Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 70, no. 4 October 2013


Collecting Slave Traders:
James Petiver, Natural History, and
the British Slave Trade

By Kathleen S. Murphy

The natural history collections belonging to London apothecary James Petiver reveal the entangled histories of science and the slave trade in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century British Atlantic. Naturalists such as Petiver exploited the routes of the slave trade to acquire natural curiosities and natural knowledge from West Africa, Spanish America, and British America. Petiver recruited British ship surgeons and captains employed on slaving vessels and at British factories to gather insects, plants, shells, and other specimens in West Africa and in American ports of disembarkation. The asiento agreement, with its extension of British slaving into Spanish America, allowed others to collect specimens from a region typically off-limits to British naturalists. Distinctive aspects of the British slave trade, including its geographies, its personnel, and its extension into Spanish America after the assumption of the asiento, shaped both Petiver’s collection of naturalia and the natural knowledge that resulted from it. Petiver’s museum suggests that we must look to the slave trade not only to understand the Atlantic world but also to understand early modern science. By so doing, we may discover that Europe’s profits from the slave trade include gains not easily quantified.

Indian Storytelling, Scientific Knowledge, and Power in the Florida Borderlands

By Cameron B. Strang

Through storytelling, a Creek Indian named Yaolaychi motivated a 1790 mineralogical expedition in Spanish East Florida, influenced how its members pursued and narrated knowledge in the field, and shaped how officials and men of science in Saint Augustine analyzed and acted on the information the expedition generated. Tracing the presentation and reception of Yaolaychi’s stories reveals how geopolitical power and knowledge production were interconnected in some of the Southeast borderlands’ many geographic and social contexts. These included spaces in which Indian political power and approaches to nature were preeminent, particularly the Florida interior, as well as sites such as Saint Augustine where European rule had a stronger foothold. This microhistory suggests that power, place, and narrative—and not any set difference between Indian and European epistemologies—shaped the pursuit, circulation, and validation of natural knowledge in the Florida borderlands.

Geomythology on the Colonial Frontier:
Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, and the Claverack Giant

By Amy Morris

In a rare example of engagement with Indian traditions, the puritan ministers Edward Taylor and Cotton Mather used Indian geomyths to help explain the enormous fossilized bones and teeth discovered at Claverack, New York, in 1705. The teeth would eventually be classified by paleontologists as mastodon remains, but in the early eighteenth century, colonists entertained the possibility that they were human molars. An unfinished poem by Taylor and an essay on Genesis 6:4 by Mather argued against the skepticism that prevailed in Britain concerning the historicity of the giants mentioned in the Bible and European folklore, and both independently turned for support to American Indian accounts. Although Mather and Taylor both believed in the giant of Claverack, their interpretations differed in ways that were inflected by their different geographic locations within Massachusetts. Writing from the political hub of Boston, Mather portrayed the Claverack giant as a villain, whose destruction by the biblical Flood paralleled the military defeat of the Indians in holy warfare. By contrast Taylor, living in the frontier village of Westfield, integrated the Indian stories into his English folk heritage. By making comparisons with Guy of Warwick, for instance, Taylor presented the Claverack giant as the ambiguous hero of an unfinished epic poem.

Sources and Interpretations

Banqueting Houses and the “Need of Society” among Slave-Owning Planters in the Chesapeake Colonies
Appendix: Method and Historic Structures Reports

By Cary Carson

A contribution to Sources and Interpretations analyzes Maryland and Virginia probate records from 1655 to 1732 to show that plantation slavery did not just earn the means to support a life of fashion. It thrust a growing number of large slave owners into association with people who wore the newfangled gentility as a badge of rank and expected other slave owners to wear it as well. Reinterpretations of archaeological excavations at Green Spring, Fairfield, and Corotoman explain how some leading tastemakers in the region curried favor with other gentlefolk by building lavish banqueting houses to display their own and their neighbors’ sophistication and good manners decades before the rise of gentry towns that began providing those services by the middle of the eighteenth century. Historians will read the article for the contribution it makes to understanding the emergence of a powerful, self-conscious, slave-owning, planter aristocracy in the tobacco colonies of Maryland and Virginia. A methods section and three comprehensive historic structures reports make this a publication of record for archaeologists, architectural historians, and students of material culture. Fourteen illustrations include measured plans and elevations, technical drawings, and four color plates.

Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776:
A Contemporary Account of the Debate over Common Sense

By Eric Nelson

It is well known that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense fueled an abrupt republican turn in American political thought during the early months of 1776. Less well understood is that it did so by reintroducing into Anglophone political discourse a seventeenth-century Hebraizing tradition of republican political theory, one grounded in the conviction that it is idolatrous to assign any human being the title and dignity of a king. This theory was both more and less radical than more familiar forms of European republicanism: more radical in that it denied the legitimacy of all monarchies, however limited; less radical in that it left open the possibility of an extremely powerful chief magistrate, so long as he was not called “king.” One of the earliest and most substantial meditations on this shift appears in a lengthy letter written by Richard Parker of Virginia to his close friend Richard Henry Lee in April 1776. The letter is transcribed and annotated here for the first time.