Tag Archives: Early America

Does “Appalachian” history have a start date?

I’ve been using the term “Appalachia” in my dissertation.   The people I study lived in present-day East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.  That’s Appalachia by just about any contemporary reckoning, so it might seem like a no-brainer.

The tricky part is that I’m writing about the Revolutionary era, and nobody really called it “Appalachia” in the eighteenth century.  It’s not that the word wasn’t around.  In fact, “Appalachia” is one of the oldest European place-names in the U.S.  It comes from a sixteenth-century Spanish transliteration of the name of a village in Florida, later applied to the mountainous area to the northward.

The Watauga River, which (depending on what time period you’re talking about) may or may not be in Appalachia. Bee Cliff River Slob [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But “Appalachia” as a common name for the mountain South only dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Americans formulated the idea of the region as a culturally distinct unit.  In an eighteenth-century context, it’s anachronistic.

Does that matter?  The point of language is to communicate, and when we use words with meanings everybody knows, it saves a lot of trouble.  But language doesn’t just ascribe intended meanings to things.  It also reinforces the unintended meanings and associations that accumulate around words like barnacles on pier pilings.  And the term “Appalachia” has many such associations.

Eighteenth-century observers did think of Appalachia’s white settlers as set apart in some respects, but they didn’t use the term “Appalachian” to do so.  Whereas nineteenth-century commentators thought of a culturally distinct and isolated region contained within the U.S., eighteenth-century observers emphasized its geographic position at the back end of British America.  That’s reflected in the terminology they used.  What we consider Appalachia would have been “the backcountry” or the “back parts.”  I use “backcountry” a lot in my dissertation, but I don’t think it’s totally synonymous.  It’s a more slippery, generalized term that applies to more than just the mountainous South.

Some eighteenth-century observers referred to white settlers in East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia as “back water men,” or said that they lived on the “back mountains” or “western waters.”  These phrases reflect the same sort of Atlantic vs. western orientation as “backcountry” and “back parts.”  They emphasized the fact that these settlers lived on the western side of the mountains, where the rivers flowed toward the Mississippi.  These terms are more specific than “backcountry,” but also narrower than “Appalachia.”  There were plenty of whites settled in the Appalachian backcountry who weren’t “back water” men.

Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for an eighteenth-century equivalent to “Appalachia” at all.  If people didn’t think of the mountainous South as a distinct region at the time, perhaps I’m just buying into the nineteenth-century myth of Appalachia by trying to conceptualize it as its own, unique thing.

Then again, there’s something to be said for staking a claim for Appalachia in an early American context.  A lot of historians who specialize in the region focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.  Applying the term to the Revolutionary era reminds people that the tumultuous events of that period mattered profoundly in the mountain South.  Rather than agonizing over whether it’s anachronistic, maybe the best approach is to appropriate it for historically informed purposes.

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Forthcoming books of note

As if our TBR stacks aren’t high enough.

Next month we’re getting a biography of Daniel Morgan by Albert Louis Zambone.  It’s about time for a fresh look at the Old Wagoner.  (Don Higginbotham’s life of Morgan first appeared way back in 1961.)

Stanley D.M. Carpenter of the Naval War College has a new book on Cornwallis and the Southern Campaign coming out in February.  Looks like the focus is on the failures and miscalculations that led to British defeat:

Distinguished scholar of military strategy Stanley D. M. Carpenter outlines the British strategic and operational objectives, devoting particular attention to the strategy of employing Southern Loyalists to help defeat Patriot forces, reestablish royal authority, and tamp down resurgent Patriot activity. Focusing on Cornwallis’s operations in the Carolinas and Virginia leading to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Carpenter reveals the flaws in this approach, most notably a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the war in the South and of the Loyalists’ support. Compounding this was the strategic incoherence of seeking a conventional war against a brilliant, unconventional opponent, and doing so amidst a breakdown in the unity of command.

This emphasis on British failures, miscalculations, and infighting is interesting, because it marks something of a historiographic reversal.  Redcoat commanders and strategists have been getting more favorable treatment in some recent studies, most notably Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America.

The first volume of Rick Atkinson’s Rev War trilogy hits stores in May.  I haven’t read his World War II series, but I’ve heard good things about it.  I’ll be particularly interested to see whether he deals with some of the more obscure campaigns.

And finally, David McCullough is heading into the Old Northwest.  And it looks like he’s…well, going full-on David McCullough:

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether.  And I really hope he’s not including free universal education and the prohibition of slavery among the “ideals that would come to define our country.”  Those two ideals still had a long way to go in the late eighteenth century.

Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

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German America: A colonial counterfactual

Today’s historical thought experiment comes to us courtesy of the eminent diplomat and accomplished ladies’ man Henry Kissinger.

In his massive (but engrossing) history of diplomacy, Kissinger describes how Cardinal Richelieu, that most pragmatic and unsentimental practitioner of seventeenth-century statecraft, redirected European political history.  Richelieu successfully sought to magnify French power at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire.  As Kissinger states, the cardinal “feared a unified Central Europe and prevented it from coming about.  In all likelihood, he delayed German unification by some two centuries.…As a result, Germany developed no national political culture and calcified into a provincialism from which it did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century when Bismarck unified it.”*

Germany, then, did not enjoy the same political unity and economic vigor that other European powers were beginning to enjoy in the early modern period.  One consequence of this, as Kissinger notes in passing, is that Germany “missed the early wave of European overseas colonization.”

Since he’s more concerned with the impact of Richelieu’s statecraft on later European diplomacy, Kissinger doesn’t explore the implications of this notion that delayed unification knocked Germany out of the running as a potential colonial power.  But if you’re an early American historian, it provokes some interesting counterfactual speculation.

Ephrata Cloister, a German religious community founded in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. By Bestbudbrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

European political history isn’t my specialty, so I don’t know if a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century German unification was as likely as Kissinger makes it out to be.  But if German unification hadn’t been delayed, would Germany have created its own American empire alongside the New World colonies of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English?  And if so, what would that German America have looked like?

I’m not sure it’s possible to answer questions like this constructively.  In order to describe a possible German-founded American colony we have to draw on what we know of early modern Germany, but a unified Germany capable of planting American colonies wouldn’t be the early modern Germany we know.  This Catch-22 makes it hard to imagine what the relationship between the colonies and mother country would’ve been like, or what sort of political and economic order would’ve characterized the German colonies themselves.

Of course, a great many German migrants did settle in colonial America, which might offer a basis for thinking about the cultural life of these hypothetical colonies.  But they did so as minorities and latecomers to the English colonies.  Perhaps their experiences would have been quite different had they arrived earlier and lived in settlements founded under German auspices.

Many of the Central Europeans who did settle in colonial America were members of Protestant sects who maintained their distinctive religious identity in the New World, but it seems likely that a more unified Holy Roman Empire would have been able to enforce more religious conformity within its territory.  Religious divisions, after all, contributed to the empire’s lack of cohesion.  A politically unified Germany would probably have necessitated a more religiously uniform nation.

Then again, a religiously uniform Germany might have foisted its religious dissidents off on its colonies.  Perhaps German America would have served as a haven for nonconformists in the same way that English America did.

That’s the thing about these broad historical counterfactuals.  You have to make so many adjustments and account for so many possible variables that it’s easy to strain your tether to the actual history to a point where it snaps, and then you’re not engaged in a historically useful exercise anymore.

And in the end, maybe the presence of German colonies in early America wouldn’t have made that much difference.  The demographic and economic power of English America was considerable, so maybe German colonies would have gotten gobbled up anyway, becoming the cultural, religious, and linguistic enclaves that the eventual German settlements actually were.

*This post is a lot more entertaining if you read this excerpt aloud in your best Kissinger voice.  Go on, try it.

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Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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David Armitage on the Declaration of Independence at UT

If you’re an early America aficionado in the Knoxville area, you’ll want to stop by the University of Tennessee’s Black Cultural Center at 4:00 P.M. on April 8th.  David Armitage will be presenting the 2015 Milton M. Klein Lecture, “The Global Impact of the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Armitage is Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, Affiliated Professor in the Harvard Department of Government, an Affiliated Faculty Member at Harvard Law School, and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Sydney.  His books include The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year), The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (winner of the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award), and Foundations of Modern International Thought.  He is also co-author of The History Manifesto, a New Statesman Book of the Year.

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When is “early America,” anyway?

This semester I’m taking a course on early America and the Atlantic.  A lot of our reading deals with expanding the physical boundaries of what we think of as “early America,” incorporating insights from scholars working on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

Last week we spent some time discussing temporal boundaries along with physical ones.  When exactly was early America?  If we’re using a chronological term to describe an area of study, shouldn’t there be a better notion of what constitutes the period under discussion?

Columbus seems like a logical starting point, but coming up with an end date is a lot trickier, and your choice of a terminus will reveal a lot about your historical priorities.  If you decide to cut things off at 1776, 1783, or 1789, you’re  privileging politics over markers of culture, religion, and other factors that remained much more constant after those dates.  You’re also more or less saying that U.S. history is the only early American history that really matters.

What if we set our end point at the date when Latin America became independent? That privileges politics, too.  And there’s a sense in which a cutoff point in the early 1800s makes even less sense than 1783 or 1789.  In many ways, the social, technological, and economic atmosphere of the 1820s looks more similar to the mid-nineteenth century than it does to the late eighteenth.

We could arbitrarily pick a nice, round year, like 1800, but the fact that it’s a nice, round number is just about the only thing it’s got going for it.

Does the question of early America’s chronological boundaries matter?  I think it does, because the way we create these containers for particular fields of study inevitably shapes the questions we ask about the past and the places we go to find answers.  On a more practical level, it also determines who goes to which conferences, who gets hired for particular positions, and so on. These chronological boundaries might be artificial, but their effects on the way we conceptualize the past are very real indeed.

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