The English in North America – Locating the Hidden Diaspora
Northumbria University

In search of the English

Historians at Northumbria University are embarking on a groundbreaking project to explore why “Englishness” has been overlooked in America, while other ethnic groups are celebrated and well-known.

Englishness as an ethnicity is now being rediscovered and defined in opposition to other competing groups
St George's flag facepaint
The team, led by Professor Don MacRaild, Dr Tanja Bueltmann and Dr David Gleeson, argue that the existence of English cultural communities in North America has been largely ignored by traditional historians who see the English as assimilating into Anglo-American culture without any need to overtly express a separate English ethnicity.
Their initial research has found that from the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, North American towns and cities boasted organisations such as the Sons of St George, where traditional English food and folk culture were maintained. The evidence suggests that the English were distinctly aware of being an ethnic group within the emerging settlements at the time, exhibiting and maintaining their ethnicity in similar ways to the Irish, Scottish and German colonists. Yet this does not appear to be recognised in history.
The three-year project entitled ‘Locating the Hidden Diaspora: The English in North America in Transatlantic Perspective, 1760-1950’, has received £286,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It aims to take a fresh look at English ethnicity using thousands of untapped sources, including manuscripts and newspaper articles from this period. The team believes that their research will have wider reaching implications in shedding light on current debates in UK identity politics and Englishness.
Professor MacRaild said: “It struck us as highly surprising that, though the English in North America formed an array of ethnic clubs and societies, such as the St George’s Society, no one has shown much interest in these associations, their activities and English cultural legacies.
“The English were one of the largest European groups of immigrants in the US yet, while they settled alongside the other migrants who powerfully exerted ethnic awareness, the English are not ascribed the attributes of ethnicity associated with other immigrants.
“The Irish, Scots, Germans, and many other European ethnic groups have been subjected to dozens if not hundreds of studies, but not so the English. The standard historian’s answer has been that the English assimilated more easily to Anglo-American culture so removing the need for ethnic expression. However, far from being an invisible group within a world of noticeably ethnicised European immigrants, the English consciously ethnicised themselves in an active way. ”
Evident expressions of Englishness are found in English immigrants to America celebrating St George’s Day, toasting Queen Victoria, marking Shakespeare’s birthday, and Morris dancing. Benevolence was also of great importance, with many English associations being involved in providing charity – from meal tickets to ‘Christmas cheer’ – towards English immigrants experiencing hardships.
The team believe that Englishness has been overlooked by historians because, as the founding colonists, the English were the benchmark against which all other ethnic groups measured themselves.
Ironically, England’s relatively recent decline in global influence and the cultural changes produced by mass immigration and regional devolution has sparked increasing attempts to rediscover and define Englishness – seen in calls to celebrate St George’s Day as a national holiday and the rise in the English Defence League (EDL).
“At present,” Professor MacRaild argues, “Englishness in England is bedevilled with fears about right-wing extremists, football hooligans, and the uses and abuses of the now prevalent St George’s flag. We hope a project which will demonstrate the vibrancy of Englishness beyond England’s shores will contribute to debates about how Englishness fits into today’s multi-ethnic and increasingly federal political culture.”
Dr Tanja Bueltmann, an expert in the history of ethnic associations in the Scottish and English diasporas, added: “The growing movement for an independent Scotland has raised the issue of “Britishness” and “Englishness” in the wider society and influenced national debate about identity.
“Englishness as an ethnicity is now being rediscovered as a result of a crisis of confidence, partly influenced by the increasing fluidity of national borders and migration. Englishness is again being defined in opposition to other competing groups.”
Dr David Gleeson, historian of nineteenth-century America, said: “The project also has implications for the other side of the Atlantic. Recognising the English as a distinct diaspora gives us a clearer picture of the development of an American identity in that it complicates the idea of a coherent ‘Anglo’ cultural mainstream and indicates the fluid and adaptable nature of what it meant and means to be an American or Canadian.”
The research project will produce books, articles, an exhibition, and a series of public lectures to expatriate community groups throughout North America. The team will also work with local folk groups, including the Hexham Morris Men, and Folkworks at the Sage, Gateshead, to disseminate their findings to the wider public. International partners also working on the project are based in Guelph and Kansas Universities and from the College of Charleston.
Dr Gleeson added: “Perhaps English-Americans and Canadians will make a ‘Homecoming’, similar to the one organised by the Scottish government in 2009 for those of Scottish background, to re-establish connections with the land of their ancestors.”
Date posted: May 24, 2011


Locating the Hidden Diaspora

The English in North America in Transatlantic Perspective, 1760-1950

Starting in 2011, the project will be funded by the AHRC for three years (Standard Route Research Grant).

Project Context

Emigration from the British Isles became one of Europe’s most significant population movements after 1600. Yet compared to what has been written about the migration of Scots and Irish, relatively little energy has been expended on the numerically more significant English flows. In fact, the Scottish and Irish Diasporas in North America, together with those of the German, Italian, Jewish and Black Diasporas, are well known and studied, but there is virtual silence on the English. Why, then, is there no English Diaspora? Why has little been said about the English other than to map their main emigration flows? Did the English simply disappear into the host population? Or were they so fundamental, and foundational, to the Anglo-phone, Protestant cultures of the evolving British World that they could not be distinguished in the way Catholic Irish or continental Europeans were? Given the recent vogue for these other diasporas, our project seeks to uncover the hidden English Diaspora in North America.

Aims & Objectives

The project’s overall objective is to offer a knowledge-shaping new reading of English ethnicity abroad, particularly in North America, by exploding enduring historical mythologies about the absence of a strong ethnic identity among emigre English between the 17th and 20th centuries. Some of the key issues of concern are:

English ethnic associationism: examining aspects of English clubs, societies and sociability around the Diaspora.

  • English folk traditions in the Diaspora: locating the popular culture of celebrating particular forms of Englishness.
  • English sporting traditions: examining the export around the world of sports from cricket, rugby and association football to Cumberland wrestling.
  • English literary and dramatic cultures: exploring the cultural transfer of key literary figures around the Diaspora.

Project Team

The English Diaspora team is led by Prof Don MacRaildDr Tanja Bueltmann and Dr David Gleeson. Researchers associated with the project are Dr James McConnel (History), as well as Dr Monika Smialkowska(English), Visiting Fellow Dr Mike Sutton and Dr Dean Allen (Stellenbosch). Dr Joe Hardwick from History also works on related themes.

You can contact us using our project email address:

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6 Responses to The English in North America – Locating the Hidden Diaspora

  1. business says:

    The term is used to refer to the countries of the Americas namely where English and French are co-official and the but also sometimes and parts of the . refers to the other areas of the Americas generally south of the United States where the derived from of and but speaking countries are not usually included predominate the other republics of but not always part of the not the Dutch English or French speaking areas and most of South America except and The Falkland Islands ..The French language has historically played a significant role in North America and retains a distinctive presence in some regions. French is the official language of the Province of where 95 of the people speak it as either their first or second language and it is co-official with English in the Province of .

  2. Doughty says:

    “relatively little energy has been expended on the numerically more significant English flows”

    I recommend you advise your readers to buy this book. It goes into intricate details about the English and Ulster Scots migrations to America.

  3. Doughty says:

    Why is this study only focusing on English immigration after 1760? What about the thousands of British that came before that time?

    • The US census of 1790 shows 63% of the white population as English descended. US Historical Census

      • Doughty says:

        I understand the census, but why only focus on the later groups instead of all of them? All of my British ancestors came before 1776. To be honest I wish Americans would stop hyphenating themselves and just declare themselves American. This includes the later English groups. Roughly 50% of my ancestors were English, the rest are lowland Scots, Germans, and Swiss. With many other ancestors from across Northwest Europe. I would never call myself an English/American. Although I fully accept our shared Anglo culture, hyphenation and diversity will be the downfall of America.

      • Doughty says:

        If we are going to survive the vast hoards of Hispanics the are invading this country then we must be a unified people and drop the hyphenation.

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