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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American slavery, Indian lands: on money and marginalization

This is not actually a post about slavery, or really about Ed Baptist‘s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, though indeed that’s where this train of thought begins. Rather, it’s about the study of history, its implications for contemporary policy and community, and some of the questions my students ask. That means it’s a long post–sorry.

If you’re unfamiliar with the kerfuffle that attended The Economist‘s review–subsequently withdrawn–of the book, my colleague Will Mackintosh has written a great piece giving a brief rundown and considering why the review took the stance it did (Baptist himself recommends Will’s post, if you need reinforcement). As Will notes, “the book gets uncomfortably close to the reality that modern capitalism gets its increases in productivity at the expense of its workers,” a truth that suggests “capitalism isn’t an inherently moral economic system.”

The Economist, of course, is hardly the only party invested in that stance; conversations with several of my students who attended Baptist’s talk at UMW a couple of weeks ago have made it clear that they’re struggling to reconcile an economic system they admire (capitalism) with an institution (slavery) they abhor as immoral and unjust. I’m thrilled that Baptist’s talk has forced them to associate slavery and capitalism, and consider the connections between the two–and that students find that challenging. But I also think that’s just a starting point, and hope they’ll continue to develop that thinking to better understand the argument that capitalism in its modern, American iteration couldn’t have developed apart from slavery, or the part of the argument that modern capitalism still bears the legacy of those roots–in particular the professed amorality that poses technologies devoted solely to maximizing production while minimizing costs (stints, the cotton gin, Baptist’s “torture mechanisms,” etc.) as simple means of gaining efficiency, a claim that more importantly serves to absolve proponents of modern American capitalism from any responsibility for the inequities the system produces.

Following his talk, Baptist fielded a question about reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and it’s a question raised in this Huffington Post article as part of the reason we’re having these conversations 150 years later. Again, history has implications for contemporary policy. Aside from the practical problems of implementation, my personal sense–and I’m open to arguments, especially since I’m not one of those people who would be directly affected–is that monetary payments to the descendants of enslaved people would do little to address the actual consequences of slavery. They might alleviate some guilt, they might address some short-term income disparities, but I suspect that impact would be largely limited to a single generation, with fewer long-term shifts in the experiences and opportunities of black Americans. True “reparations” would have to address the structural inequalities that resulted from racial slavery and other economic constructs, and which still persist today in forms that of course continue to effect African Americans, but also impact ethnic minorities, women, and working and middle class Americans. The cynic in me wonders if this in fact presents the prospect of an even more terrifying and possibly onerous burden for many Americans.

Pondering this brought me back closer to my own academic interests and one of the topics we discuss in my Native American history class, and which I read about this past summer in yet another great Jeff Ostler book, The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. A short/over-simplified explanation of the situation here is that the Lakotas (and other native peoples) who used the Black Hills of South Dakota were forcibly removed and eventually restricted to reservations, some of which are currently among the poorest in the country. Several lawsuits–how much support they had from Lakotas themselves seems debatable–culminated in a ruling that awarded the Lakota a large monetary settlement as compensation, which so far they have elected not to accept, even as it continues to grow while being held in trust. Surely they could benefit from the money, but that wouldn’t necessarily solve the issue of their dispossession. Reclaiming those lands–which some insist is the only acceptable outcome–would allow them to reclaim a place prominent in their own historical and spiritual traditions. However, it would also allow them to claim a place prominent in a larger American culture, with the attendant visibility and political reenfranchisement that would entail, part of which would be built on a new economic infrastructure in which they would possess the means of generating their own wealth–the Black Hills themselves, as natural and cultural resources–rather than one share of the wealth that would continue to accrue to other parties should they fail to regain ownership.

The reservations to which native peoples have at times been confined–and in this case, I’m thinking about Pine Ridge specifically, though obviously not exclusively–were designed to be marginalized places and temporary refuges for alienated peoples who would someday disappear. Obviously reservations have acquired their own meaning and become important to those identities, albeit in ways laden with their pasts. But reclaiming lands outside reservations entails reclaiming a physical place in the American landscape, and in the case of the Black Hills (with Mt. Rushmore) a place entrenched in national narratives of expansion and progress and democracy and freedom. Reclaiming those lands, then, is about reclaiming a place in the American polity.

That is also, it should be noted, a place that was not willingly relinquished. In my own research and writing, I’ve consistently seen Native Americans carefully maintaining ties to lands even as they relinquished them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In some instances–the instances that often draw comment in both primary sources and scholarship–they retain some limited usage rights, or request continuing payments or other compensation (or both). The more striking instances for me, however, are those in which they do neither, but instead simply appear to reiterate their historical relations to lands, and insist that colonists acknowledge that history, without requesting compensation. In doing so they worked to preserve the memory of their role in a developing colonial community and the landscape in which it was situated, one from which they were determined not to be displaced.

Effectual reparations/restitution/compensation, then, would involve reversing the systematic dispossession and marginalization of these peoples, and demand a complete rethinking of many of our basic economic and social institutions in ways that would address the long-term inequalities they perpetuate. Cash payments do nothing to address the concerns of people who care less about the money than their marginalization.

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Rappahannock film premier


Friends of the Rappahannock, a local conservation organization in Fredericksburg, will be hosting the premier of a documentary by Oscar-nominated director Bayley Silleck at UMW’s Dodd Auditorium on Sunday, November 9, from 3-4 pm (you can grab the promotional poster from that link at the top of this post). It’s free and open to the public, and FOR’s representatives promise me the first 20-30 minutes is focused on the history of the river, which should appeal to anybody with an interest in local and/or environmental history. This is a great addition to the organization’s lineup of events, which includes workshops, summer camps, Riverfest, and other outreach, as well as environmental and conservation work.

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Cuisine as cultural resource


Teaching Native American history and trying to keep up with news about American Indians today, it seems like I see tons of stories like this one (and certainly this type of coverage is more visible to many of my students), where a proposed natural gas pipeline threatens Native American burial grounds in Pennsylvania. While economic interests threaten cultural resources like archaeological sites, it’s also nice to know that they occasionally work to bolster cultural recovery and preservation. We talk about powwows, traditional crafts, and language programs as means of preserving and publicizing culture, as well as bringing together Indian communities in shared projects, but foodways are something that–at least in my experience–draw less attention, though they obviously shouldn’t. Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota who has long worked as a chef, has spent the past few years research edible plants and ethnobotany, and using oral histories and early ethnographic documents to try to reconstruct Lakota cuisine–ingredients as well as processing and preservation methods. He has already started a catering business, the Sioux Chef, and is hoping to open his own restaurant in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, which will work with local farms growing indigenous plants and preserving heirloom seeds as part of a national “food sovereignty movement.” I know there are plenty of good dining options in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and that he’s not the only chef trying this concept, but how could you not want to try the buffalo with crab apple?

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I don’t always read for pleasure…

…but when I do, it’s still about Indians. Sometimes, anyway, though the two most recent were. Sort of.

If you haven’t read any of Sherman Alexie‘s work, get on it (or, better yet, listen to an audio version that he reads, because then you get the amazing rez accent and sing-song delivery, which is wonderful). I just finished a collection of his short stories, Ten Little Indians. I often find short stories frustrating, and rarely read them, so I’m not sure if he just does a good job (my favorites were the first and last in the book), or if I’m more receptive to them as a reader now for some reason than I was a couple of years ago when I last tried to tackle such a collection. At any rate, his characters are Spokane Indians, most of them living in the Seattle area, and the stories are great. I probably wouldn’t have even started it, but I got it on sale, and I knew from reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian that I liked Alexie (he also wrote the script for Smoke Signals, which is a pretty solid film with one brilliant and hilarious character/actor). If you need more incentive, his books are banned in some schools, and so you should read them just to be contrarian.

Another recommended recent read: Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu. That link will even give you a couple of preview chapters, and you don’t have to be into vampires for this one (by the way, can you tell I binged this summer?), which is centered on a special shade of blue, painting, and the French Impressionists. He seems to have gotten much more serious with his last few books, though they’re still smart and a total blast. And he mentioned Indians somewhere in there, I’m pretty sure. I know there were Picts.

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The MacArthur Foundation announced its “genius grant” recipients earlier this week, and one of its choices strikes me as particularly inspired. Sarah Deer, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN, was recognized for her work with, and on behalf of, American Indian women living on reservations. The reminder that “Native women living on reservations suffer one of the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the world” is timely given recent events in the sports world.

Her efforts to develop policies and legislation empowering tribal governments to more effectively address domestic abuse and violence are drawing attention while football fans and residents of the state grapple with allegations that Adrian Peterson switched his 4-year old son, inflicting severe injuries in the process. The latter comes amidst a spate of recent domestic incidents involving 49er Ray McDonald, then-Raven Ray Rice, Panther James Hardy, and Bear Brandon Marshall.

It sometimes seems like awards like these are deployed strategically (like Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize), and hopefully Deer’s recognition reinforces the severity of this problem, as well as highlighting means of trying to address it, for an audience both outside and inside of sports. The grant comes at a moment when the American public is paying attention to domestic violence/abuse issues, and much of the media, at least, is reacting against the NFL’s pathetic response to these incidents. I suspect the eventual response by the league and individual franchises–delayed, indecisive–is more due to public pressures that potentially impact its bottom line than a response to the voices of domestic abuse victims.

That’s a reminder that money buys one’s way into these conversations about rights and oppression, and I’ve noted on this blog several times–especially in relation to the Washington NFL franchise’s nickname–that financial limitations often relegate Indian voices to less visible platforms. Deer has said she’ll use her stipend to help provide that platform for Native American women, specifically, and we can hope her contribution can amplify the efforts of other long-time advocates and new supporters outraged by recent, highly visible incidents, to continue to address domestic violence.

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Celebrating Wilderness

A Facebook friend posted this reflection on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, and naturally, the Wilderness Society is commemorating it as well. If you’re not especially familiar with the legislation, its background, or it consequences, the Wilderness Society has a primer for you (and it’s even partially a National Geographic video).

It’s a timely reminder that environmental issues are recreational and/or preservationist as well as concerned with resources and climate change, though I’d add that questions surrounding wilderness involve political and social power as well–probably no surprise to my students from American Wilderness, or any others involved in a great community of scholars at UMW who think about environmental and wilderness issues.

And a plug: I’ll be talking about “Power and Possession: Indians in the American Wilderness” in October for Dr. Jason Matzke’s CPRD 299K Mysterium Humanum: Wilderness, one of a series of guest lectures by faculty from a variety of disciplines.

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Take Note

I’m hardly the only one to have expended breath in unheeded arguments in favor of taking notes by hand, but it’s still nice to occasionally see something that better articulates and explains the rationale I try to share with students. I know some colleagues don’t allow laptops in class or for note-taking, but I do understand why some students find it appealing (convenience, searchability, saves paper, it’s faster and so possibly more efficient, arthritis problems that flare up gripping pens, etc), and I try to be flexible.

But I think part of what this argument highlights is the disparity between what many students think we want from them, and what we think we want from them. Laptops allow note-takers to more closely record a lecture or discussion verbatim; my students consistently ask me to repeat details that I think of as minutiae, albeit often interesting. They think I want them to memorize those details, rather than recognize the larger point I’m making with several specific examples. Thus for me, the gist of the article is here:

Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning.  Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.

Basically, typing allows for “through-put,” a mechanical transcription that requires less engagement–in the sense of critical listening, selectivity, and translation into a student’s own words/”language.” I’m still not sure how comfortable I am banning laptops or developing a stronger policy, and I do suspect doing so would be fighting against a larger current in which more information is consumed and produced and recorded in these formats and via these methods, as well as one that tells students they’re responsible for every word I utter (they aren’t, nor do I want to be).

I do wonder if there is some way to teach better note-taking methods on laptops. Something to ponder, but for myself, I’ll still mostly stick with my legal pads and scratch paper and non-linear messiness anyway.

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