Tag Archives: Colonial America

Can you see Russia from your American history class?


An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory, Teaching History

A septet of early American links

This hasn’t been America’s finest week.

FWIW, I did run across some interesting items relating to early America over the past few days, some of which I’d planned on posting earlier.  Other than that, I’ve got nothing, other than to commend some wisdom from a long time ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3, 13 (ESV)

Here are the links.

  • Archaeologists have identified the site of the 1779 Battle of Beaufort/Port Royal in South Carolina.  There’s some good news.
  • The National Park Service has acquired the site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan held court in the seventeenth century.
  • Looks like the Continental soldier look is back in.
  • If you were going to pick seven sites every American history buff should visit, which would they be?  Here’s one list.
  • Historians of religion are weighing in on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas claims that colonial America was a haven of religious freedom.  As John Fea explains, that was only true for certain colonies.  Proselytizing for the wrong church in Massachusetts or Virginia could’ve gotten you flogged…or worse.
  • Meanwhile, Robert Tracy McKenzie finds Metaxas guilty of misreading John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” remark.  Like a lot of people, Metaxas takes the quote as a statement of proto-Amrerican exceptionalism.  It was actually a warning, reminding the Puritans that if their “errand into the wilderness” failed, the whole world would see their downfall.  “Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission,” McKenzie writes, “Winthrop intended his allusion to ‘a city upon a hill’ to send a chill down their spines.”
  • A Thomas Jefferson letter dating from the end of the War of 1812 turned up in an attic.  It can be yours for $325,000.

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Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.


When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.


Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.


In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.


If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…




A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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Jean O’Brien will discuss memory and Massasoit at UTK

If you’re interested in colonial America, Native American history, or historical memory, you’ll want to attend the UTK History Department’s 2016 Milton M. Klein Lecture.  Jean O’Brien will be discussing the public memory of Massasoit, the seventeenth-century Wampanoag leader most commonly remembered today for his association with the Pilgrims.

O’Brien is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.  Her publications include Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England and Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790.  She is a past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, and a recipient of the Western History Association’s American Indian Historian Lifetime Achievement Award.

The 2016 Klein Lecture will be at the McClung Museum on UT’s campus on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:00 P.M.  And it’s totally free!

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Hearing seventeenth-century colonists in ‘The Witch’

Writer-director Robert Eggers has really played up his painstaking approach to historical accuracy in making The Witch.  One of the more interesting ways the film evokes a sense of the past is its characters’ use of Early Modern English.  The syntax and the use of archaic second-person pronouns seem to come right out of the King James Bible—or perhaps I should say the Geneva Bible, which was the preferred version of the New England Puritans.  In fact, Eggers lifted whole swaths of his dialogue from period accounts.

Even more striking to me than the syntax and vocabulary is the way the characters pronounce the words themselves.  The first time I saw the trailer, what hit me more than the overall creepiness was the distinctive ring of those opening lines spoken by actor Ralph Ineson.  What went we out into this wilderness to find?  Leaving our country?  Kindred?  Our fathers’ houses?

There’s something singular about the cadence, about the way those vowels come rolling out.  Given Eggers’s obsession with accuracy, I wondered if the pronunciation reflected an attempt to reconstruct some sort of archaic English dialect.  Since many of the Puritans who joined the Great Migration to the New World hailed from East Anglia, I thought perhaps the filmmakers had reverse-engineered a seventeenth-century speech pattern from that part of England.

Turns out the characters’ dialect is a little more complicated than that:

According to Eggers, the family originally hailed from Essex before migrating to the New World, factually consistent with the Great Migration. “But I cast Ralph [Ineson as the father], and Ralph’s Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire attitude was so amazing that we decided to make the family from Yorkshire.” This didn’t mean fudging a detail. With Eggers, it’s about recalibrating. Hunting for evidence, the director discovered in Dedham, Massachusetts, the Fairbanks House, the oldest surviving timber-frame residence in North America. Its original owner, Fairbanks, was from Yorkshire and moved to Massachusetts with Essex people. When he couldn’t get along with the church, he moved his family outside. “So I was like, ‘Well, this is perfect.’ Way back when the family was from Essex, we talked about doing a 1770s Essex dialect. But it sounds insane. It sounds like a pirate. So we worked on creating a Yorkshire accent that was sort of free of some of the modern urbanisms, but that could suit this language.”

In other words, it was Ralph Ineson’s own natural Yorkshire accent that shaped the film’s dialect, not the other way around.  Here’s Ineson speaking out of character:

So what did the seventeenth-century colonists who settled in English America sound like?  As is the case with all other dialects, it depended on where they came from.  Just as there are different regional dialects in the British Isles today, there were a variety of different speech patterns in England in the 1600s.  If you’re familiar with David Hackett Fischer’s analysis of cultural transmission from Britain to America, you probably know that regional distinctions in the mother country gave rise to variations in colonial speech patterns.

We can get a sense of at least one of those varieties thanks to the work of David Crystal, who helped the Globe Theatre reconstruct four-hundred-year-old English to mount a production of Shakespeare as his original audiences would have heard it.  Think of it as the linguistic equivalent of Jurassic Park, using scholarship to bring an extinct dialect back from the dead.  Here’s a video of David and his son Ben demonstrating the difference between 1600s London pronunciation and modern “received pronunciation.”

And here’s another video featuring Ben Crystal performing some Shakespeare in the original pronunciation:

Crystal’s point about the “piratical” sound of Shakespearean English brings to mind Eggers’s comment that the 1770s Essex dialect the filmmakers tried out “sounds like a pirate.”  Oddly enough, most people associate pirate speech with West Country dialect, and both Essex and London are on the opposite side of England from the West Country.*  The reason archaic English dialects sound piratical is probably because of the prominent pronunciation of the letter R.  These forms of English were still rhotic in the 1600s, which made Talk Like a Pirate Day a perpetual celebration in many parts of England and colonial America.

But there’s a twist.  It seems the place where non-rhotic English first appeared was…East Anglia, the very region from which many of the Puritans originated.  That’s odd, though, since Eggers claims that a 1770s Essex dialect sounded “like a pirate.”  By the late eighteenth century, the transition to non-rhotic English was already old hat in East Anglia.  Go figure.

Still, Crystal’s effort at linguistic resurrection can give us a hint of how some of the earliest English colonists sounded, since both the area around London and the southwestern part of England did supply settlers to America in the seventeenth century.  And since London was a place where people from different parts of Britain mixed and mingled, it seems likely that the English spoken in the city during Shakespeare’s time contained traces of several dialects that ended up in the American colonies.

In fact, you can still find remnants of these original speech patterns here in the U.S. if you know where to look for them.  One of those places is Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, where some residents speak a distinctively archaic dialect harkening back to the seventeenth-century Virginia settlers who came from southwestern Britain.

If the speech of Tangier Island or Crystal’s reconstructed Shakespearean sound strange and unfamiliar, take it as one more reminder that the past was a foreign country.

*I’ve heard two explanations for the association of West Country speech with pirates.  First, the West Country has a long maritime tradition.  Second, West Country native Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island was so memorable that it pretty much cemented the popular image of pirates for decades thereafter.

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History at the movies in 2016

For a couple of years Hollywood was giving us history bloggers plenty to talk about, with acclaimed films like 2012’s Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.  That hasn’t been the case in 2015.  I think I only saw a couple of history-related movies this past year, none of them particularly memorable.  Or maybe we all spent so much time blogging and tweeting about that Hamilton musical that we just missed all the films aimed at history buffs.

Some of the movies headed for theaters in 2016 take American history as their subject matter, though, so let’s take a look.

The Revenant.  This one hits select theaters on Christmas Day, but doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 6.  It’s based on Michael Punke’s novelization of a true incident in the life of fur trapper Hugh Glass.  After joining an 1823 expedition into the American West, Glass barely survived a nasty bear mauling only to be abandoned by his companions, forcing him to endure a 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.  The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger was a member of the same party.  The trailer’s fantastic.

The Witch.  A horror movie set in 16th-century New England seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t know that anybody has made one until now.  Looks pretty scary!  (Suggested tagline: In space canst no man heare thou screame.)

The Free State of Jones.  Matthew McConaughey plays Rebel deserter Newt Knight, who waged a mini-Civil War against Confederate authorities in Mississippi.  No trailer for this one yet, but here’s a look at the historical background.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.  They did a made-for-TV movie about the Indianapolis back in the early nineties, and one of the writers of Jaws pitched the idea of building a prequel around the sinking.  (It probably would’ve been better than the Jaws sequels we eventually got.)  Mario Van Peebles directs this new version.  A local news crew visited the set during filming in Mobile, AL.

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