Writing Early American Lives as Biography
By Annette Gordon-Reed
This essay is a meditation on the role that biography can play in shaping our understanding of early American history. It grew out of a WMQ-EMSI workshop, “Early American Biographies,” convened at the Huntington Library in 2012. Workshop participants presented papers discussing lives from a broad cross section of North American society from the late seventeenth century to the early part of the nineteenth century. Gordon-Reed’s essay discusses the mechanics of writing the biographies of obscure figures, gives a brief history of modern biography, and addresses criticism of biography as a form of history writing.
A Political Ecology in the Early Spanish Caribbean
By Molly A. Warsh
In a 1529 debate over the introduction of a dredge into the Caribbean pearl fisheries, fishery residents emphasized the superior technique of indigenous pearl divers. Whereas a dredge moved blindly along the ocean floor, indigenous crews could locate oyster banks by listening for oysters’ noisy underwater “rooting.” This description reflected residents’ careful attention to their sustaining habitat. In their opposition to several devices proposed over the course of the sixteenth century, Pearl Coast inhabitants offered their own understandings of how the region’s marine ecosystem functioned in relationship to circum-Caribbean patterns of commerce and labor. The political ecology elaborated on the Pearl Coast compelled the Spanish crown to consider the nature of its new world empire.
Learning to Write Algonquian Letters: The Indigenous Place of Language Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World
By Sarah Rivett
Examining one of the more prolific periods of missionary linguistics in seventeenth-century North America reveals that a fragmented theological and philosophical Atlantic context caused mystical ideas about language to splinter into proto-Enlightenment notions of a separation between human words and divine knowledge. America-based missionaries John Eliot and Chrétien Le Clercq were forced to reconcile the linguistic autonomy of Wampanoag and Mi’kmaq words, respectively. Instead of advancing the propagation of the gospel, missionary linguistics revealed language to be socially and culturally contextual (rather than universal) and signs to be material (rather than metaphysical).
Sources and Interpretations
“Here is my country”: Too Né’s Map of Lewis and Clark in the Great Plains
By Christopher Steinke
The Bibliothèque nationale de France contains a hitherto unnoticed map attributed to Inquidanécharo, a Ricara chief. Lewis and Clark knew him as Too Né, an Arikara village leader who accompanied them upriver to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in 1804. The map, which Too Né showed to playwright and artist William Dunlap when he visited Washington in 1806, is the most detailed surviving Indian representation of the Great Plains from this period. It invites scholars to reorient early American exploration and cartography from indigenous perspectives. Too Né interpreted his map as a work of history and cartography and situated the American explorers in the historical and religious landscape of the Arikara people.