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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

July 21, 2021: Expanding Histories: A True Picture of Emigration

[July 17th marks the 200th anniversary of the transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S. The history of that addition is much more complex than that one date suggests, however—an idea which could be applied much more broadly as well. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of texts that can help us engage more accurately with the fraught, multi-layered histories of U.S. expansion, leading up to a weekend tribute to one of the best scholarly resources for doing so!]

On a forgotten book that helps us consider the first part of a complex current concept.

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the phrase “settler colonialism,” but it can’t have been too many years ago (which is partly a sign of my own ignorance I’m sure, but not solely that); yet over the last few years it has become one of the most dominant ideas in the scholarship of American history, identity, and culture. As someone who has spent his entire scholarly career working (not as my only goal, but as a consistent and central one, from my dissertation/first book right down to my most recent book) to make Native American histories far more present in every aspect of our collective memories and national narratives, I not only support and endorse but love the idea of emphasizing the ways in which European American colonists were also colonizers, part of a multi-century, imperial invasion (as Francis Jennings reminded us nearly 50 years ago) of a number of existing, sovereign nations. That’s not the only way to frame the story of America, but it has to be a far more central frame than it generally has been, and “settler colonialism” helps us get there.

That’s true not just of the initial European arrivals, but also of all the subsequent European and eventually United States expansions across the continent (and beyond, into Alaska and Hawaii and etc. etc. etc.). Yet without minimizing or downplaying in any way the consistent, destructive effects that the expansion of US settler colonialism had on Native American communities and nations, I would add this: at times it feels that our use of the phrase emphasizes only the second word, the analysis of these arriving and expanding communities as colonizing ones. And while certainly the US military and government played far too consistent and destructive of a role in that process, the truth is that many expansions (and initial arrivals, but this week I’m focused on histories of expansion specifically) were driven by the category comprised in the first word: settlers, individuals and families and communities moving into these territories. And lumping all those settlers into one frame, while again entirely understandable in its emphasis on what these histories meant for Native Americans, doesn’t get us too far into understanding the specific and distinct identities and stories, lives and histories, included within this broad experience of expansion.

I know as a literary scholar I’m biased, but I don’t think there’s a better way to push back such generalizations and get inside more specific experiences and identities than by reading texts, and perhaps especially ones that have been previously under-read. One particularly interesting such text is A True Picture of Emigration (1848), written by Rebecca Burlend with the help of her son Edward. Burlend, her husband John, and their five young children emigrated from England to (eventually, after an arduous multi-stage journey) the woods of Illinois in 1831, and she wrote the book for a specific audience: other prospective English emigrants. But while that occasion and purpose offer important lenses through which to read Burlend’s book, the text is in no way simply a promotional guide or the like, and instead fully lives up to its title, featuring a multi-layered, nuanced, strikingly realistic depiction of many different layers to the experience of emigration and expansion. It’s only one such picture, of course, so needs to be complemented by plenty of other reading—but every one adds a bit more to our understanding of the settlers and stories that constituted expansion.

Next expanded history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Expansion texts or contexts you’d highlight?

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