Arguably the largest and most influential group of Americans sharing an ethnic heritage,
yet for that very reason the least self-identified and least likely to be perceived as an
ethnic group. The predominance of the English among the earliest American settlers; the
consequent distance in time between many contemporary English-surnamed Americans
and their original English emigrant ancestors; the extensive adoption and adaptation of
English beliefs, practices, institutions, and language in the United States; enmity between
Great Britain and America throughout the 19th century; and the universal tendency of
dominant social groups to perceive themselves as the norm and only others as “ethnic”
have all militated against identification of Anglo Americans as a culturally distinct group
within American society. Americans of English descent have more cultural sanction than
persons of other backgrounds to consider themselves simply “American” rather than
“Anglo American.” Similarly, English folkways that have survived in the United States
have been reidentified as American rather than English.
In comparison to their likely numbers by some measures, Anglo Americans are under-
represented as a self-identified ethnic group. Indeed, they are nearly invisible in the
United States today. Ascertaining the size of any ethnic population is necessarily
problematic and the process is especially complex in a country like the United States
where the philosophy of the melting pot (although periodically challenged by xenophobia
and prejudice) has made intermarriage among the many different emigrant groups
relatively easy, so most citizens trace a multi-ethnic ancestry. More importantly, in any
country, ostensibly objective measures like the sources of surnames or even the national
origin of ancestors (if discoverable) may not correspond with the determinative factor,
the individual’s self-identification as a member of a particular group. Individuals who
identify themselves as members of an ethnic group must perceive that this will confer
benefits that will more than compensate for the disadvantages of being seen by others as
“ethnic,” that is, non-mainstream.
For persons of English descent in the United States, except for very recent arrivals,
there is and has been little need or reward for identifying oneself as Anglo American. In
the 1990 Census, respondents were asked to report the ancestry group or groups with
which they most closely identified. Out of the total U.S. population of 248,709,873, 32.7
million people claimed English ancestry (13%), the third largest group after German:
57.9 million (23%), and Irish: 38.7 million (15.5%). Another 12.4 million (5%) said their
ancestry was “American.” Given the preponderance of the English among early
emigrants and thus among the longest-settled American families and the preponderance
of English surnames in many parts of the country, it appears that Americans with English
ancestry are less likely to see that as a significant part of their current identity than do
those with ancestral connections to other nationalities. In folklore fieldwork, researchers
commonly find that persons asked to identify their ethnic heritage will name other
ancestry (regardless of the extent to which they actually retain the traditional practices of a particular ethnic group), but if their background is mostly English (or to a lesser extent
from the rest of the British Isles) they will label themselves “plain white American.”
During the 17th century English emigrants formed the great majority of arrivals in the
American colonies. Protestant dissenters fled the religious persecution that was not
legally rescinded in England until 1689. In the southern colonies, farm laborers, domestic
servants, and artisans seeking to improve their fortunes could make a start in the new
wodd without capital by going into indentured service. Not until the 1680s did increased
importation of African slaves displace English emigrants for plantation work. During the
18th century, the balance of emigration shifted so that the number of French, Germans,
Scots, and Scotch-Irish arriving in the colonies together exceeded the number of new
English arrivals. Population grew fastest during this period in the middle colonies and by
the end of the colonial period more than half the inhabitants of Pennsylvania were not of
English birth, but in most areas the English still formed between 60 percent and 80
percent of the white population. In the course of one hundred and seventy years of
colonial rule the English language as well as many aspects of English common law, the
tradition of representative government, the acceptance of multiple Protestant sects, and
English trade practices became firmly ensconced. Despite modifications required by new
circumstances, the heritage of the majority of inhabitants and the continued colonial
linkages with Great Britain assured the establishment of an essentially English culture.
The struggle for American independence, the Revolutionary War, and the bitter War
of 1812 not only severed the legal connection between mother and daughter countries,
but ushered in a century of enmity and rivalry between the United States and Britain. It
was only during World War II that the special relationship between the two countries,
which now feels timeless and inevitable, was reestablished. Alexis de Toqueville,
chronicling the unique character of Americans and their democratic experiment,
remarked that it was difficult to imagine a more intense hatred than that of Americans for
England. The similarity of worldview and shared cultural heritage remained, but the 19th
century was the time in which Americans set out to forge a separate cultural identity.
Americans envied English eminence both in commerce and in culture and desired to
supplant their mother/rival in both. In the realm of commerce, England could and did
place obstacles in America’s path. While resenting the interference, American business
sought its own success by emulating the English model and establishing duplicate
institutions. In the realm of culture, in contrast, Americans rejected the English heritage.
“Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to
a close,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar” (1837). And Walt
Whitman, in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, predicted that America would inspire
new poets to create a new and superior literature, neither partisan nor nationalistic nor
parochial, but built on healthy, natural models. Developments in the course of the century
fostered general awareness of a distinct American language and a distinct American
brand of humor as well as a desire not only to create arts to represent the American
landscape and society but to do so in a distinct and appropriate American style (see
Spencer 1957 and Crapol 1973).
In such a climate, American citizens of English ancestry tended to jettison any
lingering sense of ethnic affiliation and to identify themselves as purely “American” and
their accomplishments as contributions to American society. Entries in this volume on other American ethnic groups enumerate the names of group members
who played important roles in the development of American society. The same might be
done for Anglo Americans, from the scholars of early New England to the Founding
Fathers to the most influential authors of the new American literature to 19th-century industrialists and Suffragists, except that all of these consciously acted not as members of
an ethnic subgroup, not as persons of English extraction, but as Americans centrally
defining what America and Americans should be.
The hatred of England that flourished during the 19th century was focused, however,
on the British government and British commercial interests. Individual English men and
women who emigrated to the U.S. in several economically-influenced waves were rarely
penalized or judged too harshly because of their place of origin. Commonality of
language, religion, customs, and institutions made for ease of contact and rapid
acceptance and intermarriage between English emigrants and native-born Americans. In
rural areas in the Midwest, English colonies and churches rarely survived with that
identity for more than a generation or two unless there was a substantial influx of
additional English people to the same area. Fast-growing western cities offered the
English opportunities for upward mobility that also militated against ethnic organizing. In
eastern cities St. George’s Societies were longer-lived, but were relatively uninfluential
as well as limited to a small elite. Only in the mining and industrial districts of the East
were the English successful in founding institutions (often to distinguish themselves from
the Irish), but these trade unions, cooperatives, and lodges were inherently more class-
than ethnicity-based, so those that throve quickly lost their all-English character. English
workers also were more likely than other emigrants to move up in the class hierarchy,
which further discouraged the maintenance of strong ethnic ties. By the end of the
century the English had a far less organized social institutional life than the other large
emigrant groups of the time, the Irish and Germans (see Erickson 1972 and 1980).
Along with more formal institutions like English legal practices, many English crafts
and folkways were transported to this country and many survive. Those that have been
retained as mainstream traditions, however, have mostly been stripped of their ethnic
associations. Who now recalls that Christmas carolling was originally an English
practice? Even in rural communities where more elements of traditional English culture
were preserved for longer, practitioners of the traditional arts came to see them as
American after a few generations. Folklore scholars may recognize a North Carolina
version of “Barbara Allen” as an originally English text and tune given a few American
details, but neither the singer from whom it was collected nor the general public with
whom it has been popularized by revivalist performers is likely to think of it as anything
but American. The same can be said for many ballads, songs, and fiddle tunes from the
British Isles, as well as Jack Tales, quilting techniques, split white oak basketry, and the
contra dancing developed from English country dancing. Contemporary folklore theory
would argue that a practice adapted and perpetuated in a new country should be regarded
as a part of the folklore of that country rather than only of the source country. Customs
from other sources have also undergone a similar Americanization process: consider the
African banjo and the German Christmas tree. Nevertheless, English customs and crafts
seem most readily detached from their origins, perhaps because they are associated
instead with an internal pseudo-ethnic group, Appalachian people.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a resurgence of interest among
middle- and upper-class Americans in the preservation of English bloodlines and old
English traditions in the United States and an interest in Appalachia as a repository of
both. This concern was constructed, however, so as to emphasize the supposed
superiority of the English heritage (social and genetic) with which most “mainstream” Americans would implicitly identify themselves without explicitly connecting the elite,
professional, and business classes of the North and Midwest with poor Appalachian
mountaineers nor in any sense classifying the bulk of Americans of English descent as an
Anglo American ethnic group equivalent to other ethnics. As western European
emigration slowed and increasing numbers of poor immigrants from eastern and southern
Europe arrived in the United States toward the end of the 19th century, xenophobic and
racist elements complained of the “pollution” of the American genetic pool and
advocated the uplift and incorporation of Appalachian people because they could supply
a fresh stream of citizens of “the very best American type,” (that is, of Anglo-Saxon
A number of the philanthropic efforts aimed at improving the lot of Appalachian
people were based on the assumption that these people (until touched by recent modern
influences) had retained an essentially old English culture and would thrive if they could
be restored as an Anglo American folk enclave. Appalachian scholars now see these
schemes as misguided, especially to the extent that they sought to “return” mountain
inhabitants to a mythical simple, wholesome, preindustrial English rural lifestyle.
Attempts to get contemporary mountaineers to carve and weave and dance English ritual
dances and sing only the old songs impeded the people’s own efforts to acquire the skills
necessary to advance in a changing marketplace. This construction of events in the
mountains also obscured political awareness that the supposed “corruption” of a rural
folk by modern culture was a less serious problem than the depredations of huge timber
and mining companies that exploited local resources without regard for the well-being of
the inhabitants. While the antique quality of Appalachian culture was celebrated, those
who made a good living from the culture were the musicians who parlayed their skills
into the uniquely American form now known as Country Music (see Whisnant 1983).
The nascent field of American folklore study played a part in the identification and
paradoxical definition of Anglo American culture in the late 19th century. The English
ballad scholar Cecil Sharp and others following his lead discovered remnants of English
traditional music in the Appalachians, thereby bolstering the public sense that this was a
bastion of Anglo American culture. At the same time, folklorists drew a distinction
between English folklore in America and folklore from other sources. The lead article in
the first issue of the Journal of American Folklore (1888) advocated:
The collection of the fast-vanishing remains of Folk-Lore in America, namely:
(a) Relics of Old English Folk-Lore (ballads, tales, superstitions, dialect, etc.).
(b) Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union.
(c) Lore of the Indian Tribes of North America (myths, tales, etc.).
(d) Lore of French Canada, Mexico, etc.
It was entirely in keeping with the theories of the day to regard folklore as something
produced only in Europe or only by peasants and thus as something that existed in
America only in the form of survivals that could not last. Notably, however, the JAF
statement of purpose identifies African Americans, Native Americans, French Canadian
Americans and Mexican Americans as peoples possessing as a group their own proper
(and living) lore. In contrast, Anglo Americans are not named and “Relics of Old English
Folk-Lore” are presented as existing entirely independently of any folk community.
There might be English lore existing among the general population, but that did not make these people (unless they were Appalachian mountaineers) Anglo American ethnics or
Anglo American folk.
One should also note that in practice the term “Anglo American” is not necessarily
restricted to persons of English descent. In general usage and even in scholarly usage it is
often employed as a more euphonious alternative to “British American.” Thus “Anglo
American folksongs” includes songs of Scottish and possibly Irish origin. Likewise
works on the migration of English, Scots, Irish, and Scotch Irish settlers into the
Appalachian region sometimes differentiate the streams but often lump the groups as
Anglo American. In Texas and the Hispanic Southwest, the abbreviated version,
“Anglo,” is applied to indicate any person of other than Hispanic descent and may thus be
used to refer not only to European Americans of other than English descent, but also to
The invisibility of Anglo Americans is a complex political and historical phenomenon,
resting equally on the predominance of English cultural influences in the formative years
of the nation, the need of the daughter country to create a separate identity from her
mother, and the tendency of dominant groups to see themselves as unmarked and others
as ethnic. Even today, with the upsurge of ethnic pride movements and the
institutionalization of anti-racist practices, a curious relation to the English component of
our national heritage persists. Not only in Canada, where the linkages to English culture
are more recent and obvious (see Greenhill 1994), but also in the United States, the
mainstream implicit assumption of superiority rests to a considerable, if diminishing,
extent on identification with the original English cultural and genetic heritage, while this
identification must be erased or denied and people of English background must be cast as
non-ethnic to preserve their rights to dominate the society.
Crapol, Edward P. 1973. America for Americans: Economic Nationalism and Anglophobia in the
Late Nineteenth Century. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press.
Erickson, Charlotte J. 1972. Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish
Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.
——. 1980. English. In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, pp. 319–336.
Greenhill, Pauline. 1994. Ethnicity in the Mainstream: Three Studies of English Canadian Culture
in Ontario. Montreal & Kingston, London, Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Reddy, David, Riki Saltzman, Bob Stone, and Debbie Fant. 1991. “Rediscoveries”: Afirican-
American and Anglo-Celtic-American Traditions in Florida. In Thirty-Ninth Annual Florida
Folklife Festival. Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs, pp. 6–10.
Spencer, Benjamin T. 1957. The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign. Syracuse,
NY: Syracuse University Press.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census.
1993. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1993: The National Data Book, 113th ed.
Whisnant, David E. 1983. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American
Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Arguably the largest and most influential group of Americans sharing an ethnic heritage,