Monday, August 24, 2009

Things I Learned at the SHEAR

The annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) is one I've taken care not to miss. It differs from other professional conferences in that A) it occurs in the summer, B) there is no job registry, and C) it has a single chronological and national focus (the United States, 1776-1861). Consequently, the convention primarily attracts people who want to attend panels and talk about history, as opposed to the American Historical Association and OAH conventions, which are full of anxious job-seekers and junior professors trying to shmooze. The SHEAR is one of the few conventions devoted almost exclusively to its attendees' intellectual development. Well, that and founder James Broussard's nickel-ante poker games, at which I've lost about $50 since 2002.

This year's SHEAR conference took place in Springfield, Illinois from July 16th through 19th. Given the location, it's not surprising there were several panels devoted to my academic specialties, the early American frontier and early U.S. - Indian relations. For me, it was a productive meeting. Herewith, some of the things wot I learned:

Robert Owens ("A Tale of Two Treaties"), comparing the 1768 and 1784 treaties of Fort Stanwix, asserted that U.S. Indian policy after the Revolution was "more evolutionary than revolutionary," a point with which I am inclined to agree.

Susan Gaunt ("Markets and Liberal Rhetoric in Post-Revolutionary Kentucky") noted that American boatmen taken prisoner by Spanish patrols on the Mississippi River were put to work building fortifications for Spain. This both demonstrated American weakness in the 1780s - the U.S. government couldn't protect its citizens' presumptive right to navigate the Mississippi - and Spain's fear of the United States' future power (hence the fortifications).

Kristopher Maulden ("They Want to Do You Justice") argued that the Federalists' war against the Northwest Indians in the 1790s was too destructive to be considered just - the War Department deliberately targeted cornfields and villages in order to starve Indians into submission. He observed that the Federalists were less interested in frontier justice than in state-building, which they could only accomplish by creating a monopoly of violence. Andrew Cayton noted in his comments, however, that Federalist state-building in the Old Northwest was rather minimally violent when one compares it to, for example, revolutionary state-building in contemporary France.

Gregory Nobles ("Looking Back at the Backcountry") reminded his audience of what Patrick Griffin called a "frontier commonwealth ideal," in his 2006 book American Leviathan, which I guess I'll have to re-read.

Patrick Bollinger ("Prophetic Tools") observed that Miami Indian leaders who opposed Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's prophetic movement nonetheless used it to their advantage, warning American officials that their young men would "go to Prophetstown" unless the U.S. increased gift payments and moderated its demands for land.

Brad Jarvis ("Our Father in Detroit") described an unusual way of recording the terms of treaties: Ottawa chief Aulieauneay requested from Governor William Hull (of Michigan Territory) a silver gorget inscribed with the words "The Ottawa nation is entitled to $800 a year forever by the Treaty of Detroit." Jarvis also noted that the Ottawa nation had its own problems with the Shawnee Prophet, and that many wanted to destroy Prophetstown because 160 Ottawas visiting the town had died of influenza.

Rowena McClinton ("Demanding and Preserving Nationhood") observed that the Cherokees' efforts to preserve their tribal government persisted during the actual process of Removal (1838-39) - the Cherokee Light Horse Police made an effort to arrest and discipline Cherokees who became drunk and disorderly on the Trail of Tears.

And, finally, David Konig, in his comments on a panel on "women's legal troubles," argued that the law didn't just create winners and losers - it was also, like diplomacy and trade, a process of accommodation that reinforced social ties. I suspect it would be hard to convince anyone who's lost a lawsuit of that point, but it sounded good to me.

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