Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 73, no. 1 January 2016


Narrating the Age of Revolution

By Sarah Knott

This essay offers a genealogy and diagnosis of new “situational” narratives about the age of revolutions. It grew out of a WMQ-EMSI workshop, “The Age of Revolutions,” convened at the Huntington Library in 2014. Workshop participants presented papers concerning the massive transnational transformations of the late eighteenth century that rent old regimes from the Americas to West Africa and Western Europe. The essay sets today’s historical narratives in relation to those of the revolutionary period and the mid-twentieth century and explores their “situational” form in our present. Situational narratives are marked by a heightened emphasis on place and mobility and a concern for people acting politically and locatedly (that is, from the vista of their own location). They make for new kinds of narrative interpretation and new understandings of revolution. To compose a field, the author argues, situational narratives must retheorize the condition of eventfulness, renovate understandings of politics and of freedom as a set of practices, and overcome narrative’s habit of soliloquy by developing new techniques of scholarly communality.

The Natural History of Colonial Science:
Joseph-François Lafitau’s Discovery of Ginseng and Its Afterlives

By Christopher M. Parsons

The Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau announced his 1716 discovery of ginseng outside Montreal as the product of his encounter with Mohawk women. While Lafitau’s efforts to foreground the participation of indigenous peoples have often been lauded, the manner in which he laid claim to the discovery was integral to the subsequent rise of an ecologically unsustainable and culturally disruptive trade in ginseng. When Parisian naturalists argued that he had found an unrelated plant, Lafitau produced a detailed examination of indigenous ecological and medical knowledge. His insistence on the existence of an Asian plant in North America emerged from his larger ambitions to demonstrate the Old World origins of indigenous peoples. While he succeeded in winning over his detractors, he disseminated a body of knowledge about indigenous plant collection that most actively interested merchants. These merchants translated Lafitau’s insights regarding indigenous cultures into a global trade that was economically profitable but locally devastating. The consequences of Lafitau’s discovery therefore suggest a need for both attention to the material impacts of intellectual endeavors and caution as today’s Native Americans are again being asked to collaborate with academics to better know and protect American environments.

Staging the Cherokee Othello:
An Imperial Economy of Indian Watching

By Miles P. Grier

In November 1752, a performance of Othello at Williamsburg’s newly refurbished theater served as a diversion from unresolved trade negotiations between Virginia’s lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie and Cherokee dignitaries. The Virginia Gazette reported that the empress of the Cherokees interrupted the play because she thought actors engaged in a swordfight truly intended to kill each other. This event has never been considered in light of a spate of newspaper reports on gullible Indian spectators at British Atlantic playhouses. Yet for the British, Indian errors at the theater predicted the latter’s inability to deal with other mediations, such as paper treaties and abstract economic value. The reported interruption of Othello invites an interpretation that considers both the British desire to restage scenarios involving Indian dupes and the empress’s intrusion in a political sphere from which the British were trying to exclude native women. The implications for early American history and for the larger history of race are significant.

From Field to Plate:
The Colonial Livestock Trade and
the Development of an American Economic Culture

By Emma Hart

Throughout the early modern British Atlantic world, cows were a valuable commodity. Investigating how and where individuals bought and sold cows, hides, and tallow reveals critical differences between the spaces and practices of the British provincial animal trade and its counterpart in early British America. Rather than buying and selling beasts in customary spaces that claimed to uphold the common good, such as fairs and marketplaces, colonists favored auctions and face-to-face bargains. Relying on these market mechanisms meant that colonists’ commercial culture developed to privilege economic spaces undergirded by the widespread ownership of private property. However, belief in the merits of the common good as a guiding commercial principle continued, meaning that revolutionary-era food shortages prompted a debate between supporters of a cattle trade that operated in public spaces such as fairs and markets and those who believed in the rights of private property owners to buy and sell cows and their by-products how and where they wished. The outcome of this debate was a compromise that redefined the common good in America to incorporate the state’s protection of the right of free white livestock owners to trade and use their private property as they wished.