although New Englanders decried "sharpers" in their own towns and villages, the region spawned some notorious land speculators and few Yankees were above turning a profit in real estate on the western frontier.

Tolerance was not - except in Rhode Island - a well known Yankee virtue. Native American neighbors were dealt with as genially or brutally as circumstance - and the need for land - required. Indigent newcomers were "warned" out of town. Although gradual emancipation was introduced in all the New England states soon after the Revolution, slavery was not prohibited in Connecticut until 1848. Still, New Englanders took care of their own and lent a neighborly hand. Curious and energetic travellers themselves, they were glad to guide or feed a weary wayfarer. On the Yankee frontier, "the latchkey was always out".


Wherever Yankees went, they left a strong and lasting mark upon the land: their fences, clapboard houses and English barns have withstood the centuries. The New England idea of the free-standing house on its own lot prevails as our quintessential idea of "home." The cluster of white houses gathered around a stark white meetinghouse and burying ground (later a proper village green) has come to stand as a symbol of community, giving shape to the American dream. They gave it voice as well. Trained in rhetoric, accustomed to argument and comfortable with contradictions, their Federalist orators gave voice to the idea of "orderly liberty" - the notion that personal freedom is best realized within tightly bounded social norms.

Yankee statesmen proposed the "great compromise" of a federal bicameral legislature, designed the Federal Judiciary and supported the revolutionary idea of judicial review. They built simplicity and order into the public land survey by promoting the rectilinear grid. They wrote and printed the first American textbooks, dictionaries, almanacs, guidebooks and carpenters' guides. Always happiest at home, they opened the China trade and discovered Antarctica.

Yankee inventions - the cotton gin, the repeating rifle, interchangeable parts, vulcanized rubber, the electric light - changed the world. Yankee preachers set out to save it. The Revolutionary "sacred cause of liberty" was the idea of New England divines. A century later, Yankee writers and orators furnished the burning language of immediate abolition.


Today Greater New England is as demographically diverse as any place on earth. When they gather for family reunions, the descendants of old Yankee families bear a mixture of last names and come from towns and cities all over the world. To see where people of various ethnic backgrounds lived at the time of the 1990 census, search these interesting ancestry maps from Minnesota Planning Land Management Information Center. Still, New England retains a strong regional identity - and many (if not most) of its citizens identify as "Yankees" today.


More than you might think - although you have to know how and where to look and what you're really looking for. New England was a parsimonious environment - and New Englanders early learned the value of flexibility and adaptation. Yankee houses rarely stayed the same through the lifetime of the first owner. Nor was the building of the Yankee frontier a simple matter of transferring New England culture to the wilderness unchanged. New lands, new exigencies, new ground rules transformed architecture, work and community in a dynamic synergy. Today's landscape - even in old, original New England - is layered and complex. In the late 1800's, manufacturing and new immigration from Europe changed the look of many cities and towns. Main Street emerged as a new symbolic landscape - and was in turn replaced by suburbia. In the 1950's and 60's "urban renewal" destroyed many old buildings and "progress" destroyed many more. Often it was the small town that the canal, the railroad, the highway and prosperity had all passed by that managed to retain its "New England charm" and emerge as picturesque.

Still New England and its hinterlands retain deeply embedded commonalities - not only street names and architecture but laws, cultureways and institutions, that are worth our understanding. A vast amount of written material remains in historical societies and libraries along the path of the New England migration. Objects and paintings and letters abound on the walls and in the attics of private homes and local museums. Discovering them and unravelling their meaning is a fascinating historical treasure hunt that enriches our understanding of one important strand of the American dream.