Lyon G. Tyler Department of History
College of William & Mary
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
At the moment I am neck deep in my dissertation, which examines the urban experiences of Cherokees in the long eighteenth century. While early American historians have long noted the presence of indigenous diplomats in colonial (and imperial) cities, few scholars have asked even the simplest research questions about those visitors. Once I entered the archives in search of urban Cherokees, a whole new sort of early America emerged: one where colonists and indigenous peoples of all stripes organized their lives around urban centers rather than frontiers and backcountries. Yes, you read that right. Cherokees organized their lives around their own urban places (and those of their indigenous neighbors) long before the English planted Charleston along the coast. Furthermore, in addition to the usual diplomats, I’ve found Cherokees of a more common persuasion—including women and children—who traveled to places like Charleston, Williamsburg, and New Orleans for their own diplomatic, economic, and personal reasons.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I recently taught a class on American Indian history that spans from creation/peopling to the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. I found teaching this particular course at a place like William & Mary—which has a lake named after Matoaka (or Pocahontas) and an Indian School that dates from the 17th century, and which is just a short jaunt from Jamestown and borders on a living history museum that has recently hired some indigenous interpreters—particularly rewarding. Many of the students were eager to learn about the indigenous history of places they trod on everyday, including the Revolutionary City. And like my scholarship, I leaned heavily on Nancy Shoemaker’s A Strange Likeness in emphasizing the similarities between indigenous peoples and colonists rather than their differences. Conceptualizing and teaching this sort of intellectual re-orientation really helped me hone some of my own ideas and grapple with the common humanity of all colonial era subjects.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
This is a long list so I’ll offer an abbreviated version here. In the recently published category I really enjoyed Christine DeLucia’s new book on King Philip’s War and historical memory: Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. She has an excellent chapter that deals in part with indigenous visitors to and residents of Boston. Did you know that Boston only lifted its ban on Natives in 2005? And while Coll Thrush recently published Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, I am a much bigger fan of his earlier Journal of British Studies article, “The Iceberg and the Cathedral: Encounter, Entanglement, and Isuma in Inuit London.” While I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Dana Velasco Murillo recently published Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810. Along similar lines Colin Calloway recently published The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, which includes a chapter on Indian diplomacy in Philadelphia. And it’s also worth noting that Calloway recently revealed in an interview with John Fea that his next book will be about Indian visitors to early American cities. I’m certainly looking forward to that. As far as general early American urban history goes, Mark Peterson’s The City-State of Boston: A Tragedy in Three Acts, 1630-1865 should be published shortly. I was lucky enough to hear a preview of his argument in a keynote at this year’s BGEAH conference in Portsmouth, UK. If the Q&A that followed is any indication, this is going to be a widely discussed book.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
I’m glad you asked me about “preparing” a dissertation rather than “finishing” one. I’m definitely not ready to answer any questions about that. Fingers crossed though. One of the most important aspects of my preparation was reading urban history widely. This meant not simply focusing on early American historiography or the growing corpus of books on urban Indians in the twentieth century. Some of the most influential books in my thinking were written about urban places in colonial Latin America. The other bit of advice I would give isn’t really about urban history specifically. As my brilliant advisor made clear, I shouldn’t be afraid of being bold and flexible. As a result of that advice, what started as a provincial story about people who seemed out of place in cities (inspired by Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places) turned into a project with something to say about urban and early American history more broadly.
What has been your greatest archival find while working on your dissertation?
While I’ve found great stuff in the legislative and executive papers of colonies like Virginia and South Carolina—Cherokees finding their own people enslaved by Charlestonians on visits to the colonial capital, a nameless Cherokee spotting a colonist who cheated him out of a deerskin and some baskets walking on the other side of the street, or a Cherokee prisoner begging to be killed rather than remain confined in Charlestown—I have stumbled onto a couple shocking archival finds. One involves membership in an exclusive, urban-headquartered society. As he evacuated the urban center of Chota in the winter of 1781, a Cherokee headman named Oconostota left some of his “baggage” behind. When the pursuing American officers finally rummaged through the bags they found the Cherokee capital’s archives. These archives consisted of wampum belts, medals, coins, treaties, letters, and other manuscripts. An officer collected some of the papers that interested him the most and sent them to Thomas Jefferson who managed to have them preserved in the Papers of the Continental Congress. While this collection of documents is intriguing for a number of reasons, one particular document is astonishing: Oconostota’s 1773 Certificate of Admission to the St. Andrew’s Society of Charlestown. It appears that the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, John Stuart, sponsored the Cherokee headman as he joined a group of some of the most prominent Charlestonians. At this point, I have more questions than answers about this document, but it certainly confirms the ability of Cherokees to incorporate places like Charlestown into their own urban-inflected world and domesticate the power that dwelled there.