Muhammad Ali’s patriotism (and poetry)

I’ve had the somewhat odd experience the last two Junes of being on location when something historic happened. In 2015 I was at the Library of Congress, in a seminar room with windows looking out at the Supreme Court, when the Court handed down its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2016, I was in Louisville’s Galt House, in an 8th-floor room with a view of the Muhammad Ali Center, which I visited May 31 for the first time, and which four days later–in spite of the rain (read that as a metaphor, perhaps)–became a memorial for The Greatest, who passed away at the age of 74. (Note: I’m not trying to equate the two, or their significance–just noting that in both cases, I’ve been in an interesting setting to reflect on history.)

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

Already by the time I walked over to the memorial on Saturday morning, national and international media were on-site, most of them hunkered down under pop-up tents and with cameras trained on either the memorial, or the stairs up which visitors were making their way.


Visitors in the rain, Saturday morning (before 8am).

The eulogies quickly appeared in print, on the web, and on TV, but the comments on social media were equally interesting. A number of my friends and acquaintances posted quotes, commented on Ali’s significance–and in some cases criticized both Ali and those mourning his passing. A few were dismissive of his status as “just a sports star,” while others resented his refusal to “serve his country.” And it’s those criticisms I want to focus on, because I think they miss the point of Ali: that his rejection of the draft and refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his unapologetically confrontational comments on race in the U.S., served his country in a way that made him more than a sports star. (If you’re unfamiliar with all this, check out “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” a brief essay from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.)


Tuesday afternoon outside the Ali Center.

We aren’t always accustomed to cultural icons making political statements. Remember the controversy about the Oscars earlier this year, and the speeches in which several actors called for greater environmental consciousness, action on climate change, and attention to race and diversity? Entertainers and celebrities risk their earning power when they use their fame as a platform to express political ideals. When the Dixie Chicks, a country band, blasted George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, their sales plummeted and they lost endorsement deals, among other consequences. With marketing teams and agents managing the public images and careers of athletes, musicians, and actors, it’s more notable when those figures are outspoken and opinionated than when they’re not. Michael Jordan may be the archetype, in some ways–a brand unto himself, but bland (“inoffensive,” if you’d prefer) to an extreme.

Ali’s boxing, and then his decisions involving the draft and his statements on civil rights, made him a cultural icon and a political figure, one of the United States’s most visible black citizens. His fame as an athlete provided him the platform–the audience, the media access, and the economic resources to remain independent and maintain his stance when he was unable to box–to not only express his opinion, but demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice a great deal of good will and money. This was citizen action not through the act of voting to express an individual political position, but through advocacy and persuasion and modeling.

In my class on American Wilderness last semester, we naturally read Thoreau and Emerson (bear with me a moment here). One piece of our discussion of their work was their effort to construct a national literature to help define a distinct American identity, rooting both American letters and nationalism in the United States’ unique relationship with the natural world. They embraced their Americanness, and Americans claim them.

But Thoreau also famously refused to pay taxes to a state government that was complicit in racial slavery and the Mexican-American War, spent time in jail as a consequence, and wrote Civil Disobedience to explain his rationale. In that essay, he pointed to a tension between individual conscience and legislation and argued that men can “serve the state with their consciences also.” That contribution was no less a contribution to his project of encoding American identity in American letters than his celebration of nature.

And I think it’s also a key to understanding Ali. Both sought to articulate what it means to be an American. Both engaged in a similar project, and at times in similar ways. Where Thoreau sought economic independence by simplifying his needs during his experiment at Walden Pond, Ali could lean on his existing wealth for economic support as he endangered his earning power with political action. Where Thoreau sought to contribute to a national canon that would perpetuate American ideals, Ali used his existing fame to highlight the uneven application of those professed American ideals. Both identified racism and imperialism as American practices at odds with the nation’s professed ideals, and both worked to hold it accountable to those ideals. In short, neither rejected his nation. Instead, each seized on the more admirable characteristics of his country–the ability to act and speak in accord with one’s conscience–to combat its least admirable practices, acting alike to serve a nation not as it was, but as they believed it should be.

I will admit one major difference.

Ali was the better poet.


“I’ve wrestled with alligators,/I’ve tussled with a whale./I done handcuffed lightning/And throw thunder in jail./You know I’m bad./Just last week, I murdered a rock,/Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick./I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”–Muhammad Ali

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On authority and objectivity

I’m continually struck by how many students seemingly prize the ideal of “objectivity” and neutrality, but more than that, how many of them are convinced those ideals are actually–or should be–manifested in scholarship and the media. I suppose we could argue they just haven’t (yet) become cynical, and that that is a good thing, but I’m more concerned they sometimes don’t realize they need to be critical–and what that might mean in realms beyond our classrooms–which is where this musing is ultimately headed.

This attitude particularly struck me in my introductory US survey, where students consistently mentioned newspapers as sources they believed to be objective, as opposed to “biased” sources such as personal journals. They seemed confused that 19th-century newspapers attacked politicians, editorialized on the morality of slavery and Indian Removal, and faced suppression by several different presidential administrations between 1790 and 1865. Very few seemed able to reconcile this belief that newspapers are neutral/objective/independent with the content and history of those newspapers that would suggest otherwise. They remained convinced that somewhere they would be able to find “historical fact.”

This attitude carried over to my historiography course, where students were admittedly more skeptical of primary source materials–including legal documents and newspapers–but initially very confused by the notion that historical scholarship is contested rather than authoritative. Our common topic in that course was the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War, and we started by reading excerpts from Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, followed by excerpts of Francis Jennings’s Empire of Fortune. One nice thing about this combination is Jennings calls Parkman “a liar,” so there’s little doubt we’re seeing a historiographical debate–well, probably an argument in this case. But again, many students were taken aback by the disagreements, and one summarized that confusion by asking, “Parkman says one thing, and Jennings says exactly the opposite, so who’s right?”

Most of these students have had upper-level courses in the major by this point, so they have seen scholars working with primary sources, and are willing and able to approach primaries critically. But many have a harder time with the idea that scholars disagree, and I wonder if that’s partly because in our courses we are generally assigning scholarship we think is exemplary–we perhaps don’t critique the weaker elements of a book or essay, and students rarely see examples of poor scholarship and learn to critique it. As instructors, we also perhaps don’t feature enough the major debates in our fields (probably because we tend to align with one side or the other) that would effectively illustrate the contested nature of historical interpretation.

By neglecting to do so, we perhaps feed the notion that historical scholarship is about consensus-building and finding out “what really happened,” a central theme in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect (which we also read in this methods class). Hoffer covers the development of the historical profession, and points out that one of its early objectives was to settle historical fact/truth; once established, that piece of history was no longer contested. Hoffer points out that this fed American scholarship’s construction of consensus history, which celebrated American exceptionalism and coalesced around familiar metanarratives.

That, of course, got blown up across the 1960s and 1970s, a fragmentation/growing complexity that continues today, but which introduces its own problems. One of the aspects of this new history is its honesty about the limits of its methods and understandings, the introspection about our motives as authors and scholars. But that’s something that again troubles many of the students in this class, who sometimes then perceive the honesty among practitioners as a lack of objectivity and therefore bias, leading them to worry that what they are reading is either bad history, or that any historical scholarship is equally valid because it’s informed by personal perspective.

Encountering these attitudes in both classes at the same time prompts me to wonder why it is that students so value that ideal of objectivity and neutrality, and want so much to believe it exists. Part of the answer, I think, goes back to the professionalization of both fields (journalism and historical scholarship), which involved both a credentialing program and the establishment of professional standards that would allow the professions–and the ideas and information they generated and/or conveyed–to serve a civic purpose. They could establish certainty in shared truths, rather than simply reproducing the diverse and possibly irreconcilable opinions/perspectives/arguments of a large number of self-interested people. (One manifestation of this in our students, I think, is their resistance to using the first person. I know that’s partly been trained into them by teachers hoping to help them distinguish between opinion and argument, but the result to such strictures is that many just contort themselves to avoid first-person pronouns without actually recognizing what those rules are trying to accomplish.)

Now of course, part of the point here is that these are students–they are learning to be skeptical, critical receivers and producers of information and ideas, and those in the historiography class had clearly advanced beyond those students in the intro class. But in teaching them (hopefully, anyway) to approach scholarship skeptically, are we effectively conveying the message that other areas of expertise should be equally open to critique, or does that message remain insular? Does the inability or refusal to self-examine–or the lack of visibility of such introspection–in other institutions and professions lend them a greater degree of perceived authority because they don’t question themselves?

Here I’m thinking in particular about news again, which seems to retain that kind of authority even through scandals involving funding, corporatization, the narrow lens of American media, the confirmation bias built into different outlets, etc. Again, if so many of my students feel like it doesn’t matter where one obtains news because it’s the duty of the media to be objective and informative, not to shape public opinion and manipulate citizens, and then they contrast the bombastic certainty expressed in the information outlets like Fox News and MSNBC convey with the qualified and cautious arguments propagated by scholars/academics, is it any wonder so many people accept dubious claims about climate change, immigration, Islam, free markets, health care, guns, and other politically fraught issues? Clear positions seem to derive from a certainty that scholarship has often actively distanced itself from, and claim an authority that scholarship is cautious to assert.

Posted in In the news, Pondering, Teaching/classroom | 2 Comments

Paleoclimatology and the environmental history of New Netherland/New York

Although I’ve been teaching US Environmental History at UMW the last few years (and a seminar on American Wilderness), and although I write about perceptions of landscapes in my research, I haven’t really done much scholarship I’d consider environmental history as such (cultural history involving environments and landscapes, sure). But I do obviously have some background, and that’s prompted me to think more explicitly about how to tie my interest in historical ideas about landscapes/environments with material environmental conditions and change.

Way, way back in grad school I took a class with Mike Davis that was centered around his book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third WorldMy research paper for the class took a totally different direction, looking at climactic disruptions in the Great Lakes region during the French and Indian War, and how that exacerbated the wartime social and economic conditions in New France and the communities of its Native American allies. I drew some on the usual sources you’d expect–journals and letters and reports from military officers and soldiers and colonists and captives, treaty records, etc.–as well as some that might not have been so expected, namely tree-ring data indicating regional weather patterns in the 1750s and 1760s. Ultimately I was making an argument about the dramatic changes to Native subsistence patterns during the war itself, and during the period that followed as the British government instituted new policies that further pressured Native subsistence. It was fun, but undoubtedly only a preliminary foray into that type of work, and I set it aside for years afterward. When I tried to return to it about a year ago, the website from which I had drawn that data was gone, and so I turned to other work instead.

But when I recently committed to writing an essay on how the introduction of Dutch/English agriculture to the Hudson River corridor in the 17th century upset Native subsistence patterns, I went hunting again, this time with the promise of a more immediate payoff. I eventually landed on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) page of Paleoclimatology Data, where lo and behold, it looks as though the data I used earlier has been expanded, refined, and set alongside a ton of other types of scientific evidence useful for thinking about environmental history. This is at once (1) incredibly exciting; (2) potentially illuminating; (3) absolutely daunting. Here’s hoping I’m somewhat successful locating useful data and putting it to work in conjunction with the written historical accounts with which I’m far more comfortable working.

And for any interested parties, I have at least one on-campus presentation in Spring 2016 to discuss my ongoing progress.

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The trial of “an Indyan called Nangenutch or Will”

Although I haven’t posted about it here, I have been working on an essay that I think is about ready for some additional readers (one is already checking it out, another two are lined up and will see it probably early next week). A brief description of the specific event at the essay’s center:

On 19 March 1667/8, in the town of East Hampton on the southeastern tip of Long Island, Mary Miller escorted Nangenutch, a Montauk Indian[1] also known to the English as Will, to her home. Sent by her husband to open the door so the bound native laborer could deposit a bag of corn for later grinding, she apparently instead was assaulted and raped. Fleeing her home, she encountered a neighbor to whom she related the assault, and by the following day local magistrates had indicted Nangenutch and deposed Mary and two other witnesses. They referred the case to a higher court, which examined the Indian on 28 March, and proceeded to trial the following month. Despite concluding unanimously that the defendant had not committed the capital crime of rape, the court found him guilty of attempted rape, ordering him publicly whipped and sold into slavery in the Leeward Islands “that all Indyans may bee deterred to attempt the like.”[2]

[2] Peter R. Christoph, ed., Administrative Papers of Governors Richard Nicolls and Francis Lovelace, 1664-1673 (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980), 71.

I actually ran across this case–the legal documents include an indictment, several depositions, minutes of the court’s examinations, and a verdict–while researching for the article that came out earlier this summer, and so I made copies and set it aside for later. It was interesting enough to use a bit for my Colonial America class, and during the fall semester I also submitted a conference proposal for it. When that was accepted, I realized I had a great opportunity to pursue a research project in parallel with students in my History 298: History Practicum section, since they were doing primary-source based papers–I wrote about this briefly a few months ago. Working with the documents from this case was really helpful for me in terms of figuring out what I wanted those students to achieve in the various stages of their projects, from conception to proposal to historiography to a final research paper, and to build those assignment requirements accordingly. I also wrote the same assignments they did, which compelled me to think more deeply about what I had as well as writing pieces well in advance of my conference.

If you’re interested, the pre-work and source materials, and some thoughts about the whole process, are available on my 298 course blog, and students looking ahead to 298 can check out the assignments on that website’s Resources page, though they’ll have to track me down if they want to read the conference paper.

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Positive reinforcement

Just the other day, FedEx dropped off a lovely envelope from Early American Studies, and inside were copies to EAS 13.3, where my first full-length article appears. I last wrote about this project when submitting the piece–I held off updates when it was accepted and going through the editorial process because I didn’t want to jinx anything. But it’s done, it’s out, and it feels pretty good. And probably just as importantly, it’s positive reinforcement as I work on two other writing projects this summer.

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Feds recognize Pamunkey Indians of Virginia

I spent the last couple of weeks in Washington, D.C., and they turned out to be fairly momentous. There were landmark Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, but there was also a much quieter announcement more directly related to what I study and more specifically related to where I live. The Bureau of Indian Affairs officially approved the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia’s application for federal recognition, decades after the tribe initiated the process to become Virginia’s first federally recognized Indian tribe. (It’s worth noting that the Duwamish, of Washington state, were not approved, and were notified on the same day.)

I was actually at the Library of Congress for a NEH seminar on Native American history, and it involved a ton of discussion about reservations, tribal government and rights, political sovereignty, cultural identities, and self-determination. In other words, I was hanging out with a bunch of people who saw the headline in the Washington Post and immediately thought it was remarkable and exciting. We were already talking about the challenges of recognition, and the lack of visibility of Native people and communities, so this gave us lots to discuss.

One of the challenges that had faced the Pamunkey was their lack of a treaty with the federal government, the basis for many tribes’ federal recognition and treaty rights. Instead, the Pamunkey maintain a treaty-based relationship with the governor of Virginia, based on a colonial-era treaty; they still commemorate it annually, including giving a gift to the governor (formerly a bundle of arrows, now a pair of deer). But that state-level treaty hadn’t previously proved enough to obtain recognition, despite a persistent cultural identity and a reservation (land base) almost unique among Virginia’s tribes. That isn’t quite to say that no one acknowledges their existence, but rather that the BIA adheres to a strict set of requirements legislated by Congress, and it took the Pamunkey years of work and research to persuade the BIA that, in the official notice’s language, “the Pamunkey Indian Tribe exists as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law.”

The Pamunkey were already one of eleven tribes recognized by the state, as are the six tribes currently seeking federal recognition through an act of Congress. These tribes haven’t met with success in their petitions to the BIA, again largely because of the strict requirements for federal recognition, but have pooled resources to make the case that they have and continue to exist as independent communities deserving of federal status. Several others have commented that they aren’t actively seeking federal status because state recognition provides access to resources and programs they’re interested in, and they don’t necessarily see a need to pursue federal status at the moment. The Pamunkey also maintained that position for a time–in fact, a tribal spokesman explicitly said as much in preparing the tribe’s exhibit at D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian.

There were objections to according the Pamunkey federal status, and they weren’t all based on the strict requirements for BIA recognition. One major group of opponents cited their concern that federal recognition would allow the Pamunkey to open a casino on their reservation, since federally recognized tribes are exempt from some state regulations (Virginia typically does not allow gaming, though there is currently a casino under construction–shockingly, the company operating that casino has opposed Pamunkey recognition). A second group of opponents cited tribal regulations that prohibited marriage between Pamunkeys and individuals of African descent, arguing that a racist past should disqualify the tribe (though nobody has argued that my state, home of Loving v. Virginia, should be denied statehood based on that history). I don’t know a ton about Pamunkey history, but I’d suspect that stance was partly a response to the state’s 1924 Racial Integrity ACt, which banned interracial marriage and dictated that state records record births as “White” or “Colored,” or if the attitude existed earlier, was an effort to distance themselves from a black population enslaved in the colonial and 19th-century South. Given the choice between identifying as white at a time when there were few protections afforded to Indian tribes, and with legal segregation and socially acceptable racism in full force, American Indians undoubtedly chose the more palatable option.

That created problems later when tribes like the Pamunkey began seeking federal recognition, since their tribal identities and affiliations had been legislated out of existence for decades, if not generations. In other words, proving a continuous existence was difficult when there were long gaps due to the fact that no one was officially identified as “American Indian,” much less Pamunkey. Opponents of recognition could argue that tribal members were not “real” Indians, but merely claiming that identity to access “special privileges” like treaty rights and federal funds.

Nonetheless, in the few years I’ve spent in Virginia, it’s become abundantly clear that the state’s Native communities maintain a vibrant cultural tradition–including oral histories, language reconstruction programs and classes, traditional naming conventions and material culture (Patawomeck eel baskets, for instance)–and constitute well-defined, tight-knit communities. The federal government has acknowledged this in the case of the Pamunkey, and we’ll see if that matters for other Virginia tribes.

But for now, it seems it’s time to update the Pamunkey exhibition at the NMAI.

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Wild and Scenic Film Fest

2015 WSFF Poster Regular 8.5x11

Wild & Scenic Film Fest expands to two locations

4th annual event features films that inspire environmental activism

For immediate release

Contact: Woodie Walker

E-mail: woodie.walker

Phone: (540) 373-3448 x. 117

FREDERICKSBURG – There aren’t many empty seats at Friends of the Rappahannock’s (FOR) annual environmental film festival, so this year the Fredericksburg-based environmental non-profit has expanded to two dates and two locations.

The group’s 4th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival kicks off Saturday, March 21, at Paragon Village 12 Theaters off Route 3 in Fredericksburg. According to FOR Development Director Katie Abel, the festival’s theme is, “A Wild Life,” and features nearly 20 inspirational films with titles like “Monarchs and Milkweed” and “High Altitude Fish Hunters.” Most are about 10 minutes in length, and intended to raise environmental awareness and serve as a call to action.

On Sunday, April 12, the festival will move to the Daniel Technology Center on the Germanna Community College campus in Culpeper. “Our Fredericksburg festival draws more than 300 attendees each year,” said FOR Executive Director Kathleen Harrigan. “We recognized that people really enjoy this event, so we partnered with Piedmont Environmental Council, Trout Unlimited, and Germanna Community College to make it more accessible for folks in the upper portion of the river, as well.”

Doors open for the Fredericksburg festival at 8 a.m., with movies starting at 8:50 and running until about noon. The Culpeper showing begins at 1 p.m. and will end about 4 p.m. Vendors will be on hand at both events to promote local businesses and other nonprofit partners in the region. There will also be drawings for door prizes.


Tickets for both events are $8 in advance and $10 at the door, and can be purchased online at Look for the event calendar in the lower, right-hand side of the website. Keep a sharp eye on our facebook page for the chance to win free tickets!

At the conclusion of each film festival, FOR will present a special showing of its award-winning documentary, “Rappahannock,” produced and directed by Oscar-nominee Bayley Silleck of Fredericksburg. This 40-minute film highlights the history of the Rappahannock River and the challenges it faces in the 21st century.

For more information, call (540) 373-3448 or e-mail



#Wildandscenic #RappRiverFilmFest



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Fredericksburg ghost stories

It’s spring break and almost daylight savings, and so maybe I should be thinking about spring cleaning. But since we’re still dipping down into the single digits, and looking at 3-5 inches of snow and ice and frozenish crud tomorrow, and since I’m marrying a librarian and we can always justify acquiring more books, I went shopping at my local favorite, Riverby Books. Sure, there was the Columbia River and Captain Kidd, but there was also this:



L.B. Taylor, Jr., actually has a whole series of these books, and isn’t the only one writing on ghosts in Fredericksburg. Five bucks for a local history book that isn’t about a church or a battle sounds good to me, though. If I’m going to live here (and I am), I’m going to know something about here. I actually want to build up a bigger library of local history anyway, and eventually I’d like to teach a First-Year Seminar on local history–not even Virginia, but Fredericksburg “…and nearby environs.” It could maybe center on the Rappahannock, or the city and the counties immediately surrounding the ‘Burg–I’m not sure yet how to define the scope, but there are lots of sites and local archives and local historians to take advantage of. That would let me spend some time on Native American history, colonial exploration and settlement, tobacco planting, slavery, market economies, French and Indian War, George Washington, the American Revolution, inland ports, Civil War, major floods in the early 20th century, and who knows what else (can you tell I’m an early Americanist?). I have no idea if something like this would be useful for a class, but it should be a fun read and a good way to spook my kids.


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Teaching research methods

This semester I’m teaching a section of History 298: History Practicum, the second half of a two-course methods sequence for our majors. In the first half of the sequence, we focused more on historiography, and students finished the semester by writing a literature review. In the second semester, they develop their own unique topics and work closely with primary sources to eventually produce an 8-10 page research paper. In addition to a primary source analysis, short lit review, and other assignments building towards that final paper, students will blog about their digital identity and research processes and experiences, and develop/maintain a website with an online portfolio and resume.

It so happens that I’m simultaneously beginning work on a project for a conference in June, a paper which examines a 1668 New York rape case involving Mary Miller and Nangenutch alias Will, a Montauk Indian. Since we’re working in parallel, I’ll be completing some of the same assignments as my students and using my own website to document that process, hopefully modeling for the class the website and research assignments they’re expected to complete. For the time being, at least, I won’t be making everything public/open–the final paper I’ll keep to myself–but much of my working process will be transparent, if anyone wants to follow along.

 The website is

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Delaware Indians on Pennsylvania’s colonial roads

It seems that I promised way way back in the day (okay, February) that I’d share any updates on the Pennsylvania rivers/roads project, not just to provide more fodder for students to give me a hard time about how much I love diplomatic metaphors and landscapes, but more because I shared some of this work at a department event (Talking History) and got to kick around some ideas with students and colleagues. Some of those ideas wound up in a proposal, and subsequently the paper I presented at the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s 2014 meeting in Philadelphia.

The resulting paper took a sort of interesting turn as I wrote. The earlier stages of this project had more of a regional focus, thinking about Native Americans along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, and how waterways functioned in their diplomatic metaphors. At that point, I was thinking more regionally rather than about particular groups of people, and I started this section with a similar approach. After compiling a bunch of material, I went through and pulled out the instances that struck me as the most unique, and about which I’d have the most to say, and started working with them. It pretty quickly became apparent that most of what I’d selected involved people coming in the early 18th-century to be known as Delaware Indians (actually a more diverse population, speaking several dialects, who shared the experience of removing from the Delaware Valley into more western regions, in the process beginning to develop a common identity). That left me in a bit of a scramble to make sure I had a good sense of the location and political conditions of these various Delaware bands, but I think I managed well enough for this stage–albeit with a sense I’m going to need to develop a better understanding of each band’s unique situation and the relations amongst them.

[Side note: one thing I’ve realized as I’ve worked on this project is that there seems to be some standardization of diplomatic language in the northeast, which I’m guessing is at least partly attributable to the ability of the Iroquois to claim to represent so many other native groups, an assertion made possible by English acknowledgements, and a situation which seemingly established certain conventions. That’s going to wind up as another aspect of this larger project.]

Anyway, here’s a couple of modified excerpts from the introduction that should give a sense of this latest stage of the project:

When in 1768 “the Delawares, Shawanese, Munsies, Mohickons, Wyandotts, and our Uncles the Six Nations” asked Pennsylvania’s governor to “take hold of the end of this Belt, which we stretch along the Road between him and us, in order to clear it of the Briars and Brush that have grown up in it, that we may travel it in Peace and Safety,” they drew on a long tradition of using figurative, and especially geographical, language to describe intercultural relations. But they also selected a particular metaphor, the road, with its own unique significance in 18th-century Pennsylvania’s shifting intercultural landscape.[i]

Considering what he calls “geographies of encounter,” Tracy Neal Leavelle has called on historians to more carefully consider the connections between perception and the physical manipulation of space in the creation of new geographies during first encounters and subsequent interactions.[ii] I am asking us to consider the changing contexts for these geographical expressions as the grounds for metaphors shifted with historical development, paying particular attention to discussions of roads and paths in intercultural exchanges recorded in Pennsylvania Provincial Council records between the 1680s and early 1760s. Though hardly alone in using paths and roads as metaphors for intercultural relations, the Delaware Indians are notable in their attempts to use the distinctive features of colonial Pennsylvania’s transforming physical landscape to claim/maintain a position of power—namely as middlemen between Pennsylvania’s provincial government and Indian nations further to the West and North—as they relocated from the Delaware Valley into the Ohio region and grappled with shifting geopolitical contexts across the 18th century.

[i] Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania from the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, ed. Samuel Hazard (Harrisburg, PA: Theo. Fenn & Co., 1851-1852), 9: 525 [cited hereafter as MPCP].

[ii] Tracy Neal Leavelle, “Geographies of Encounter: Religion and Contested Spaces in Colonial North America,” American Quarterly 56, no. 4 (2004), 914-5.

I’m interested enough to keep working on this anyway, but I’ve also talked with a couple of other scholars who’ve encouraged me to keep working, which is always a positive. More to come, I’m sure.

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