Tag Archives: Early America

Member of the Week: Cynthia Heider

meCynthia Heider

M.A. Student in Public History, Temple University

Digital Projects Assistant, Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society


Describe your current public history project(s). What about it/them are you finding interesting, challenging, and rewarding?

I suspect that some readers may be confused by or unfamiliar with the term “public history,” so I’ll begin with the short definition given by the National Council on Public History (NCPH): “[P]ublic history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.” You can learn more in this section of the website.

Part of the challenge and reward of public history work is that it can be highly variable in topic and audience. I enjoy this because I’m interested in lots of different historical topics, and it keeps my research skills sharp. Currently, I’m working as Digital Projects Assistant at the Center for Digital Scholarship at the American Philosophical Society Library, which allows me to make notable Early American documents available to a wider audience through digitization, transcription, data visualization, and open data initiatives. I’m an emerging scholar currently finishing my master’s thesis on data collection and exhibition practices of Progressive era settlement houses as well, part of which includes an institutional history project in partnership with a still-operational settlement house in Philadelphia. I am finding these projects rewarding due to their potential for near-immediate community impact.

What is one of your favorite examples of public history, and why?

I’m very excited about the National Public Housing Museum which will be opening next year in Chicago. From everything I’ve seen, it is going to be really relevant, showing examples of family life in the public housing units as well as engaging contemporary issues of housing insecurity, gentrification, zoning, and other topics particularly pertinent to urban settings. It has been a long time coming, in planning since 2007, which is sometimes a reality of public history projects. But if it can involve the local community in a fundamental way, while starting fruitful public conversations about these issues, I think it will have been worth the wait.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I recently published a dataset in the Magazine of Early American Datasets (MEAD), and I expect to publish another within the calendar year. This open data initiative records receipt and dispatch of all mail in the Philadelphia Post Office between May 25, 1748 and July 23, 1752; it should be of interest to scholars of Benjamin Franklin, informational networks, and/or the early colonial postal service.

As for other scholarship, I just recently read and admired Joyce M. Bell’s The Black Power Movement and American Social Work (Columbia University Press, 2014), which gave greater depth to my understanding of the historical context of American social work institutions including settlement houses. I look forward to learning more about women’s role in the movement in Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017).

What advice do you have for urban historians who want to work with the public but might not know where to start?

I think the idea of working with the public can be rather intimidating sometimes; there’s an assumption that you have to act or be a certain way in order to “connect” with them. But “the public” is just composed of individual people, many of whom have deep community roots or feel strongly about neighborhood issues. The best place to meet the kind of people who might want to work with a historian is anywhere where people gather: city council meetings, churches, recreation centers, cafes, city parks, even online. Strike up a casual conversation, see where it takes you- but remember first and foremost to listen.

What’s the coolest document you’ve discovered in your own research? And what’s the wackiest document you’ve processed as an archivist?

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in a wide variety of archival collections–from the point of view of both researcher and archivist. I am fascinated by the decision-making processes that go into archiving things. For instance, my absolute favorite archival find from a research point-of-view was an extraordinarily formal letter sent by Bernard J. Newman of the Philadelphia Department of Health in 1911 that simply said, “I am sorry you did not wait at my office as I was only away to get a bite to eat.” I love, by the form and content of the letter, the insight it gives into this man’s fussy personality, and I’m so intrigued by the fact that it was archived at all! Similarly, from the archivist’s point-of-view, I’ve come across items that I waffled about archiving- for instance, an eminent scientist’s ca. 1970 copy of High Times. I’ll leave it unanswered whether I chose to accession this item or not.

Member of the Week: Nathaniel Holly

holly_nNathaniel Holly

PhD Candidate

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.

Vol. 2, p.205 of item 71, Virginia, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, roll 85).