Diplomatic metaphors in Pennsylvania

Back in September, I gave a paper at the American Society for Ethnohistory’s annual meeting, in New Orleans. That marked my return to the conference circuit after a protracted (and frankly, probably irresponsible) absence, and I was more than a bit nervous. The paper was well-received–certainly not perfect, but it generated a lot of discussion and some great suggestions to shape my thinking as I move ahead with that project. Here is the abstract:

“Wee drink one water”: Rivers and intercultural relations in the eighteenth-century Mid-Atlantic

During the seventeenth century, Mid-Atlantic inhabitants sought to build an inclusive intercultural landscape that reflected relations between multiple native and newly arrived peoples, citing waterways as physical components of that landscape and metaphors for intercultural relations. However, earlier metaphors positioning waterways as channels of communication linking diverse peoples into a larger community gave way by the eighteenth century to those emphasizing waterways’ characteristics as boundaries between peoples. This shift reflected the course of intercultural relations in the Mid-Atlantic, and the growing conviction that Mid-Atlantic landscapes should mark the boundaries of distinct communities of Native Americans and Europeans.

A month or so later, I used this project as the basis for my presentation/discussion in our department’s Talking History series, in which faculty members discuss works in progress in a public forum with other faculty, and with students, as a way of making visible the historical research/writing process. Again, it was a productive conversation for me, especially in terms of thinking about how I might build that original conference paper out into a larger project/article. One of the big takeaways was that I was making an argument for why river metaphors assumed new functions and became less central to diplomatic conversations, but I was doing less to suggest what replaced them; additionally, there were perhaps other reasons in addition to what I was already suggesting for why they changed so dramatically. One idea that developed here was that land-based figurative language became more relevant as colonial settlement spread inland and notions of more defined territorial boundaries took root.

With those ideas and questions already lurking in the back of my head, I saw a call for papers for “The Place of Pennsylvania,” and it seemed only logical to propose a paper that could extend some of those earlier ideas.

“This Path between this Town and the Place where he lives”: Pennsylvania’s Eighteenth-century Intercultural Landscape

During the seventeenth century, rivers and streams had functioned as literal and metaphorical elements of a landscape that could connect Native Americans and European newcomers into a wider intercultural community. However, by the early eighteenth century, many mid-Atlantic residents had come to understand waterways as boundaries between culturally distinct peoples, turning instead to roads and paths as the landscape elements that might link diverse cultural groups. Delaware speaker Sasoonan exemplified this new perspective, promising Pennsylvania officials in 1728 that he would “make this Path between this Town and the Place where he lives…open and plain, he will always keep it wide, and root and cutt up every Bush and Grub that may stand in the Way.”[1] Scholars considering the symbolic functions of geographical features such as roads, paths, and crossroads in colonial diplomacy have yet to fully explore how this symbolic realm evolved in response to accelerating colonial development. This paper uses treaty minutes and other diplomatic records, as well as travel narratives and land records, to argue that these changes to the rhetorical tropes used by Native American speakers reflected Pennsylvania’s changing spatial geography.

As colonial settlers spread into inland areas further from major watercourses, and especially into farmlands and nucleated villages, overland travel became more common and waterways less critical to exchange and communication. At the same time, the centralization of Indian affairs contributed to the standardization of diplomatic language and procedure: patterns originating with major players—like the Iroquois and English—displaced more localized and outmoded expressions—familiar to both Indians and earlier European settlers dispersed along watercourses—based on water travel. Finally, paths and roads emerged as the metaphor of choice in describing channels of communication between Indians and colonists because, as man-made features rather than manipulable elements of a natural landscape, they more easily encompassed the idea that intercourse was constructed and mutable, a familiar notion in an era of increased tension and conflict between native and newcomer. The increased emphasis on paths and roads as metaphors in intercultural diplomacy thus reflected eighteenth-century Pennsylvania’s changing spatial geography, political centralization, and ambivalence about the possibility of productive intercultural relations.

[Hopefully more to come.]

[1] Minutes of the Provincial Council: Meeting with Allummapees, Shikelamy, and other Indians, 4 June 1728, in Pennsylvania and Delaware Treaties, 1629-1737, ed. Donald H. Kent (Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, Inc., 1979), 296.

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