The popular media continue to portray Indiana as a largely rural state whose inhabitants’ roots on this continent begin before the American Revolution. By focusing on ethnic heritages, PEOPLING INDIANA: THE ETHNIC EXPERIENCE shows the bland image conceals a diversity of cultures.
In a perceptive opening essay, historian John Bodnar places Indiana’s immigrant waves within a larger framework. Debates over immigration are not unique; it has been a controversial issue in American politics for over 150 years. Most immigrants of all eras came seeking economic opportunity, and the loudest opposition has sprung from fear of losing jobs to the newcomers. Know-Nothings of the mid-nineteenth century and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s initially terrorized immigrant and other minority groups, but each created a backlash which ultimately realigned politics, giving the ethnic groups more power.
Indiana’s experience also paralleled the nation’s sequence of settlers. In the first immigrant waves, Scots and Welsh came to work in the mines of southwestern Indiana; Irish to help build the Erie Canal; Germans as craftsmen and merchants. After the Civil War, Eastern Europeans arrived to work in the burgeoning factories and railroad yards. Strangely, nineteenth century Scandinavians considered the rich soils of northern Indiana too swampy and the climate too hot. While a few stayed as farmers or artisans, most Scandinavians went to the upper Midwest.) Slavic and Italian immigrants came in the early twentieth century. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system favoring Western Europeans, most immigration has been from Asia or Latin America. This has brought a notable influx of physicians, engineers, and other professionals to Indiana from such nations as India, Korea, and China.
Indiana’s past record with African Americans and Native Americans is spotty at best. Yet both groups’ histories include distinguished Indiana residents. Madame C. J. Walker founded her cosmetics empire in Indianapolis in 1911. The book’s chapter on Native Americans gives only summary treatment to the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his unifying message, concentrating upon the Miami and their struggle to win back treaty guarantees.
PEOPLING INDIANA is a fair and fascinating survey of a diverse group of American citizens.