The Author’s Corner with Heather Martel

Deadly VirtueHeather Martel is Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. This interview is based on her new book, Deadly Virtue: Fort Caroline and the Early Protestant Roots of American Whiteness (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Deadly Virtue?

HM: I needed to understand how it is that a people with such a violent history of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction can think of themselves as good and think of that history as a narrative of exceptionalism. To understand, I looked back at the first Protestant engagements with the environment and Indigenous people of the Americas. The story of Fort Caroline, Florida, is one episode in this history in which we can see that the commander of this group of French Calvinists had a vision of creating a Protestant empire under the leadership of an Indigenous king. This fantasy surprises a 21st Century reader who is expecting to find racial hatred from the very beginning. The images and accounts of the colony are full of beautiful, admirable Indigenous characters and fascinating, sometimes darkly funny stories. Of course, the French Calvinists who attempted to create this Protestant empire were burdened with cultural baggage and incapable of understanding, respecting, or accurately representing the Indigenous people they met. Their aspiration of a cross-cultural alliance against Catholic Europe died with most of the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline, which failed disastrously—through mutinies, starvation, a hostage crisis, and a war with the Indigenous people. In the end, most of the French were wiped out by a Spanish massacre facilitated by a hurricane. Critics of this failure interpreted the tragedy as a message from their god that he was displeased by the Huguenots’ vision of allying with Indigenous people against the Holy Roman Empire. Those who came after adopted the well-remembered separatist strategy of the New England Puritans. In order to understand how this separatism developed into whiteness—with its obligation to colonialism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and the racialized violence of American white supremacy—as a means for expressing obedience to their god, I looked at their science of the body, humoralism, which described the body as fluid and subject to the environment and encounters with other cultures. I wondered how bodies they believed were fluid became fixed into the biogenetic identity that became American whiteness. The answer seemed to lie in Protestant ideology.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Deadly Virtue?

HM: The failure of Fort Caroline Florida indicated to early Protestants that their god wanted them to remain separate from other cultures and that they were obliged to dominate, domesticate, and discipline all those where were not among their god’s elect. In looking for the visible signs of who their god had graced with elect status, they organized bodies into a biogenetic racial hierarchy founded on Protestant morality and patriarchal gender norms, producing American whiteness.

JF: Why do we need to read Deadly Virtue?

HM: For those surprised at the resilience of white supremacy in American society, this book explains how a misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, homophobic, racist, environmentally destructive populism might be compelling for so many white Americans who believe themselves to be good humans.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HM: When I was in college, it was the historians who helped me to make sense of current events. I remember feeling despair and confusion when we entered the first Gulf war in 1991. The history faculty held teach-ins. In a wonderful way, they parented us—and guided me to find the intellectual and historical perspective that has served me ever since. I declared a history minor. Things we read in college history classes transformed me and remain important in my scholarship today, like Barbara J. Fields’s discussion of the “slogan of white supremacy.” I caught the fever for the work of the historian doing research for my first major undergraduate paper, on the early history of abolition and women’s suffrage. I was inspired by one professor in particular, Dr. Stephanie McCurry, who taught that class, as well as the history of Irish and Asian immigration to the U.S. and U.S. Women and Gender history at UCSD.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: For my next project, I will take up a question that arises from the work of Andrea Smith in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. She argues that it was necessary to eradicate all alternatives to Christian heteropatriarchy in order to colonize the Americas. By examining Christian representations of the diversity of gender systems and arrangements of power in the early Atlantic, in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, I hope to understand this history and introduce readers to the history and theory of gender and colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

JF: Thanks, Heather!

The Slave Societies Digital Archive

Slave Ship

Over at The Conversation, Vanderbilt historian Jane Landers writes about her work on the Slave Societies Digital Archive.  Here is a taste:

This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

Read the rest here.

Don’t Forget About Episode 27: “From Mount Vernon to Mar-a-Lago”

MugWe dropped it on Sunday:

Here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, we have traveled to both Mount Vernon and Monticello in our explorations of presidential history. Today, we explore a much more recent addition to the world of presidential real estate, Mar-a-Lago. While host John Fea explores the history of presidential vacations, guest Julian Chambliss (@JulianChambliss), historian and author of the Boston Review article “Draining the Swamp,” dives deeper into Mar-a-Lago as a lens for understanding Florida’s unique history, the disproportionate effects of climate change, and the origin of Trump’s unique and at times inscrutable blend of everyman populism and billionaire branding.

Listen at your favorite pod-catcher or at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Do you like the mug in the picture above?  Learn how to get one here.

The Meaning of Trump’s “Winter White House” in the Wake of Irma

West_PB_FL_Mar_A_Lago_entr01

Rollins College historian Julian Chambliss puts Mar-a-Lago in some historical context.  He argues that the winter White House is part of a “Florida dream” that is unsustainable.

Here is a taste of Chambliss piece at Boston Review:

Donald Trump calls his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, his “winter White House.” This proclamation has been met with derision as well as outrage about the security costs and conflict of interest. But the sheer hucksterism that has defined Trump’s ownership—buying the once federally owned estate, overcoming local objections by turning it into an exclusive club, and finally using it, in name only, as a public institution—should also interest us. Often casting himself as an aggrieved party fighting entrenched interests in Palm Beach, Trump’s battles there offer a funhouse-mirror version of the common man’s struggle against elites. Presented in the rarified air of Palm Beach, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago travails foreshadowed his current political narrative.

Moreover, Trump’s relationship to Mar-a-Lago and his pursuit of victory there at all costs reveal a regressive vision of community, one that resonates deeply with Florida’s history. For almost 150 years, wealthy outsiders have fought an anemic state over who gets to enjoy paradise. Aggressive development opened up Florida for millions of ordinary Americans, but in the absence of an effective state, wealthy interests have hollowed out prospects for working people, degraded the environment, and made the consumption of Florida a rich man’s game. Mar-a-Lago reflects the legacy of Florida’s past. Given the newly established winter White House, this legacy now belongs to all of us.

Now, with Hurricane Irma’s aftermath certain to shape the state for years to come, the reality of policy inaction and the cost to individuals and communities is clear. Even as Republicans at the national and state level are quick to promise relief, they are equally committed to not talking about the excesses that cause it. As one scientist explained to the New York Times, “We know that as humans, we are all too good at pretending like a risk, even one we know is real, doesn’t matter to us.” In Florida, that natural human tendency has been enhanced by Republican governors who so persistently avoid mentioning the words “climate change” that scientists even “self-censor” their work. Yet, Florida is testament to a reality that cannot be ignored. Even as the state pulls itself together, the uncertain future must contend with a pattern of denial and a history of consumption that many are eager to maintain. Mar-a-Lago reflects this legacy of Florida’s past. Indeed, while the newly established “Southern White House” will no doubt be fine this time, we should care about what Florida’s legacies mean for all of us.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner With Laurel Shire

ShireLaurel Clark Shire teaches history at Western University in London, Ontario.  This interview is based on her new book, The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida  ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JF: What led you to write The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: I knew that I wanted to write about women and US imperialism in the 19th century. I was deeply influenced by scholars such as Amy Kaplan, Kristin Hoganson, and Laura Wexler, and I wanted to test some of the ideas about gender and U.S. expansion coming out of literary and visual studies using the tools of social and political history. I began to look at different contexts in which I might do that. I discovered Florida, an early 19th century frontier, had been remarkably underexplored by historians of Manifest Destiny and of women and gender. I also had friends and family I could stay with in Florida, and their generosity made the research possible on a grad student budget.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: American political leaders leveraged gender norms – not only masculinity but also femininityin order to Americanize Florida, setting a precedent for U.S. policy in many subsequent frontier zones further West. They used white women’s presence in Florida to justify violence against Seminole peoples and to rationalize generous social policies for white settler families, many of them slaveholders. At the same time, they relied on white women’s material, domestic and reproductive labor to create homes and families there; the building blocks of permanent colonial settlement. In short, white women were indispensable to the process of settling Florida for the U.S., a process that displaced both Indigenous people and enslaved people of African descent.

JF: Why do we need to read The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: Gender history continues to be treated as a separate and ancillary subfield in a lot of American history, especially in political, military, and diplomatic history, even though very good historians have been making what was once a “hidden” history available to us for more than 40 years. My hope is that readers outside of women’s and gender history will read this book and will understand it as a model for how we might begin to integrate intersectional social history (history that accounts for how social categories of gender, race, class, and sexuality work together in significant, historically contingent ways) into general historical accounts of the American past. This book tries to marry cultural history to policy history, and I hope it’s successful and occasionally even entertaining.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LS: I never decided to become an American historian! I decided to get a Ph.D. in American Studies because I wanted the freedom to do interdisciplinary work in American cultural studies. Frankly, I was concerned that a History department would be too conservative for the kind of history I wanted to write. As a pragmatist and a materialist, though, I’ve never had much patience for theory that doesn’t prove itself useful “on the ground,” so my work ends up being deeply historically grounded. I fell in love with the 1830s and 1840s in a 19th-century American Studies seminar with Terry Murphy at GWU and wanted to write about that period. I assumed that when I hit the job market I would be a candidate for a job in American Studies or Women’s Studies, but then the market sorted me into history – in my first year on the job market, I only got interview invitations from History departments, and I ended up accepting a position in one. No one was more surprised than me. And then I learned that I really loved teaching U.S. history using American Studies tools.

JF: What is your next project?

LS: The next book is about women and migration in the 19th century. The work in Florida brought me into contact with many different kinds of migrants in the 19th century, but did not allow me to follow those who exited Florida, about whom I remain curious. I am broadly interested in how imperial and national borders shaped the lives of women in North America and the Caribbean, and also in how women’s experiences of race (privilege, enslavement, and displacement) or gender (subordination, widowhood, motherhood) may have transcended territorial limits, or served to expand or penetrate borders. In many ways, their diversity challenges and even explodes the very category of “woman” and reveals how the intersections of gender, race, nation, and borders continually remade social categories and opportunities. This project is shaping up to be a combination of microhistorical biography and macrohistorical context using digital methods in mapping and text analysis.

JF: Thanks, Laurel!

The Author’s Corner with Lyn Millner

Lyn Millner is Associate Professor of Journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University. This interview is based on her new book, The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet (University Press of Florida, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Allure of Immortality?

LM: I was looking for a magazine story idea, and there was this little-known historic settlement down the road from me. The Koreshans formed a utopian society around the belief that they could achieve immortality. They followed a man who believed he was a messiah, they practiced celibacy, and they believed that we live inside the earth.

I figured I’d research and write a 2,000-word piece and then move on to my next project. But it didn’t work that way. The Koreshans wouldn’t let me go. What haunted me was the question of why a group of people would give up everything to follow a man into a mosquito-infested forest to build a city. It seemed crazy to me, but the more I researched it, the less crazy they seemed. We all know someone who has made a radical change that puzzles us, but we rarely explore why. The more I followed my curiosity about them, it became apparent that in 2,000 words, I wouldn’t get beyond “Gee, aren’t they kooky?” I saw that they deserved their own book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Allure of Immortality?

LM: This story shows how unshakable belief can be, even when it runs counter to reality. Even when fact bleeds through, belief has the power to triumph.

JF: Why do we need to read The Allure of Immortality?

LM: There are people we would like to dismiss as crazy because it’s convenient for us not to explore our own beliefs and contradictions. The Koreshans, kooky as they seem, wanted what we all want. To live somewhere beautiful away from pollution and crime, to eat healthy food, to have more time to play, to raise our children the way we see fit, to have answers. To transcend. That’s hard to turn away from.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LM: When I read Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City.” I’m a reader and writer first, but it just so happens that history is what I most like to research and write about. My favorite books to read are nonfiction narratives, and I’m inspired to write history in a way that’s readable—using character, scene and dialog. That’s my formal training.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I’m still pondering that.

JF: Thanks, Lyn! 

The Author’s Corner with Matthew J. Clavin

Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Aiming for Pensacola (Harvard University Press, 2015).


JF: What led you to write Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: After receiving my Ph.D. in 2005, my first time full-time teaching job was in Pensacola, Florida, where shortly after arriving I began researching the city’s history. One day, while viewing a handful of antebellum-era newspapers, I was amazed by the number of runaway slave advertisements published in the local press. At times, these papers contained a dozen or more advertisements in a single issue and frequently on the front page, proving just how extensive the problem of runaway slaves was in this unique frontier town.  It wasn’t long before I decided that I had to tell the story of the generations of enslaved people who made the desperate bid for freedom in a part of the United States where the attainment of freedom was for most African Americans nearly impossible.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: This study proves that despite the legend of the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves routinely ran south towards freedom, often with the assistance of their free African American, European American, and Native American allies. Because of its reputation as an enclave of diverse people and cultures, Pensacola was in the colonial, antebellum, and Civil War eras, a popular destination for many of these runaways who sought refuge on the city’s waterfront, which verged on a boundless world of ocean and sea, and the surrounding villages that opened into a vast expanse of forests, swamps, and streams.

JF: Why do we need to read Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: The book demonstrates that resistance to slavery was much more widespread than previously understood. Even in the Deep South, where slavery was deeply embedded in the culture and the cars and conductors of the Underground Railroad stopped only infrequently, African Americans and their allies resisted the white supremacist culture that slaveowners and other white elites imposed on the region. There has long been a tendency to read American history as the story of two oppositional regions: a non-racist North and a racist South. Having lived in southern cities most of my life, and now being a resident of Houston, TX, what many consider the most diverse city in the entire United States, I have always been motivated by my own personal experiences to challenge this interpretation by finding examples of interracial cooperation and collaboration in early Southern history. This book is a case in point.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: Though I’m sure they wouldn’t even remember me today, two truly extraordinary Jr. high school history teachers convinced me at an early age to become a teacher; however, it was while writing my senior thesis in college that I became enamored with the idea of research and writing history professionally, and I decided that I wanted toor rather needed tobecome a college professor. There is no other job on earth that I would enjoy more, though, truth be told, if any NBA team was interested in a 44-yr. old shooting guard I would definitely consider the opportunity.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently working on two major projects, though the one much closer to completion is a narrative history of the Battle of Negro Fort, a bloody conflict between hundreds of fugitive slaves, Indians, and American soldiers under the leadership of Andrew Jackson at an abandoned British fort in Spanish Florida in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner


Happy Birthday St. Augustine, Florida!

St. Augustine’s Old City Gates

The oldest European-settled city in the United States celebrates its 450th birthday today. No, it is not Jamestown or Plymouth.  The honor belongs to St. Augustine, Florida.

Matt Blitz at SMITHSONIAN.COM tells us all about it.  Here is a taste:

On September 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed ashore at an inlet (later called Matanzas Inlet) on the eastern coast of today’s Florida. Planting the Spanish flag, he declared the harbor and surrounding land in the name of the Spanish Empire and began setting up a permanent settlement. He named it after St. Augustine, the patron saint of brewers. While other Spanish explorers came to the New World looking for “God, gold and glory,” this was not exactly the case for Menendez, historian Dr. J. Michael Francis told Smithsonian.com. “He hoped to link the Atlantic Seaboard with the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and New Spain, what later would become Mexico … He was really trying to establish a commercial empire in Florida,” explains Francis. 

The history of Spanish explorers in Florida didn’t start with Menendez, of course. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León was the first recorded European to officially set eyes upon the peninsula. Despite the legend saying he “discovered” Florida while looking for the fountain of youth, historians now agree that Ponce de León travelled due to his own political aspirations.
Organizers hope September’s 450th anniversary celebrations will bring more attention to a city that doesn’t always enjoy the same fame as other early settlements. “One of the challenges that St. Augustine faces, and Florida history in general, is that the narrative of U.S. history typically begins with the English story of Jamestown and the pilgrims … the reality is that the Spaniards predated all of that and were attempting to creating establishments all the way back in 1513,” says Francis.
Of course Native American cities predate St. Augustine.  For example, Cahokia dates back to the 7th century CE.

The Author’s Corner with David Narrett

David Narrett is Professor of History at University of Texas Arlington. This interview is based on his new book, Adventurism and Empire: The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762-1803 (The University of North Carolina Press, December 2014).
JF: What led you to write Adventurism and Empire?

DN: I wrote Adventurism and Empire because of my fascination with colonial adventurism as a phenomenon involving commerce, settlement schemes, and military freebooting across national boundaries. I also realized that there was a need for a detailed and systematic study tracing the transition from British-Spanish rivalry to U.S.-Spanish competition in Louisiana and “the Floridas” during the late eighteenth century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Adventurism and Empire?

DN: Louisiana and Florida were borderland regions characterized by a high degree of geopolitical instability, personal adventurism, and intrigue from the denouement of the Seven Years War through the Louisiana Purchase. British-Spanish rivalry, both before and during the American Revolution, had a profound impact on subsequent U.S.-Spanish competition. Diverse nationalities vied over the control of rivers and pathways linking coastal to interior zones. Southern Indians sought trade goods through Pensacola and Mobile no less avidly than U.S. frontier folk clamored for free navigation on the Mississippi and access to the New Orleans market. Power struggles emerged in which commerce and immigration were as important determinants as war and violence.

JF: Why do we need to read Adventurism and Empire?

DN: Adventurism and Empire shows how the United States emerged as a successor empire to Great Britain through rivalry with Spain in the Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast. Adventurism and Empire charts events in peace and war over four critical decades–from the close of the Seven Years War through the Louisiana Purchase. The story sheds new light on individual colonial adventurers and schemers who shaped history through cross-border trade, settlement projects involving slave and free labor, and military incursions into Spanish and Indian territories.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DN: I decided to become an American historian through my undergraduate studies at Columbia University, and through a deeply felt personal connection to our national past. While pursuing my Ph.D. at Cornell University, I was inspired by the late Michael Kammen, one of the foremost American historians of the last half-century.

JF: What is your next project?

DN: My next project is a study of frontier republicanism and settler-Native conflict in the trans-Appalachian West during the late eighteenth century.

JF: Thanks David.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Digitizing St. Augustine, Florida

There is a lot of great digitization work going on these days. The Washington Post is running an article on efforts underway at the University of South Florida to digitize St. Augustine parish documents dating back to 1594.  Here is a taste:

Inside a Catholic convent deep in St. Augustine’s historic district, stacks of centuries-old, sepia-toned papers offer clues to what life was like for early residents of the nation’s oldest permanently occupied city.

These parish documents date back to 1594, and they record the births, deaths, marriages and baptisms of the people who lived in St. Augustine from that time through the mid-1700s. They’re the earliest written documents from any region of the United States, according to J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Francis and some of his graduate students in the Florida Studies department have spent the past several months digitizing the more than 6,000 fragile pages to ensure the contents last beyond the paper’s deterioration.

“The documents shed light on aspects of Florida history that are very difficult to reconstruct,” Francis said.

Eventually, the digital images of the records will be put online for anyone to view.

Francis’ project is timely because the state is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.

Florida

Check out Morgan Meis’s reflection on the historical consciousness of the Sunshine State.  In a short essay that is part history, part travelogue, Meis investigates the memory of William Cooley and the New River Massacre.  This is a great piece of historical journalism that captures the culture of Florida and the sense of “confusion” about its past.  Here is a taste:

You walk along canals as the wild parrots scream in the palm trees above. The evening light delivers an array of pastels. A breeze kicks up from the east, blowing ocean smells across the road. Ocean salt crackles in the air, which is heavy and warm. The houses along the canal sit behind low walls. You can look into each yard, thick with semi-tropical growth. Everything grows here, all the time. You walk down further toward the ocean and the canals widen, turning into small rivers. You wander into a park. Is that a Quattrocento Florentine palazzo across the water? There is a small plaque in the park, unobtrusive. You stop to read. It says something about William Cooley and the New River Massacre. “I’ve never heard of William Cooley or the New River Massacre,” you think. What is this place? Where am I?

You, sir or madam, are in Fort Lauderdale in the fine state of Florida.

And she concludes:

A final note about that park in Fort Lauderdale with the plaque memorializing the Cooley Family: The park’s official name is Colee Hammock Park. You’ll notice that Cooley and Colee are two completely different names. Residents of Fort Lauderdale noticed the same thing. It turns out there was some confusion back in the days when the park was first established. A man named James Louis Colee was also a resident of the New River Settlement. But James Colee got to New River decades later than William Cooley. James Colee set up a work camp at the site of the park that now bares his name. James was a civil engineer. He was working on something called the Intracoastal Waterway project, a network of rivers and canals that runs down the Atlantic coast and all the way around through the Gulf Coast.

Somewhere along the line, the names Cooley and Colee got mixed up. The park is not the site of the massacre at all. The massacre occurred up the river a bit. But the people of Fort Lauderdale have decided that they want the plaque to stay in Colee Hammock Park anyway.

There is something very Florida about that decision. It is the decision to wear your own confusion on your sleeve. It is openly to acknowledge that you do not have your story straight. Every state in the USA and, for that matter, every region of every country on the planet has a story of trauma to tell. But in most places the story has been rehearsed time and time again. The edges have been rounded off. The story’s been cleaned up and made digestible. Florida hasn’t figured out how to do that yet. A cynic might consider this the result of indifference. I like to think of it as a form of honesty. Not many places would memorialize the terrible massacre of a slave owner’s family by creating a park named after an entirely different, and otherwise unknown, civil engineer. But this is Florida, where honesty comes with a large dose of confusion.