Entangled Knowledge, Expanding Nation

Cameron Strang History, University of Texas at Austin 2010-2011 Dissertation Research Fellow Entangled Knowledge, Expanding Nation: Local Science and the United States Empire in the Southeast Borderlands, 1763-1840 This dissertation argues that local knowledge in the southeast borderlands—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—had a major impact on science and expansion in the early United States. As the U.S. came to govern this region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, officials and men of science in eastern centers of learning like Philadelphia were eager to incorporate the knowledge of the southeast's multinational and multi-ethnic population. This information was to be key in the expansion of U.S. science and territory. Both the content and character of early American science appear differently when seen as developing out of multinational networks within the United States and not merely as tangential to contemporary European science. The research for this dissertation has been a two-step process. First, I consulted archival sources on local science in the southeast borderlands in collections in Florida, Mississippi, Spain, and Louisiana. These Spanish-, French-, and English-language sources pointed to many intellectual connections with scientific men and institutions in the eastern U.S., especially in Philadelphia. The second step was to follow these connections to Philadelphia in order to see the impact that this knowledge, produced in the southeast borderlands, had in the early republic's centers of science and government. The PACHS fellowship made this second step possible by funding my research at the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the library of the American Philosophical Society was a main repository of scientific communications, ethnographic materials, and natural history specimens from distant regions of the U.S. The Society's collections remain rich in materials from French, Spanish, Anglo, and Native American correspondents in the southeast borderlands, and they evince the degree to which scientific knowledge in the early republic grew out of the dialogue between experts in Philadelphia and less heralded men—and a few women—in the Gulf South. These materials were distributed among several collections at the APS, including the Society's “Communications,” the archives of its Committees, and the Violetta Delafield-Benjamin Smith Barton Collection. Research at the APS also helped push my project further into the future. My previous archival work had focused largely on the period before 1820, but collections such as the correspondence of the Historical and Literary Committee and the Samuel George Morton papers suggested that science in the Gulf South not only reflected contemporary emphases in U.S. science in fields like geology and ethnography, but that observations and theories from individuals in this region had a surprisingly large role in shaping these sciences on a national level. I followed these leads in the archival and rare books collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for the period between 1820 and 1840. In particular, the Honorable Charles Tait Papers, the Timothy Abbott Conrad Papers, and the Academy's official correspondence demonstrated the importance of geological observations, communications, and expeditions in Alabama and Mississippi to the development of theories about the history of the North American continent and the fossils found in its depths. I also drew upon the Charles Alexander Lesueur collection for several rare lithographs pertaining to the natural history of the Lower Mississippi Valley as well as portraits of some of the region’s key scientific figures. In the extensive collections of rare books at the ANSP and the Library Company of Philadelphia, I combed through several volumes of early American scientific journals that published scientific communications from the Gulf South and often included comments on this information by leading experts in the East. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I examined the letters of Philadelphia merchants in Spanish Louisiana as well as a manuscript ethnography of the Creek Indians. This PACHS-funded research trip fulfilled my expectations marvelously. The sources I consulted in Philadelphia confirmed some of the central hypotheses of my dissertation while pushing my thinking in new and fascinating directions. The fellowship also facilitated my access to Philadelphia’s rich scholarly community; it provided venues for meeting scholars with similar interests and an opportunity to share my research at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center. I am happy to acknowledge my debt to the archivists, librarians, staff, and scholars who assisted me in Philadelphia, all of whom have contributed greatly to the maturation of my dissertation.