3d ser., 68, no. 1 January 2011
By Juliana Barr
Traditional historical narratives centered on borderlands often cast the Americas as undefined and unclaimed territory through which Europeans and Indians move, trade, make treaties, and make war in lands neither can fully claim. Yet documentary records indicate that many Europeans recognized American Indian territoriality and the power—sovereignty—accrued by their control of bordered political space. Europeans had to negotiate, and were subject to, the rules and controls of Indian jurisdiction. In the heart of Spanish borderlands we can begin to conceptualize borders as defined by Indian peoples and nations, be they hunter-gatherers, sedentary agriculturalists, or nomadic raiders. Studying the ways that each created and maintained borders according to economy, trade, raiding, hunting, kinship, enmity, and alliance makes clear how Indian polities exercised power with unequivocal spatial dimensions across the landscapes of early America.
In the winter of 1609–10, Jamestown colonists struggled through a period that came to be known as the Starving Time. Historians have generally accepted the validity of cannibalism stories that George Percy and John Smith wrote in the following decade and a half, despite other contemporary accounts arguing that cannibalism never took place. On the basis of the existing evidence, it is impossible to say whether early settlers ate corpses, Indians, or dead wives; a more answerable question is how people in Virginia and London made use of cannibalism rumors for their own purposes. In the 1610s and 1620s, Starving Time narratives were responsible for effecting new laws about food production and consumption. Writers crafted their tales to reassure colonial investors that the Virginia project was still solvent. Such publications changed the idea of abundance, creating a turning point that forced colonists to become industrious producers rather than lazy gatherers. This reassessment of the Starving Time examines abundance in early Virginia and how seventeenth-century transformations of that concept created one of America’s first founding myths: that of avoiding starvation in the New World.
By Katherine A. Grandjean
“New World Tempests” reinterprets the origins and significance of the 1636–38 Pequot War, a series of raids and attacks waged by English colonists and their native allies on the Pequots of southern New England. Most scholars agree that the war resulted primarily from English belligerence, marked by an appetite for Pequot trading riches and territory. But another sort of hunger was also at work. When English records are read closely for evidence of weather, crop failures, and migration patterns, they suggest that environmental and demographic distress played heavily into the push toward war. Food scarcity, exacerbated by awkward patterns of communication that made it difficult for New England to feed itself, contributed to the war’s outbreak. This pattern is not limited to early New England; in many other places and times, too, environmental distress and scarcity begat violence. In studying English encounters with New World natives, historians have not yet fully accounted for the role played by hunger in thwarting peaceful relationships. But the story of the Pequot War points to new possibilities for scholars examining the intersection of the early American environment with human actions and new ways of investigating why early colonial efforts sometimes resulted in such violent ends.
Historians of American religion have argued that the postrevolutionary period saw Christianity democratizing along with the polity. Some historians have sought a place for Catholicism within that story by applying an exceptionalist model to the Catholic Church in America. Recently, a prominent study has argued instead that little in the institution was distinctively American after the Revolution and that the North Atlantic church and Rome shared a conservative worldview. Attention to the ideology, strategy, and rhetoric of John Carroll, the first U.S. bishop, reveals that the developing church was not simply the American wing of a harmonious, conservative monolith, nor was it republicanized. Influenced by Jesuit and English Catholic history as well as by American circumstances, Carroll engineered the creation of an American see that resisted the reach of the Roman authorities he mistrusted. At the same time, he worked to preserve a distinctively Catholic priesthood, hierarchy, and spirituality. Carroll insisted that the resultant Catholicism was a part of American Christianity and should share in the cultural and legal privileges accorded to Protestant sects. Carroll’s creation of an American Catholic Church suggests his success in arguing for a Christian pluralism and the limits of democratization as a description of the governance and experience of American religions in the early Republic.
In November 1808 President Thomas Jefferson received an extraordinary letter. Signed “A Slave,” the twenty-four-page missive was half plea, half threat: an impassioned appeal for the president to act to end slavery backed by threats of dire consequences if he refused to budge. Along with a transcription of this important and long-overlooked antislavery text, the attendant commentary considers the matter of its provenance, sources, style, arguments, and reception by the president. Whoever A Slave was, his letter to Jefferson deserves to be read again.