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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 03, 2016

An old topic made new--iron in America

WMQ 7 min read

In this week’s post, Keith Pluymers (July 2016) describes the shifts in perspective that led him to reconsider a well-worn topic and ultimately to publish his first piece in the William and Mary Quarterly. 

by Keith Pluymers

In 2013 while on a Mellon Research Fellowship at the Virginia Historical Society, a combination of archival discovery and a fortuitous meeting with a colleague sparked the inspiration for my Quarterly piece. I came across a bound typescript titled, “Iron of America was Made First in Virginia” (VHS MSS7:3 HD9510 G861:1) written in 1957 by Thurlow Gates Gregory. Gregory had spent the previous two years collecting affidavits from local residents and testing mineral samples after learning that a landowner had accidentally uncovered what he thought might be an ironworks. I had previously known about English attempts to produce iron in Virginia during the first decades of the seventeenth century, but the evident passion and labor that this amateur historian and archaeologist poured into his project drew me back to the topic. Through a happy accident my fellowship in Richmond overlapped with Andrew Perchard, a historian and co-founder of the Historic and Strategic Raw Materials Initiative who was working on the archives of the Reynolds Metals Company. Over several long conversations, Andrew and I compared British policies and attitudes towards natural resources in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. I left Richmond excited to delve back into early modern Virginia ironworks while asking questions posed about twentieth century state policies for aluminum and steel.

Gregory, as the title of his work suggested, saw the Falling Creek ironworks as a topic of U.S. history.  A note on the cover of a 1956 issue of The Iron Worker (Vol. 20, no. 3), the magazine of the Lynchburg Foundry Company, carrying an article on new archaeological work on smiths’ forges at Jamestown, captured the sentiments of the time. “Could it not be,” the magazine’s editors asked, “that the activities of the Jamestown settlers were prophetic? Twentieth century industrial America seems to be a logical outgrowth of the thinking of these brave pioneers.” For Gregory and many others at the time, the significance of Falling Creek was that it was the first step on the path to U.S. industrial greatness. Few historians today endorse this teleological narrative of North American history and I had no interest in reviving it.  Moreover, in the twenty-first century, “industrial America” seems more an object of historical study than a description of our present economic situation.  Without either of these analytic frameworks, I wondered, what was the significance of a blast furnace that operated for only a few months, if at all?

As I dove back into sources, new connections between Virginia and Ireland began to appear.  I had previously spent time working through the estate papers of Richard Boyle, earl of Cork and the largest landowner in seventeenth-century Ireland. Ironworks appeared frequently in the receipts, reports, and correspondence from Boyle’s lands in Munster.  Working through the Virginia Company records, people and places in Gloucestershire, Bristol, and the Forest of Dean with connections to Irish plantations began to jump out at me.  From the perspective of Virginia history, Falling Creek was just another failed attempt to push the early colonial economy away from tobacco.  But examining it in an Atlantic perspective offered new opportunities to think about early modern English ideas about natural resources and empire and about the commercial networks that set out to exploit trees and minerals in England and the Atlantic World.

I submitted the essay to the Quarterly believing I had made some important connections but uncertain that I had fully conveyed their significance. Fortunately for me, just after submitting my piece, Molly Warsh’s “A Political Ecology in the Early Spanish Caribbean” appeared in the Quarterly.  Her use of the concept of political ecology in the early modern Atlantic opened up new ways for me to talk about the interplay between government regulation, commercial exploitation, colonial promotion, and ideas about the natural world in my own piece.  Conversations with a historian of the twentieth century had colored my original thinking about the project; seeing an early modern historian apply concepts from anthropologists and geographers shaped my revision.

Thinking and reading beyond narrow temporal or geographic confines allowed me to breathe new life into a moment in seventeenth-century Virginia that otherwise merits little attention.  As Joshua Piker argued here earlier this year, when historians allow ourselves to get lost, we often find new ways to enrich the study of early America. But we can also show the importance of early America to other fields.  Several modern environmental historians, geographers, and economists have connected the looming crises of climate change, the origins of the Anthropocene, and our attitudes toward the environment to early modern European expansion.  These conversations will only improve as more early American and Atlantic historians add our voices and expertise.

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