Local History and Memory

Next week I start my archival research for my project on rural black communities in western Ohio.  I’m planning to visit a number of small historical collections, public libraries, etc. and in preparation have been emailing these repositories and other interested locals.

I’ve been thrilled with the feedback and responses but also surprised at the story they tell.  The Emlen Institute was originally founded in Mercer County, Ohio, by Augustus Wattles in the 1830s and designed to give indigenous people and free blacks a technical education.  Wattles wrote to his brother John that he envisioned bring free blacks who were victims of Cinncinnati’s 1829 race riots to the school for education.  My census study indicates that many rural free blacks from nearby Logan county ventured to the Institute as well.

But, when I ask local historians and repositories about the Emlen Institute they talk mostly about the slaves of Judge John Randolph.  Randolph caused quite the stir when he freed his slaves in his will and instructed them to provided for and transported to a safe (northern) location. There were disputes over his will (he had three different wills upon his death) and disputes over where to send the slaves but his 1821 will was clear that they should be sent to land bought for them in Ohio.

After his death in 1833, Judge Randolph’s friend William Leigh bought land in Mercer County for the slaves to live on.  But the process was slow and the slaves didn’t leave Virginia until 1846.  The former slaves’ reception in Ohio was less than enthusiastic.  They were harassed as they headed north on canal boats and stopped altogether at Piqua and Sidney.  Most would never arrive in Mercer County and instead settled in other communities (including the village of Rumley–a black community created by historically free black families to aid formerly enslaved black individuals) and some on the outskirts of Mercer County.

Those former Randolph slaves who did arrive in Mercer County did not arrive before 1846 but the Emlen Institute had existed for several years before their arrival.  Men like Peter Banks who had lived in Logan County, Ohio in the 1830s and Nathan Newsome who helped to found Logan County moved to Mercer County at least temporarily during the Emlen Institute years.  Burwell Archer moved there from Logan county with his wife at least long enough to be counted in the 1850 census.

It is clear that many former slaves, some Randolph’s, lived in and around Mercer County but that isn’t the whole story.  And, I find myself surprised that the Emlen Institute in Mercer County is always spoken of in the same breath as the Randolph slaves in local lore since they were clearly not the only people educated there.

This story and the trope of the refused freed slaves has a lot of resonance in Western Ohio. A similar story is told about former slaves moving to Paulding County via the canals.  Logan County tales of the underground railroad also emphasize the unwillingness of many in those communities to participate or condone aiding runaway slaves.

Often times these tales are told with a sad shake of the head.  “Not Us. We didn’t help.” Sometimes, in those few communities were rural black families did settle it is said “Not Them.  But we did.” Regardless of how those black families were treated once they arrived.

Always in these stories, however, the black families were former slaves.  That belief is simply not true.


Time Traveling Historians

Centre has a January term. Students take one class that meets for (at least) 3 hours a day for 3 weeks.  This past year I taught a class for first year students on the history of American holidays and I’ll be doing that again next year.

BUT, I’m dreaming about my future Centre Term (get it, Centre Term which is in the center of the school year?!?) courses and I really want to teach a class on historical contingency through Alt Hist and counterfactual history–in other words, about time-traveling historians.

Over the past year I’ve gotten totally sucked in to time travel and the Alt-hist genre.  I’ve always loved Outlander by Diana Gabaldon which isn’t an alternate history but does make much of the possibilities of history.  Someone recommended Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book which I enjoyed a lot.  Then, I read Timebound which is a YA novel about future time-traveling historians which was a little silly, a lot fun, and dealt with historical significance.

The genre goes on an on–from the thriller The Man in the High Castle to Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter to my current fiction read 11/22/63.  What I like most about these books is that they focus on contingency and significance.  The authors have to try to build a plausible narrative about the past or the present using their understanding of history.  Undergrads often struggle to understand significance and contingency and here is a genre that relies on that skill!

Historians have employed a similar structure in counterfactual arguments meant to demonstrate the importance of an event or person. They have also, and here I am thinking particularly of Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country tried to imagine pasts of which we have little written record.

I think the possibilities for students are exciting–they could write an alt-hist AND a counterfactual using both fiction and academic writing.  They could think about how we weigh the importance of an event or person.  They could have a better of sense of the impact they themselves make on the world as they think about the impact past individuals have had on the present.

Does anyone have thoughts or suggestions for such a class? Or other great books about alternate history, time traveling historians, or scholarly counterfactuals?

Ohio Reservations and the End of the Year

There is something magical about the end of the Spring semester.  It isn’t just the freedom of summer, it is also the hustle and bustle of graduation, the joy of nicer weather, and the excitement at all the new potential for new grads and incoming first years.

In celebration of grading my last exam, I’m taking a few minutes to start sketching out the history of the places I’m talking about in my next project.  After the Northwest Indian Wars of the 1780s and 1790s, natives living in Ohio territory ceded more and more territory to the United States government and located themselves in the northern and western portion of the state.

The Wyandot and Delaware communities at Upper Sandusky, the Shawnee community at Wapakoneta, The Ottawa communities along the Maumee and Auglaize rivers, and the Shawnee community at Lewistown were never as homogeneous as their names imply nor were they ever “reservations” in the sense of separating natives from the white community.

In fact, many of these native towns also became mission sites for American denominations; the Methodists at Upper Sandusky and the Quakers at Wapakoneta, for example. These missions aimed to Christianize natives and assimilate them into European agricultural and crafting traditions.

The Shawnee at Wapakoneta and Lewistown were forced to leave Ohio in 1830 and 1831. The reservation at Upper Sandusky remained until 1842 and many of the mixed race descendants of these communities remained in the region indefinitely.

Before they left the region they had lived alongside white settlers, white and black missionaries, and black settlers.  In fact, many of these western counties had relatively high percentages of free blacks living in close proximity to the native communities.  Both missionary journals and place names mark the presence of people of color. And, as the United States forced native groups west of the Mississippi, many of the missionary communities found themselves with a theology that supported mission work, an aid structure to support mission work, but no clear missionary purpose in Ohio. **


**I’ll come back to these assertions in another post!

Derby Day and New Projects

I should know to expect regional holidays–I do, after all, teach routinely teach my students about Dyngus Day, Pinkster, and the importance of county fairs.  But, somehow, I never really thought about the impact of Derby Day on my SLAC.

So far, two students have wished me a Happy Oaks Day and I’ve seen a lot of women wearing hats.  Rumor has it that attendance can be spotty but I haven’t experienced that phenomenon.

I also had to cancel some Saturday dinner plans because the restaurant won’t be open.

When student number 2 bestowed the glad tidings of the day upon me, I was practically daydream walking.  I have been trying to concisely articulate my newest project and have not been very successful.  My dissertation examined rituals in revolutionary America and connected those rituals to ideas of citizenship and religious obligation.  It is a topic I’m still passionate about and will continue to work on for the foreseeable future.

Given my current location, however, and my desire to have a project that would more easily lend itself to student projects and digital experiments, I wanted to expand into a new research topic.  Luckily, I long ago made a word document where I collected ideas and scraps of information that didn’t belong in my dissertation.

One of those scraps was that the Emlen School for the Benefit of Children of African and Indian Descent was originally located in Mercer County, Ohio–not far from where I grew up.

Another scrap was a statement in a history of the Wyandot mission at Upper Sandusky about the presence of free blacks in the native community.

Together, these scraps made me think about the rural free black communities in antebellum Ohio and the relationship they had with native communities and religious missions.  Over the past year I have collected census data and combed through digital databases (including Google books) to create a nice base of information on several of these free black communities.  Over the summer I plan to visit a number of archives in Ohio and I’m scheduled to present at two conferences next year.

As excited as I am about this project, I’m also nervous.  While I see connections between my projects, this is a very new research area for me which involves a new historiography. As much as I can bemoan the sheer amount of scholarship on the revolution–it is the devil I know.

This project though makes a lot of practical sense as I can easily get to the archives which are largely underutilized. There are a number of projects that I can have my students work on including, I hope, a map of religious denominations on the frontier in the early republic.

So, here I am on my first Oaks Day thinking about other new beginnings.

Research in the SLAC Life

It seems entirely appropriate to restart my blog at the end of the spring semester.  It is, after all, the time when professors at teaching schools can finally think about spending sustained time with their research (and writing, and families….) Well, ok, it is the time when, in an attempt to avoid grading, we turn our thoughts towards almost anything else.

And so of course, I’m blogging in between student meetings.

After three years on the job market, teaching full-time at three different institutions, moving multiple times, and buying a house and all that comes along with it, I’m looking at this summer being the first where I don’t have to learn a new institution, move, and help a small human (not to mention my fellow grown-up spouse) adjust to yet another new place.

And I admit that I am a bit terrified.

I pushed my research to the back burner for the past two years and have almost forgotten how to spend my day in research mode.  I also know that I need to find a way to make my research more of a priority in the coming school year.  While I have read and rely upon the methods in How to Write a Journal Article in 12 Weeks and How to Write A Lot, I haven’t been great at executing those methods.  That is especially true for protecting my writing time.

One of my biggest challenges is dealing with the fact that I work best precisely when my family needs me the most.  As much as I would like to work on research from 6AM to 9AM….I have a kid and a husband who like breakfast, showers, good morning kisses.  Morning is also the best time for exercising before the heat of the day.

My goal for summer is to find and implement a better system for prioritizing my time.

Any suggestions?


Summer Reading

I have a lot of reading lists for the summer; there’s my research reading list, my fall course assignment reading list, and my pedagogy/state of the field reading list. But this summer, after way too many summers without it, I’m making a For Fun Reading List (FFRL). This list is partly academic, partly fiction, and I’m really excited.  I aimed small–I can always add things to it–with twelve books.  Here they are along with why I’m reading them:

1.  How to Write a Thesis, Umberto Eco–Not only is Eco my favorite writer, he is my favorite writer about writing.  This book grew out of his work with Italian undergraduates who were required to write a thesis in order to complete the degree.  It has since become a classic but has only recently been translated into English.

2. The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army, Colin Calloway–This is a new book by Calloway who is a master of story telling and of eighteenth-century Native American history.  The Victory with No Name tells the story of what white America has come to call “St. Claire’s Defeat” but which in actuality was a stunning victory for the tribes around the Great Lakes.

3. American Gods, Neil Gaiman–Somehow, I’ve never read any Neil Gaiman.  I blame graduate school.

4. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore–I love Jill Lepore.  Her writing is smart, engaging, and entertaining and her research is first rate.  I’ve assigned many Lepore books to students over the years and even when students dislike the book they still prefer it to books written in a more traditional academic style.  Somehow, I’ve never read this Pulitzer-finalist about New York’s 1741 suspected slave rebellion.  If this book doesn’t seem like your kind of story, try her Secret History of Wonder Woman instead.

5. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson–This book is about London’s 1854 cholera outbreak.  I teach about smallpox and malaria pretty frequently and find the history of disease really fascinating.  I think these kind of studies also put into sharp perspective how the world has changed over the past two hundred years yet our modern response to disease remains strikingly similar to these past events.

6. Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History, Bernard Bailyn–What can I say? He is the master in my field.  I can’t say I always agree with his approach to either history or historians but I certainly have a lot of respect for his experience and ability.

7. Doomsday Book, Connie Willis–Another oldie but goodie that I’ve somehow missed.  And, if my love of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is any indication, this time-traveling story should be right up my alley.  And, if you haven’t read Outlander do so immediately!

8. Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, Andrew Schocket–One of the main themes of my upper-level class on the American Revolution is that we should question our understanding of this foundational war and think critically about America’s creation.  So, this book, which looks at how Americans have discussed the founders over the past two decades, discusses a topic I find endlessly fascinating.  Not convinced? Ask yourself why anyone would remain loyal to England.  Do you have a satisfying answer? If you are American you probably don’t.

9. William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, Alan Taylor–Taylor is another historian who writes gripping, engaging prose.  I’ve read chunks of William Cooper’s Town, but never had the chance to read the whole thing.  This book looks at the creation of Cooperstown and the legacy of William Cooper who was a frontiersman, judge, shameless self-promoter, and the father of American novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

10. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss–Because it is about magicians.  I insist on at least one book about magicians ever summer.  Last summer I listened to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians on audible.  That was completely enjoyable.  Hopefully, this book will be too.

11. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation, Kariann Yokota–We often assume that Americans just decided to become “American” overnight.  But, the process of “unbecoming British” was not that easy.  Yokota attempts to explain how Americans developed their own unique identity and the challenges they faced in deciding what it meant to be American.

12. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett–I’m doubling down on Gaiman but how can I NOT read this book? Puritans, witches, and the End of Times all make an appearance in this book.  It reminds me of the summer I spent giving tours to folks visiting the Witch House in Salem, Massachusetts.

So, there you have it, the 12 books I am GOING to read this summer.  For fun.  I hope I get to add more.  I really hope that I can find a way to have a constant For Fun Reading List in my life.  Everyone should have a list of books they read just because it makes them happy.  We tell our students that they should enjoy learning.  So, I’m (re)committing now to reading and learning for fun. FFRL for life!

What are you reading this summer?

Thanksgiving Realities

Tomorrow, Americans will sit down to a ritual meal that has been incredibly stable for two hundred years.  Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie were staples of the fall colonial kitchen and continue to make Americans think of family, nation, and nostalgia.  Articles in newspapers and online outlines will attempt to tell the “real” thanksgiving, teaching readers that the pilgrims weren’t the first to celebrate thanksgiving in the New World, that the Pilgrims didn’t exactly get along with the natives, and that the feast was not some mythical moment of solidarity.  So, I won’t tell you that.  Instead, I give you four facts about thanksgiving that should make you think about the slippery nature of public rituals.

1. Thanksgiving was a religious holiday.  Today we hold it up as the perfect secular, family holiday that neatly avoids the religious imbroglio of Christmas.  But, for Americans before the Civil War, thanksgiving was first and foremost a religious holiday which encouraged people to thank God for their blessings in the hopes that he would support the civil government.  The idea was that good Christians could keep God on their nation’s side through earnest prayers and thanksgiving.  People went to church on Thanksgiving and most states had a law requiring thanksgivings to be treated as Sabbath days (shops closed, not too much labor, not too much fun.) Not everyone followed these rules, some people shot off fireworks or had balls, but these illicit actions were fun in part because they flouted the conventional norms of the holiday.

2. Thanksgiving wasn’t about remembering the Pilgrims until the 19th Century. No one in the 18th century was thinking about 1621 as the reason for their thanksgiving celebration.  New England colonies and states would sometimes refer to their “ancient tradition” of thanksgiving, but they weren’t sitting around thanking their Plymouth ancestors for coming to America.  The holiday in the 18th century was much more about cultivating a good relationship with God than about marking an anniversary.  In the early 19th century, New Englanders began telling a new story about how America’s morality could be traced back to New England’s first immigrants.  Thanksgiving then became a holiday about America’s mythical founding.

3. We started celebrating thanksgiving as a nation in 1777. And we weren’t very good at being unified.  Some states in New England had already established when their own state thanksgivings were going to be and so they celebrated two thanksgivings in one month.

4. Like all holidays, thanksgiving has always been contested and a site of protest. Not everyone in America in 1777 thought that this new nation was a blessing from God.  In fact, many people refused to participate in the holiday.  They kept their shops open and they didn’t go to church.  Washington’s 1789 thanksgiving was an attempt to draw a divided nation together in celebration.  But, he couldn’t make everyone appreciate the Constitution and many again failed to see the purpose of the holiday.  By the 1790s Americans playfully argued over the menu and mode of celebration.  One widely republished newspaper article calculated the food consumed by New Englanders on thanksgiving.  While the article is humorous, it is also a potent reminder that the holiday has always been divisive.

South Carolina State Gazette, January 6, 1802.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And, while we celebrate, ask yourselves why you are celebrating and how our cultural values fit into this American holiday.