Andrew Johnson (@dajohnsonii) is a doctoral candidate in history at Rice University. His work explores the social and cultural intersections stemming from the trades in captive peoples, both Native American and trans-Atlantic, who happened to find themselves in colonial South Carolina and situates enslaved Native Americans in the more-studied development of slavery in the colony.
I thought going to Worcester for the OIEAHC 22nd Annual Conference was going to be a reprieve from the oppressive heat and humidity of the Houston summer. New England thankfully came through on the weather front, but I also found my long overdue first trip to the conference to be an almost nonstop barrage of intellectual engagement. My work received much more feedback than I had expected and I found myself thinking through every talk and Q&A I heard, which in my experience isn’t always how conferences typically work out. The luck of having my presentation in the first panel meant I was able to get presenting out of the way, giving those attending I didn’t know something to talk with me about for the rest of the conference, and allowing me to concentrate on thinking about other scholars’ work.
I had never been to Worcester but the city and host institutions—Worcester Polytechnic Institute, American Antiquarian Society, and Worcester Art Museum—were amazing in both setting and execution. Serving as the co-convener of a conference at Rice back in February helped me appreciate all of the decisions that go into putting on a successful event. The deceptively small details, in this case the miniature foldout programs tucked behind name badges on lanyards and the small Moleskine OIEAHC notebooks for registrants, can take the preparations for a conference from simply lining up speakers to putting on an event. The organizers even put a conference app to excellent use, with virtually anything an attendee would need at one’s fingertips. As a first time attendee and presenter at the conference, I now understand why friends and colleagues have insisted that I spend part of my summers at the Omohundro Institute’s conferences.
The conference featured two themes: “Native American Transformations” and “Early America at Work.” A central emphasis was also placed on the “digital humanities,” with This Camp trainings (part of the Institute’s Lapidus Initiative) and demonstrations of the Georgian Papers Programme and American Antiquarian Society’s Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads project. Scholars need to engage thoughtfully in the possibilities of digital tools and OI placed these issues up front for the conference. David Eltis even said he thinks the incredibly successful Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has cost around three million dollars in total so far! After spending months building databases and clumsily attempting to map slavery in colonial South Carolina using GIS, I instead opted for a more traditional conference of lunches, drinks, and dinners with other scholars.
Every panel I attended was what I would call a success. Turnout was excellent, the papers were interesting, and the Q&As were engaging. One theme I noticed in each of the panels that I attended was the expanding interest in writing the histories of the voiceless. This may seem an obvious trend, mapped along the lines of historical inquiry for the last couple of scholarly generations, but at the cutting edge of historiography, scholars continue to find more useful stories to tell from the very edges of historical societies. In my panel, Tyler Jackson Rogers ruminated on the violence of the archive in the ability to grant names to enslaved Native Americans in colonial New England. Likewise, Wendy Warren later wondered out loud about the connections between slavery and capitalism in the early modern British Atlantic when New England papers sometimes featured enslaved babies to be given away, not sold. The first enslaved person to be granted full church membership in New England, “Dorcas ye blackmore,” of Dorchester, and her ensuing social marginalization was the focus of Deborah McNally. In possibly my most-anticipated panel, “Taming Early America: Human-Animal Relationships along the Blurred Line of Domestication,” nonhuman historical “agents” took center stage. Whitney Barlow Robles talked about keeping raccoons as pets as a way early-American thinkers attempted to understand the links between domestication and society and Anya Zilberstein looked at the discourse over feeding corn to livestock and the poor as indicative of late-18th and early-19th century reformers conflating of the poor and livestock. Strother E. Roberts posited that perhaps at least some Native American cultures in the early northeast thought of dogs as livestock and may have even bred some specifically as food.
To me, a sign of a great conference is when it’s difficult to decide which panels to attend. My interests obviously skewed the panels I attended and this short recap has done little to mention the bulk of the conference. I also had an early flight back to the sauna of Houston Sunday morning and unfortunately missed the last day of panels. I’m sure it was my loss. Luckily, Michael Hattem Storify-ed the conference hashtag, so anyone can take an in-depth trip back to Worcester through hundreds of tweets.
My first trip to the OI annual conference was even better than I had anticipated. Everyone I talked to seemed to have thought my ideas about using enslaved people as collateral for mortgages in early South Carolina was at least interesting, I was able to hear many of the absolute best thinkers in early American history talk about a wide array of topics, and I came back invigorated about my work. Best of all, I finally think I have worked through a conceptual problem in the dissertation chapter I’m writing, which means I may have to start going to the OI conference every year. And Ann Arbor should be cooler (at least in temperature) than Houston, too.