In Memoriam: Andrew Cayton

Last week, the entire field was saddened by the news of the passing of Drew Cayton. Born in Cincinnati in 1954, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia before receiving his PhD from Brown University, where he studied under Gordon Wood. Cayton went on to teach at Harvard, Wellesley, Ball State, and Miami University, before recently moving to Ohio State University, where he held the Warner Woodring Chair. He contributed to the profession in numerous ways, including serving as President of SHEAR in 2011-12 and the Ohio Academy of History in 2015. A frontier history pioneer, Cayton’s most well-known work, Frontier Republic: Ideology and Politics in the Ohio Country, 1780-1825, was published in 1989. His most recent work was Love at the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, published by the OIEAHC in 2013. A number of scholars responded to our call for remembrances, which we are honored to publish in memory of such a highly respected and pioneering member of our field. 

Honor Sachs, Western Carolina University

I remember the very place and moment when I first started reading Drew Cayton’s Frontier Republic. I was in my favorite reading spot in grad school, a nice sunny window on the third floor of the Government Publications wing of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. It was here that I underlined, on page 4, the following line: “The protection of the family was crucial to immigrants because it was the one thing that gave order and predictability to their lives.” Looking back on my notations now, I see a point of genesis, the origins story of my own work.

It would be hard to underestimate the impact of Drew Cayton’s work on my own. My worn, well-traveled, and dog-eared copy of Contact Points is certainly testament to that. And his 1992 article, “Separate Interests,” in the JAH on regionalism and the nation-state in the Trans-Appalachian West was quite possibly one of the smartest, most elegant pieces of historical writing I had ever encountered. His work was so wildly ahead of its time that, by his own admission, nobody was really sure just why he was doing it. While everybody else was busily reorienting early America to the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, Drew was writing about Indiana. Writing about the Midwest and the Ohio Valley seemed downright quaint and provincial in the heat of the 1990s Atlantic turn. As we know now, it took the field nearly two decades to catch up with him in the American interior.

The real reason I followed Drew Cayton around, however, was that he was a deeply good human being. Watching him comment on panels at conferences was a restorative experience. He was humble and funny, insightful and endlessly encouraging. When I finally met him at SHEAR just a few years ago, it was the person more than the professional that made an impact. He spoke openly about his insecurities and confessed he was quite intimidated to be in the presence of so many smart people doing such good work. He shared real emotions that all of us feel but few are brave enough to speak aloud. As we emailed back and forth in the weeks after SHEAR, we talked mostly about our beloved canine companions—my Blue and his Toby—and how being in their company kept the world fresh and new, even when our work was difficult and lonely. Back home, Ohio was rainy and dreary, he said, but Toby didn’t mind. “Nothing like rain to shower the world with fresh things to smell!” he wrote. Such a lovely way to see the world.

 Lisa Poirier, DePaul University

Drew Cayton was the quintessential teacher-scholar. He embodied the professional and professorial ideal to which I still aspire. When I first arrived at Miami University, I was advised to visit of one of his “American History to 1865” lectures to see the best of Miami in action. Of course I seized that opportunity, and I watched as his captivating storytelling style held an auditorium packed with students in rapt attention. His students left with not just with new information, but with new perspectives, and most importantly, new questions. His scholarship was also both top-notch, and inspirational. The first work of his I ever read was in Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830. That superb collection still shapes my own research and writing.

He was a kind and generous mentor to younger scholars and students alike. He always personally introduced his students to other scholars who could serve as resources, but his own mentorship was unequalled. He called his graduate students “grandchildren of Gordon Wood,” and he truly enjoyed sharing his deep appreciation and enthusiasm for American history with them. I still fondly recall some marvelous stories about Drew, madeira wine, and moonshine.

Barton Price, Indiana University-Purdue University

When Andrew R. L. (Drew) Cayton died on Thursday, December 17, we lost a good man and one of my intellectual heroes. Drew was a pillar in the historical profession whose work on the American Midwest inspired my own work (he may be the single-most cited author in my dissertation). I appreciated what he did to advance the study of the Midwest, and his works enrich the footnotes of any good scholarship on the subject. I had the privilege of meeting Drew once at SHEAR in 2011. We had coffee and chatted about research, teaching, and family life. I was immediately drawn to his warmth, sincerity, curiosity, and encouragement. Based on that single interaction, and based on my friendship with his wife Mary Kupiec Cayton (herself a respected historian), I believe that Drew was most loved because of his character and not his scholarship. I told Mary that Drew was an exemplar of the scholar and gentleman. And I encourage all budding professionals to take note of how we honor him and to aspire to remembered in a similar fashion.

Zachary Bennett, Rutgers University

Whenever one walked down the halls of the history department at Miami University, one door almost without fail was ajar. Andrew Cayton came in early to get his writing done, and left the door open. As a popular figure among students and faculty, he was usually bombarded with visitors by early afternoon. I met Drew late in his career when his reputation as a leading scholar of early America was well established. Consequently, Drew’s services were also in high demand for reviews, recommendations, and positions in various historical organizations such as SHEAR. In the face of so many eager petitioners, his door remained open for even more. Whenever Drew would complain about how busy he was, a fellow advisee and myself would question the wisdom of his liberal door policy. We never got a straight answer. To not be generous seemed to go against every fiber of Drew Cayton’s being.

Anyone who had the pleasure of knowing Drew either as a student or as a colleague quickly recognized that he was a species of supreme talent. That he was able to achieve notoriety first as an historian of the Midwest, then later colonial British North America, write books about both war, and most recently love, bears testament to his ability as an historian. Few could succinctly synthesize or unravel complex ideas in an abler fashion than he. Andrew Cayton’s survey course on early America was well-known on Miami’s campus, and for good reason. His near flawless proficiency as a lecturer won not a few young converts to the study of history. As an aspiring teacher, it was a privilege to witness.

In a profession stereotyped for its austerity and egos, Drew was a gregarious face, constantly self-deprecating, and genuinely concerned with the progress of even the least advanced of his students. I came to graduate school from a backwoods university and Drew’s scholarly reputation initially made him an intimidating figure. The warmth of his personality and eagerness to get to know me as almost a friend was unexpected and something I will never forget.

I can hardly believe that the door to Drew’s office is closed, too soon, and so abruptly. I take some solace in knowing a portion of his life’s legacy will be the opportunities he opened for me, and so many others.

Andrew Hall, Ohio History Connection

To me, Dr. Andrew Cayton was a teacher, a mentor, a role model, and a dear friend. He was a kind, caring, and empathetic man who helped me through some of the most important moments in my life so far. I met Drew Cayton as a graduate student at Miami University when I was assigned to teach an Early American History course with him. I remember being fascinated by the class, because his knowledge, passion for history, and genuine personality came together to create an amazing experience.

When I first began my time as a graduate student, I was convinced that I was out of my depth. In the face of teaching, challenging coursework, and crafting a thesis, I was unsure if I was truly ready. I decided to study and write about the War of 1812, which to me was fascinating, though many pointed out to me that it was an area of American History where there was little interest among scholars at large. Despite this and having it be outside of his normal areas of expertise, Drew was more than happy to explore whatever option I chose. As a professor, he used his wisdom and experience to make me a better scholar, showing me patience and understanding. He introduced me to important scholars in my field and gave me many opportunities to broaden my horizons. As a thesis advisor, Drew was never afraid to ask me difficult questions and point out where I was mistaken. He praised me on my accomplishments, and always pushed me to think harder and deeper about historical problems than ever before. As a mentor, he guided me through my difficult transition to grad school and was always willing to listen when I needed help. Drew’s advice helped me to find confidence in myself and my work, and I will be ever thankful for the opportunities he helped me discover.

I am proud to have known and learned from Andrew Cayton. His kindness and friendship helped me through my Master’s program, and continues to push me to better myself today. While the world is dimmer with his passing, I know my life is better having known him, and I will continue to carry on his memory in all that I do.

Dana Bogart, Former Student at Miami University

My time knowing Dr. Cayton, or Drew as he insisted, was brief compared to his several decades-long personal and professional relationships. I spent the previous two years at Miami University with him as my graduate thesis advisor. This relationship was one he had had nearly fifty times in the course of his career as an educator. At our first meeting together, Drew asked me what I wanted to study. I told him early Ohio history. He laughed, and said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve done Ohio history, but we’ll give it a shot.” I knew when applying to graduate schools that if I wanted to study early Ohio political history, Drew was the advisor I needed. He had more knowledge on the subject than I could ever learn from him, even though he had not published in that field for several years. When I came to him later in the semester with my thesis topic, he laughed again because he swore he knew nothing about Native American or environmental history. But again, he said he would give it a shot. I went to his office several times when I was frustrated (nearly to tears sometimes) with writer’s block and he would get a little glimmer as we brainstormed new perspectives and sources to investigate. After my thesis defense, his last one at Miami, we sat at dinner with his one other graduate advisee who graduated that semester. He thanked us for being a great group to end his fulfilling career with at Miami University, and discussed his excitement for the next chapter in his life. It is truly unfortunate that students at Ohio State never got the opportunity to witness Dr. Cayton in action. Many of his lectures kept over two hundred students at the edge of their seats. I knew Drew briefly, but in the same capacity that countless other students knew him; He was a highly intelligent, yet humble man with an unending love for learning and teaching. The academic community has a void that will never truly be replaced.

7 responses

  1. Drew was a great man. As others have mentioned, he was incredibly selfless, and welcoming. When my son was born this fall, Drew was one of the first to congratulate me–in typical Drew fashion he leaned toward me with a wry smile and said “now your life is over… well at least for the next 20 years, and you won’t remember the next six months at all!” After that, the first thing he asked me, when I saw him, was “how is your son?” Every time. Drew was, as we all know, an incredible scholar, but he was a genuine man who actively cared about those around him. We spent a lot of our private meeting time talking about family; his newborn grandson was one of his favorite topics of conversation, and he offered a lot of advise on managing a work/family balance.

    Despite his situation, Drew wanted to go ahead with an independent reading course that he’d agreed to teach back in the spring. He taught us more in our few meetings than we could have ever dreamt. We read a bit, joked a good deal, and had immensely productive conversations.

    I’m jealous of those that were able to work with Drew longer than me, but I am so grateful I had the opportunity to work with him, even briefly.

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  4. I just learned about Dr. Cayton’s death in the latest issue of the Miamian that came today, and I could hardly believe it. I’m so sad to hear the news. He influenced my teaching (high school) in so many ways—probably more than any methods classes I took at Miami. My (now) husband and I have always counted him as one of our best professors, and consider ourselves so lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from him. I very much enjoyed reading what people have written about him… what a loss.


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