Katherine Grandjean is Assistant Professor of History at Wellesley College. This interview is based on her new book, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Harvard University Press, January 2015).
JF: What led you to write American Passage?
KG: It was somewhat accidental. I’d been looking through colonial letters, while working on some other project, and I noticed something: Indians were carrying letters. For Englishmen. Then I started to think: How did letters travel in early America? There was no postal service. There weren’t even many horses. And early New England was not a fixed block of territory. It was a scattered archipelago of English colonies, flung out over space. So colonists, very early on, had to confront that problem: the problem of sending news. One way that they did it, it turns out, was by hiring Indian messengers. In some ways that was a risky choice, and it interested me. So that discovery pulled me into a lot of new directions, which led to the stories that are in American Passage.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Passage?
KG: The book argues that communication was critical to colonization. Gaining control of New England was not solely a matter of consuming territory, of transforming woods into farms; it also meant mastering the lines of communication.
JF: Why do we need to read American Passage?
KG: It tells an unknown story about American origins. Even in its earliest moments, English settlement in the New World hinged on information exchange. For those hoping to understand how Europeans planted themselves in North America, this is an important part of that story.
But some of the book’s material is also resonant with what’s happening now, in America. The final chapter of American Passage, for instance, raises questions about terror: Isn’t communication, after all, a critical element of terror? In order for terror to be effective as a political strategy, people need to hear about it. People need to learn about the violence, and experience the visceral fear that it causes, even if they don’t witness it first-hand. That happened in the English colonies, just as it happens now. People heard about violence, in newspapers and in letters, much as we now see it on television. So the book is about the beginnings of America’s culture of fear, as much as it is about communication.
It’s also, I hope, an entertaining read. Even people who know quite a bit about colonial New England are likely to encounter stories, in this book, that they have not heard. I’m inviting readers into a different colonial New England, less orderly and more precarious than the quiet Puritan villages of popular imagination—a darker place entirely.
KG: I always wanted to be a writer. But I think I was in college when I first considered writing history. I had the good fortune of studying with several historians—like John Demos and Joanne Freeman—who were also fantastic storytellers. They got me hooked on the subject matter, as well as the craft.
JF: What is your next project?
KG: I’m working on a new book about a series of murders in Appalachia, in the 1790s. Its main characters are two brothers, chased out of North Carolina after the Revolution—perhaps for being loyalists. Their killing spree, in the early Republic, terrorized hundreds. Although now mostly forgotten, it’s a story that offers great opportunities to explore the origins of American violence, the legacies of the American Revolution, and the character of the early West. So that’s where my attention is headed, next.
JF: Can’t wait to read it! Thanks Kate.