PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

Table of contents

Print this article

Book Review

British Buckeyes: The English, Scots, and Welsh in Ohio 1700-1900

by William E. Van Vugt

Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006

xiii + 295 pages. Introduction, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index

$55.00 (hardback), ISBN 0-87338-843-7

In British Buckeyes: The English, Scots, and Welsh in Ohio 1700-1900, author William Van Vugt attempts to fill in a perceived gap in the historical record of immigration to Ohio. Other immigrant histories have focused on ethnic and/or linguistic groups moving into Ohio and other parts of the United States, but the British tend to blend into the immigrant record. This book focuses on the “hidden history” of British immigration to Ohio to round out the picture. Van Vugt sets up his text as more a history of Ohio than a history of British migration, concentrating on “the political, cultural, agricultural, and industrial development of the state” (ix), rather than on the effects of migration on either the migrants or their homeland. Published out of Kent State University, in northeastern Ohio, this book will have immediate appeal to anyone researching Ohio history.

First and foremost, British Buckeyes is a history book, written from the point of view of a historian, with all the associated advantages and drawbacks that such a viewpoint brings. The text contains a wealth of historical information gleaned from records in the vast majority of Ohio’s 88 counties and British sources. The information is presented clearly and is quite comprehensive in terms of breadth of topic – this is not a history of wealthy immigrants, a military history, or a political history. The book truly attempts to present the stories of all the immigrants from Britain to which the author had access. In this respect, British Buckeyes is a success. However, the nature of historical research means that certain stories are not accessible to the author, and therefore remain hidden from the reader as well. Van Vugt is conscious of this problem, acknowledging the shortcomings of the historical record on several occasions:

the people who appear in [the county histories] are not a true representative cross section of society. The poor, the failures, the shy, the unconcerned are not among them – though often we have glimpses of relatives who failed and returned to Britain, or immigrants who did experience failure and great hardship before getting it right. And unfortunately, far less is said about women than men (225).

Van Vugt includes the stories of several notable women in his text, but these stories seem to float outside of a larger contextualized narrative. This is a less a problem of the book’s presentation of women’s history than it is a problem of the book itself. The text moves from one historical vignette to another without making connections between the stories or connecting them to a larger picture of Ohio history. One paragraph gives the reader the story of James McTammany, describing his career repairing farm equipment and inventing a player piano, but the next paragraph tells of milling, segueing into the brief story of James Martin complaining about the lack of a local mill (139). The reader is given access to an impressive array of individuals and their stories in British Buckeyes, but that breadth is not matched by much depth. The book feels very much like a narrative listing of Van Vugt’s source material--a letter in a county historical society becomes one paragraph, a record of a farm rental becomes the next. The lack of contextualization is often frustrating to the reader who seeks more than a historical review.

There are several instances where Van Vugt does contextualize the stories, if the historical record allows this possibility. The first chapter, which apparently draws heavily on military records, provides more information for constructing a historical narrative. Van Vugt at times slips too much into narrative mode, however, especially when discussing relations between European immigrants and Native Americans. The discussion of Robert Kirk tells the reader that a Shawnee warrior spoke to him “in broken English” (6), a detail that does not enlighten the history or the historical narrative. Such passages draw a picture of exotic, savage, or ignorant Native Americans, while not adding much to the stories of the British immigrants. Individual settlers for whom more information is available, such as Norton Strange Townshend, Arthur St. Clair, or even Simon and James Girty, are written of at greater length. The latter half of the book does more of this type of contextualization of individual histories, as well as broadening the history from the individual to the social and cultural level. Tantalizing tidbits of historical context do appear, such as in the discussion of the ceramic workshops of East Liverpool, Ohio:

A breakthrough occurred in the East Liverpool pottery industry in 1862, when the U.S. Congress slapped a 40 percent tariff on imported earthenware. This protectionism drove English pottery out of the American market and brought unemployment to many Staffordshire potters, who then migrated to East Liverpool . . . (137).

The book sandwiches this historical context between the stories of individual potters who migrated from Britain, creating a contextualized story which enlightens both the small scale of the potter Samuel Cartwright and the larger scale of East Liverpool, Ohio. This type of context occurs more in the last half of the text due to the overall structure of the book. Rather than follow a traditional chronological context more typical of a historical text, Van Vugt structures his work thematically. The first two chapters are basically chronological, the first focusing on immigration during the early part of the eighteenth century, while the second chapter concentrates on the nineteenth. Within these chapters, thematic elements do emerge as a matter of course. The first chapter recounts many stories of British immigrants during the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, bringing a military theme to the beginning of the book. The second chapter focuses on settlement patterns of the various groups in the different counties of Ohio. This chapter is heavy on statistics and distribution maps, showing for instance how many Welsh had settled in Auglaize County by 1850 (none, as it turns out).

The third chapter begins the shift to more narrative, more contextualized history. In this chapter, Van Vugt zooms in on individual groups of British immigrants in turn, including settlers from Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Within these groups, stories of individuals begin to connect with the larger historical processes of immigration. Chapter Four continues making these connections while shifting more strongly to a thematic focus. The final three chapters are more strongly concentrated on themes, with agriculture followed by crafts and industry, religion, and finally professional immigrants. By focusing on these aspects of life, British Buckeyes more easily makes connections between the specific level of individuals’ stories and the more general view of an aspect of culture such as religious life. This thematic structure is more effective in the later chapters of the book, making the historical more human while making the human stories more historical. Structuring the book thematically instead of strictly chronologically has some quirky effects, though. Norton Strange Townshend appears in two chapters, under religion and agriculture. The separate discussions are certainly appropriate given Townshend’s great impact in both these realms, but the two discussions do not reference one another. It could easily be two different individuals with the same name under examination in the two chapters. Again, a little more contextualization would help enlighten Van Vugt’s discussion.

Overall, British Buckeyes is a useful book for what it is: a presentation of the historical record covering British immigration to Ohio. As an Ohio native, I was drawn to this book hoping for a more interpretive discussion of my home state. I did learn much about Ohio’s history which I did not know, but I found myself wanting more. Van Vugt approaches a culturally interpretive history at times, such as the point that the Welsh integrated less thoroughly due to language differences (a point he makes several times). If the book were to plumb these depths more often, it would be an invaluable resource. British Buckeyes is a book worth exploring, but readers wanting more than historical review may be left wanting.


Return to top