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Reading Early Modern Atlantic Families

My Spring graduate seminar at William & Mary on the histories of families in the Early Modern Atlantic World takes up a historical challenge that’s familiar for me, and yet evergreen.  I’ve been reading, thinking, teaching and writing about family history and the intersections of gender, family, and sexuality for more than a quarter of a century.  I started reading family history in a seminar with Toby Ditz when I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, and have been talking intensively about comparative issues with some of my fellow JHU students, especially Julie Hardwick, and other colleagues since the 1990s.  With Julie and Bianca Premo I published in a cluster in History Compass, Rethinking Family, Gender, and Sexuality in the Early Modern Atlantic World” in 2010, and in 2013 Julie, Sarah Pearsall and I introduced and guest-edited an issue of the William and Mary Quarterly that followed a 2011 Omohundro Institute conference at the University of Texas.

You think I’d have come to some firm conclusions about family history by now!  I have, but they are mostly about the importance of continuing to explore the complexity of family.  Our introduction to  the WMQ issue on “Centering Families in Atlantic Histories” began with the observation that “every word in our title is open to interpretation.”  Perhaps none more than family and families.  I’m also very clear about the significant relationship between “family” (and here I use those startle quotes to indicate just how historically complex and yet how often flattened for strategic purposes that term is and has been) and the state.

As a field family history has a history and my seminar begins there, in interrogating the legacies and echoes of work by Lawrence Stone and others.  Doubtless a product of the ways I first began to grapple with issues around family, gender, and sexuality we also read a lot of comparative early modern European and colonial British American histories.  I still teach Lyndal Roper’s study of the gendered politics of the reformation The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg, for example.  Every time I read it I think about the issues around religion, morality, and gendered forms of civic discipline in new ways.  Lots of new work also informs the syllabus.  Questions about how archives shape what we know and how we know it have been important in many of my classes, but especially so in this one.

As I finalized the reading list this year I wondered if the basic premise (begin with the Stone age) would finally seem unworkable by next year.  Issues and subjects that were formative for me almost thirty years ago are still important, but need to make room for the challenging questions that are shaping the field and my own thinking now.  We shall see.

Meantime, check out the syllabus:  Spring 2017 HIST 715.  Then let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear suggestions about  ways that you would rearrange the topics, change emphasis, and add or subtract readings.  It’s too late for the students in #AtlFam17, as this seminar is stuck with what I’ve assigned, but I’m pretty sure that in addition to me, they and others will be interested in the feedback.

NB January 28, 2019:  I’ve added an edit to this post to include the syllabus for  Spring 2019 HIST 715.   When I taught the course two years ago I thought by this year I would kick out the Lawrence Stone/ Eurocentric framing.  I think that’s out as a frame (“family history as a field begins here”) but it remains as a key artifact allowing us to interrogate the way new work should be able to eclipse the old, but old work should still instruct (either as subject material– I will never not teach Lyndal Roper– or as interpretations that still lurk in unexpected places –that’s Stone).  We also spent some time discussing Judith Bennett alongside Imani Perry’s ideas about patriarchy as a modern liberal construction vis a vis Locke and Adam Smith.  I can see next time starting with Perry’s book (just out in Fall 2018, I was using excerpts from the book she published in the Southern Journal of Philosophy ) and assigning chapters of Bennett.

Reading #VastEarlyAmerica in the Georgian Papers

Johannes Kip, Map of Sierra Leone, 1732. University of Florida Map and Imagery Library

What can we learn about #VastEarlyAmerica from the archival collection at the very center of Anglo-imperial power?

Last week the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle opened access to the first tranche of materials in the Georgian Papers Programme.  Because the Omohundro Institute is a primary US partner of the GPP, I’ve been working on the project for two years; we have funded fellowships and digital humanities work, and are deeply engaged in a whole range of this major undertaking.  It’s important for all kinds of reasons I’ve written about over on the OI’s blog.

Now that the archival material is starting to appear online and fellows from the OI and King’s College are starting to write about their research, it’s time to think aggressively about the range of scholarship this archive can support.  As an historian of women and political culture, I’m used to prying information from archives oriented toward men and formal politics. As a scholar of family in the early modern Atlantic, one of my models for thinking about how archives can yield histories of family that decenter colonizers is Ann Marie Plane’s Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England.

But the papers of George III?

Aside from the important political aspects of the American Revolution, how do we find the history of the world beyond England in the papers of George III? And in the papers of the Georgian monarchs, including George III, newly digitized as part of the Georgian Papers Programme, how do we locate the histories of people and subjects that seem to be on the margins of these most powerful, privileged people in the early modern British Atlantic world? What could we possibly do to learn about people and subjects seemingly far from the center and yet still within the grip of imperial authority and policies?  This is the ultimate reading against the archival grain challenge.

In part it’s easier–easy being relative–because of trailblazing work on turning the archives from a historian’s resource into a historian’s subject of analysis. It’s key to identify these trails, and how we can follow their lead. Scholars have been long indebted to Michel-Ralph Trouillot’s 1995 Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History for illustrating the ways in which the history of the Haiti and its revolution was silenced by the very work of history. Haiti’s archival remnants and the historians for whom Haiti’s history seemed quite literally unthinkable silenced its story.

In just the last year, three publications stand out for me. First, a special issue of Social Text on “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom and the Archive” edited by Laura Helton, Justin Leroy, Max Mischler, Samantha Seeley and Shauna Sweeney includes a roundtable on archive and methods. Second, an issue of The History of the Present edited by Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes explores “From Archives of Slavery to Liberated Futures.” The essays in these two issues alone show the depth and breadth of work that can be done from working in—and working against–established archives. Third, Fuentes delineates in her remarkable new book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive the ways that the structures of power reflected in archival knowledge can be so easily reproduced in scholarship.   “Epistemic violence originates from the knowledge produced about enslaved women…and that knowledge is what survives in the archives.”  Working against those structures requires an unwavering attention.

I hope we can explore the Georgian Papers with these guides in mind. How is this most elite of institutions shaping what we know, and how we know it?  What is being said, or not, and in what frame, about the slave economy, colonialism, and abolition? Where can we find and map the connections of scientific correspondence with roots in native knowledge and communities? How can we extend the documentary materials on menus and food provisions to show the extensive connections and dependencies on the trade economy around and across the Atlantic? What can we learn about mental health and disability from one of the most fully chronicled (likely bipolar) cases? How can we pull the threads of fashion history to think in new ways about the history of the body and health?  Some of the fellows for the Georgian Papers are already exploring these possibilities.  Suzanne Schwarz has just written about beginning to discover the “Slave Trade, Slavery and Abolition in the Royal Archives, 1785-1810” and in particular divergent perspectives including those of the Duke of Clarence and his role in the African Institution and Sierra Leone.

Beyond the topics we explore, for me a vital question is how we can use this opportunity of archival creation (which is what’s happening as these documents become digitized and cataloged) to consider how we will work with and also how we might shape this archive.  As scholars and librarians working together at the OI, William & Mary and King’s start to map digital projects, I think there is enormous potential in the Georgian Papers for archival and methodological ambition.  Indeed, it will be a key measure of the Georgian Papers Programme that we are able to support that kind of ambition.

NB: The Georgian Papers Programme site for the US, for US-based work, and for #VastEarlyAmerica -focused scholarship and news is

Pacific Views: Early California Population Project

I think about #VastEarlyAmerica a lot, and I’ve returned many times to Steve Hackel’s work on early California.  When Steve’s book, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis:  Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 was published in 2004, among Omohundro Institute books only James Brooks’s 2002 Captives and Cousins:  Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands had ventured west of the Mississippi.  Of course the scholarship of Juliana Bar, Ned Blackhawk, Elizabeth Fenn, Pakka Häcmäläinen, Paul Mapp and many others, as well as James and Steve’s ongoing work and recent books, means that the geographical myopia of east coast-ism is pretty indefensible.  My own work focuses on British America, and I wouldn’t ever say that British America is unimportant–it’s quite important.  It’s just that it exists –must self-consciously exist–within a much broader early American framework.

Steve was also been long involved in developing an important digital project with the Huntington Library (with support from the NEH, EMSI and others), the Early California Population Project.  The ECPP “provides public access to all the information contained in California’s historic mission registers, records that are of unique and vital importance to the study of California, the American Southwest, and colonial America.”   The search protocols are complex and the interface reflects the early design of this digital project, but the material is incredibly rich.  The project database has records for  “more than 101,000 baptisms, 27,000 marriages, and 71,000 burials performed in California between 1769 and 1850. No other region of colonial America that became part of the United States has a database of such an extensive set of vital records.”

It was great to see the project as a key evidentiary base for a recent essay by Erika Pérez on “Family, Spiritual Kinship, and Social Hierarchy in Early California” (in a great new issue of Early American Studies edited by Brian Connolly and Dawn Peterson that I recommend highly and will muse about in another post).

Here’s the abstract for Pérez’s article:

The study of kinship offers a rich opportunity for historians of early America to examine impositions of colonial power, subtle acts of resistance, and cultural adaptations evident in quotidian encounters between indigenous peoples and European American colonists. In Spanish and Mexican Alta California, colonial implementation of compadrazgo (Catholic godparentage) and the use of family metaphors, as well as the presence of Christian Indian auxiliaries from previously colonized regions, reveal colonial social hierarchies and evolving constructions of race, ethnicity, and class. While colonists and indigenous Californians both invested significant meaning in consanguineal and affective bonds, including spiritual kinship, Native peoples struggled to preserve and express precontact family values that included more fluid practices in marriage. Spanish-Mexican settlers and Franciscan missionaries attempted to impose a kinship system that would further goals of conquest and acculturate indigenous peoples by eradicating such fluidity. Spanish Mexican settlers, however, also exhibited an expansive understanding of kinship and family obligations, invoking them to function as a social safety net, as needed, and incorporating newcomers into existing networks. Thus, kinship is a useful measure of social relations and economic conditions and helpful for unraveling the scope and limitations of colonial rule in Alta California.

Serendipity and Digital Collections


Daniel McCarthy, Petroglyphs fr Riverside County, Agua Client Cultural Museum, via Calisphere.

One of my favorite things to do on a weekend morning is to scan library websites for newly digitized materials, and for digital collections and exhibits.  I keep storing up bits about various sites and what I’ve found compelling, thinking that I’d try to write a post for the Scholarly Kitchen about how these collections can help to inspire scholarly serendipitous browsing.  Lots of folks have written about how discoverability, the golden ticket for access to scholarly content, can in important ways deter and impede serendipitous discovery.  The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media even created a cool tool, the Serendip-o-matic (“let your sources surprise you”)  to try and recreate the analogue experience of browsing the library shelves for related materials.

Anyway, other thoughts about digitized collections include their importance for #VastEarlyAmerica.  Libraries tend to (of course not always) collect locally and are often (again, not always) strongest in local materials.  For early Americanists that means that looking to libraries around the #VastEarlyAmerican geography is important.

My latest digital obsession is Calisphere, with over 650,000 items from California universities and an  incredible number and range of other California libraries and archives.  There are collections and exhibits on Calisphere, as well as an individual item search capability.  The exhibits are also categorized– one group is “California Cultures:  Native Americans.”  It includes an exhibit of photographed Native rock art and “Pre-Columbian California to 18th century.”   Beyond the early period gems I loved perusing including the John Muir correspondence from 1856-1914, over 6700 items from the University of the Pacific.

I use lots of digital collections to enhance the research I’ve done on site in libraries and archives.  Browsing collections that I’m not expecting to speak directly to my research but rather to my broader interests in #VastEarlyAmerica often brings surprises, including material that I end up incorporating in my scholarly writing.  Serendipity!

Slavery and (fictional) Georgian Britain

Olaudah Equiano (c.1750-97), or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Portrait. Nigerian autobiographer

I’ve been reading Imogen Roberts’ Crowther and Westerman series of mysteries set in and around 1780s London.  In part because of the Omohundro Institute’s work with the Georgian Papers Programme, reading more than my usual intake of eighteenth-century British history has me adding it to my diet however I can.  The premise of the novels is the unusual partnership of Harriet Westerman, the wealthy, intellectually restless widow of a naval captain semi-settled on a country estate, and Gabriel Crowther, a gentleman scientist (specifically an “anatomist”).  I can recommend the books for the characters and sets (nicely observed furnishings and fabrics).  The latest, the fifth in the series,is more gripping and consequential as Roberts takes up, and has Westerman and Crowther contend with, the ways that slavery was both foundational to and yet by a conspiracy of silence largely overlooked in Georgian Britain.

Strong historical fiction is powerful, especially so from my vantage when it swims in the same currents as historical scholarship.  I was reading Madison Smartt Bell’s biographical trilogy about Toussaint L’ouverture and the Haitian revolution at the same time as the work of Laurent Dubois and others recovering the histories of Haiti, and after I had started teaching Jennifer Morgan on gender, sexuality, and the reproductive violence of slavery alongside Ralph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.  I don’t teach the fiction (I know folks who do), but I’m intrigued by how fiction writers are shaped by scholarship, and vice versa.

In reflecting on how she came to this latest topic through the story about Crowther and Westerman, Roberts wrote about how she, too, was confronting slavery’s centrality to early modern and modern Britain.  “I thought slavery horrific, of course I did,” she wrote in a blog post, “but I didn’t really think of it as being part of my cultural history, and it is.”  The story focuses on the murder of a slave trader turned abolitionist, and the question of whose murderous anger and anxiety was most provoked:  the fellow traders he denounced, or formerly enslaved men and women living in London?

Roberts’ historical notes include references to the scholarship of James Walvin, to the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership site at University College London, and especially to the importance of writers such as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, citing the editing and biographical work of Vincent Caretta on the latter.  (Caretta was one of the OI’s Georgian Papers fellows and wrote in the OI’s blog about his work in the Royal Archives looking for evidence of African writers, including Cugoano, at court.)   I’d add a plug for the University of Glasgow site on Runaway Slaves in Britain.  The prominence of this and other public attention to Britain’s slaveholding is a critical additional dimension to the expanding and important scholarship on slavery and abolition in Britain.  I appreciated the chance to read it through a novelist’s eyes.

Discoverability, Edwardian Style

(From the OI’s blog, March 29, 2016)

Discoverability is an essential concept for modern researchers, and a high priority for authors, librarians, and publishers. Making scholarship on particular and usefully related topics reasonably easy to locate, while giving some priority to items of higher value, is the golden ticket. This interest on the part of scholars and those who aim to support their work is hardly a phenomenon of the age of the internet. While in our world “discoverability” usually refers to discovering or making discoverable scholarship, in the first decades of the twentieth century scholars and institutions were focused on locating archival materials to read and then finding ways to circulate information about where and how to use them.   More

#VastEarlyAmerica and Origins Stories: WMQ 1:1

(From the OI’s Blog, Feb 22, 2016)

What started me thinking more seriously about the first issue of the William and Mary Quarterly was the typescript of an interview in 1973 with Richard L. Morton, the first Editor of the WMQ, held in Swem Library’s Special Collections at William & Mary. Provost and OI Executive Board member Michael Halleran passed a copy to me recently and asked if I’d seen it. In fact I hadn’t, although I’ve read pretty deeply in the archives of the OI’s founding and early years. Morton elaborated some things I’d wondered about, including some of the practical aspects of the collaboration between the College and Colonial Williamsburg that became the OI. But mostly he mused about the challenges of getting the journal up off the ground. He even (too briefly!) described his earliest version of a card system for tracking submissions and subscriptions.   More

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