Most America-firsters seem to think to be American, you should speak English. After all, if it was good enough for Jesus and God, it ought to be good enough for everybody. Those poor souls really do believe the Puritans and other colonists, and the sundry heroes of our Revolution all spoke English. This diary contends that isn’t really true. This is the second of several contemplated diaries making the point that ethnic, lingual and religious diversity is as American as apple pie, baseball and moonshine, and goes back to day one. In order to keep it short, I’ve used a sort of shotgun approach. As early as 1639, people in Dutch New Amsterdam (later to become new York City) spoke 18 different languages.
The picture is Bernardo de Galvez, a vitally important and virtually unknown figure in the American revolution, Spanish speaker, Spanish officer and leader of a Spanish speaking army that inflicted important defeats on Britain.
Let’s start with the Revolution. Washington of course spoke the king’s English—the actual King, George III was the first of his line to actually speak English. Georges’ dynasty came from Hanover, a small German state. But some of Washington’s favorites didn’t: Lafayette spoke French. Baron von Steuben spoke German. Kosciuszko and Pulaski spoke Polish. Many of the foreign adventurers who helped win our independence spoke French as a second language, allowing conversation with the American leadership, many of whom could speak fairly good French.
Then there’s the battle of Yorktown, when Washington and his Continentals (that is, the professional American army) whipped the Brits and made Cornwallis surrender. They spoke English. But wait a minute on that. A French fleet under admiral de Grasse bottled up the Chesapeake, and French troops under General Rochambeau probably outnumbered the Americans. That means French speaking soldiers and sailors outnumbered English speaking troops at the decisive battle in the American revolution. Yorktown was in considerable part a French victory. Overall, the French committed 63 warships, 22,000 sailors and 12,000 soldiers to the Revolution.
But everybody on the British side spoke English, right? Nope. The British hired mercenaries from Hesse-Kassel, and other German entities (Germany did not technically become one nation until 1870). Known generally as Hessians, the British hired 30,000 of them. This means a quite large fraction of the British army spoke German and was officered by Germans. At the critical battle of Saratoga, a stunning American victory, a substantial portion of the surrendered British were actually German. One odd footnote: some German units enrolled African Americans, something like 115 of them (see this article for a good summary ). Of the 30,000 Germans serving in the British army, quite a number decided to stay in America, somewhere around 5,000, although I’ve seen higher estimates.
The irony is interesting. American troops under French command and French troops under American command fought English troops under German command and German troops under English command, in the most important conflict in American history.
But in pre-Revolutionary America, everyone spoke English!
Nope. Consider the several non-English colonial ventures. New Netherlands was essentially the Hudson River valley, from New Amsterdam up to Albany. They spoke Dutch. The English took over the colony in 1664 but Dutch was spoken in the region well into the 1800s. One account claims versions of Dutch were spoken by a few people well into the 1900s. Note: the native peoples suffered severely under all these colonialisms; only the Quakers and some of the German sects were a little less murderous. The Mennonites and Amish came originally to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, and several hundred thousand of their descendants still speak what is often called Pennsylvania Dutch (a German dialect, not Netherlands Dutch. Here is a short summary of Germans in America). Germans were a third of Pennsylvania’s population at the end of the colonial period. An educated guess is that approximately a tenth of the white population of the colonies spoke German.
There was briefly a New Sweden (in what is now New Jersey). This means that Swedish and Finnish were spoken (Sweden then ruled what is now Finland). While controversial, some historians (Terry Jordan and Matti Kaups) think the log cabin so characteristic of our historical myth originated with Finnish settlers in New Sweden. The US Virgin Islands, purchased from Denmark in 1917, reflect the Danish colonial venture.
There was substantial French influence on the Great Lakes country, the Ohio and Illinois country, and in Louisiana (including Natchez and Mobile). Thomas Jefferson managed the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, thereby almost doubling the country’s size and including its French and Spanish influences. The ancestors of today’s Cajuns were expelled from Acadia in the 1760s by the British in a kind of ethnic cleansing of the French there. Refugees settled many places, including of course Louisiana. Several hundred thousand people in Louisiana still speak French, after more than 200 years. Personal note: I lived in Green Bay for a number of years, and was fascinated to find that some of the original French city lots still existed, characterized by narrow fronts on a river but extending to a considerable length. There remains a sizable French Canadian population in the upper Lakes area.
A population forming in the 1700s that later bracketed the Canadian-US border in the Alberta/ Manitoba/ Dakota region was the Metis, largely descending from French men in the fur trade and their marriages with Indian women. Their language was Michif. A few speakers remain but the language is dying.
Some Highland Scots settled in North Carolina in the 1700s. Many continued to speak Gaelic at home. Some had slaves, and some of the slaves spoke Gaelic.
Some 500,000 African slaves were imported into the US, most before 1800. They would have come from scores, if not hundreds, of language areas. In some areas, aspects of English merged with various African elements to produce creole languages such Gullah (also known as Geechee) once widely spoken on the islands of coastal SC, GA and FL. Masters would prefer slaves that spoke different languages so they’d have to communicate with each other in English—that way slaves could not plot rebellion in a language the owners could not understand. Some slaves came from the Caribbean and a few knew Spanish or Portuguese, and after the exceedingly violent rebellion in Haiti numbers of French planters and their slaves went to places like South Carolina and Louisiana.
We tend to forget about smaller parts of our history. The Hawai’ian kingdom was independent until we annexed it in the 1890s, and many inhabitants spoke the Hawai’ian version of Polynesian. (The Hawai’ian kingdom was actually run by that point by the descendants of American missionaries who had arrived there in the 1820s). Alaska didn’t become an American possession until 1869, and the colonial language was Russian, and the religion Russian Orthodox (the native peoples spoke a wide variety of languages, as they still do). With Hawai’i, of course, we acquired speakers of Asian languages, brought to independent Hawai’i by sugar growers.
In the later 1700s, the populations of what later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan were only beginning to develop a settler population. Many of the inhabitants were actually French, left behind by the French defeat in Canada. French and Spanish was common, as well as a variety of trade and sign languages. The majority population remained Native American, comprised of tens of thousands of people of many tribes, most famously Creek, Cherokee, Chicasaw, Choctaw, Shawnee, but many other tribal peoples. They spoke such languages as Cherokee and Muskogean languages, among others. These peoples inflicted the worst defeat ever on an American army by Indians–St. Clair’s Defeat in 1791.
Andrew Jackson seized Florida in 1819. The native majority spoke a number of languages, and there were some leftovers from colonial rule, including Spanish and English speakers. And an odd note, the New Smyrna colony settled in British East Florida in 1769, settling people from Minorca (Spanish) and some from Greece. They’d have spoken Minorcan dialect and Greek.
In the early Republic a sizable fraction of the population was not rooted in England. In 1790, 60% of the white population had roots in England proper. Nine percent were German, 8% Scots, 6% Scots-Irish, 4% Irish, 3% Dutch with a sprinkling of Swedes, French, Spanish and others. In that era there was considerable difference between the English and the Scots, between the English and the Scotch-Irish, and especially between the Irish and everyone else. Also worth noting is three hundred thousand Irish, Scots, Scots Irish and English immigrants came to the US in the generation after the revolution, some of them radicals seeking refuge. The 1790 census did not collect information on language, but an educated guess is about 10% spoke a language other than English (A good source for much of this is Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, Oxford UP 2009—a 738 page tome, but superb on the years 1789-1815).
Continuing Immigration had provided a large fraction of the American population prior to the Revolution. This slowed for several decades after, so the portion of speakers of languages other than English likely dropped sharply, counterbalanced somewhat by refugees such as Royalist French fleeing the Revolution and radicals fleeing the Napoleonic dictatorship. And we came to acquire substantial populations of Spanish speakers with the acquisition of Louisiana and the annexation of some hundreds of thousands of square miles of Mexican-claimed territory (most notably the New Mexico Spanish). Here is a good general survey of immigration .
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