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Collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910

The Yankee Empire, 1820-1890

Early migration to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota from the east came disproportionately from New England and New York. That pattern was mightily reinforced by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which funneled Yankees and ex-Yankees from New York into the southern portions of the Upper Midwest. Each state in turn for a time dubbed itself "the New England of the West." Yankees soon became a minority, but they long continued to sit atop economic and political hierarchies and to set the general tone. Yankee hegemony was evident in countless ways. The many varieties of New England-based Protestantism were seen as nondenominational, whereas Lutherans and Catholics were seen as sectarian. New England-style blue laws kept the Sabbath holy. The Grand Army of the Republic was an organization of Yankee Civil War veterans. For most of the nineteenth century, under this Yankee dominance, a mostly rural population eagerly went about the business of developing the transportation and banking systems that would allow the region to realize its thoroughly commercial ambitions.

Each state went through a boom when the government put its land on the market at the prescribed low price. As an extreme example, in 1836, the peak year for land sales in Michigan, one-ninth of the state's total land area went on the block. In short order, a semi-subsistent farm life established itself in each of the states, as a means of going on from there to something better. With increasing wealth, New England-style houses, sporting classical proportions, replaced their homely predecessors, and New England-style churches raised their spires to the skies.

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"This drawing by John T. McCutcheon appeared when Battle Creek was booming wheat flakes and cereal stocks. W. K. Kellogg liked the cartoon so much that he reproduced it later in a cornflake advertisement. The building in the background was the Sanitas food factory." Cornflake crusade, by Gerald Carson (New York, 1957).

The great cash crop of this pioneer economy was wheat, which stored easily and sold well. The grand imperative for the farmer was to get the crop to market. Roads were built, but they were rough and slow-going. The closer to water, the closer to market. Southeastern Wisconsin was favorably located close to Lake Michigan, and with otherwise favorable conditions developed into a nationally competitive center of wheat production for a short period. Locations lacking water transportation were at a big disadvantage. As the nineteenth century progressed, everyone agreed that a railroad system was essential for getting wheat to market, and schemes for railroad financing and construction abounded. In a helter-skelter way, railroads got built and by the time of the Civil War the flow of agricultural products followed the railroad to the east rather than the river to the west and south. Financing the railroads and other enterprises required money, and the region was characterized during the antebellum period by vast opportunities and slender means. Grotesquely underfunded "wildcat" banks compounded the problem.

From the outset, immigration was actively and even officially promoted in the Upper Midwest. Immigrants flooded in; for example, by 1880, 71% of Minnesota's population was either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents. Wisconsin was a magnet for German immigrants in particular. German influence was especially strong in Milwaukee, so much so that politics there had its own, often socialist, flavor. Islands and even small regions of immigrant settlement were, in effect, ethnic colonies, often promoting their particular religious and educational institutions in the name of preserving ethnic traditions. All three states were dotted with small, usually short-lived intentional communities pursuing utopian goals.

The new Republican party originated in the Upper Midwest in the 1850s, and the region remained a center of Republican power for most of the rest of the nineteenth century. Politics in the area adopted a moralistic tone, advocating strong antislavery sentiments if not initiatives to expand black rights. The Republicans always ruled by means of coalitions with immigrant populations, and so anti-immigrant nativism was seldom strident.

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