Guest Post: Historical Narratives, Contemporary Tools

This is the third post in The Junto’s roundtable on the Black Atlantic. The first was by Marley-Vincent Lindsey, and the second was by Mark J. Dixon. Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan holds a PhD in early American history from the University of Leicester and is Coordinator and Instructor of Public History at Rutgers University. She is currently completing a manuscript on vagrancy and indigent transiency in the early nineteenth century US.

obrassill-kulfan-map-wikimedia-commonsThe early modern Atlantic Ocean was traversed by countless seafarers with varying degrees of maritime experience, in varying degrees of (un)freedom. People used mobility, including travel by sea, to negotiate new identities for themselves, however precarious. One such individual was a young African American man named James Huston, who joined the sailing ranks sometime around the first decade of the nineteenth century, traveling from the harbor in Philadelphia to the Caribbean. Huston’s journey was strategic, and carefully planned: an indentured servant, he was traveling to “Hayti as a sailor” with the “consent of his master,” Caleb Ayers, a resident of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, with the intention of earning enough money to pay off the remainder of his term under indenture.

At that point, Huston’s form of bondage was far more malleable than that which he had known previously. Born enslaved under the name of James Davis in the state of Delaware circa 1786, he had self-emancipated, or, in his words, “left his master,” and fled to Pennsylvania sometime around the turn of the century. Upon arriving on “free” soil in Pennsylvania, he changed his name. After reaching Concord, in Delaware County, a Quaker man by the name of Joseph Hatton, “purchased his freedom.” By Huston’s telling, it was “in consideration” of Hatton’s actions that Huston chose to bind “himself by an indenture to serve . . . Hatton” for seven years. Two years later, however, Huston’s indenture was sold to Ayers, and after about a year, Huston and Ayres reached a mutual agreement for Huston’s travel to Haiti and eventual purchase of the remainder of his indenture.[1]  The plan worked, and Huston returned to Pennsylvania to become a free man.

Huston’s strategic use of the avenues of mobility available to him—fugitive movement northward and later, seafaring to the Caribbean—allowed him to construct a form of practical if neither economic nor technical freedom for himself. Before long, though, financial and physical factors curtailed Huston’s freedom of movement and self-management, when poverty and illness prompted his entrance into the Philadelphia Almshouse in December of 1826. There, he was interviewed by the guardians of the poor with regard to his birth, status, and occupation, and was prompted to give a catalog of each location in which he had resided, and each person by whom his labor had been owned.

This interview was the result of the guardians’ effort to maintain a database of “examinations of paupers” who came from outside of the city and through the Almshouse.[2] The guardians described Huston as a “Blk. Single man” who was too “sick” to travel. This latter point was of particular significance because Huston did not possess a legal settlement in Philadelphia, and, declared a pauper by the guardians, city authorities were obliged by state laws governing the poor to remove him to the last place where he had officially resided—Delaware County, the site of his indenture.[3] By this process, thousands of indigent transients each year were forcibly transported by local authorities across town and county, and sometimes state, lines. Designed to protect the poor relief coffers filled with taxpayer money from the needs of ‘strangers,’ these laws enforced concepts of acceptable and illicit geographical movement for the poor.[4] For James Huston, this meant a reversal of the hard-won mobility he had obtained through fugitivity, negotiation, and the creation of a new identity in the early nineteenth century Atlantic world.

Huston’s story is likely not surprising to historians familiar with the complicated transition from slavery to freedom in the northern United States and the vagaries of labor, indenture, and poverty in this period. But his trajectory, and that of others like him, can serve great utility in communicating the nuanced history of not only slavery and the age of emancipation, but also ill-understood subjects like indenture and welfare policy, to the general public. The seemingly-immutable categories of enslaved laborer, servant, sailor, and pauper, are called into question by one person’s embodiment of each identity. Microhistorical and biographical approaches in public history interpretation can serve to ground discussions about migration, poverty, and other relevant issues that might otherwise get lost in technical policy detail or bogged down in contemporary political battles. This approach places the emphasis on the importance of nuance, the malleability of social status and identity, and the identification of historical causation.

Critical public historians are increasingly seeking new ways to establish new dialogues between academics, communities, and policymakers. They use exhibits, museum spaces, and other collections access tools to facilitate conversations about historical precedents for our current contentious debates that are engaging and provocative.[5] Utilizing completely unknown stories—mere blips in the archive, such as James Huston’s personal history—can create a blank slate for fostering conversations on issues that matter, hopefully without the barrier of anticipated advance knowledge. For this dialogue to have an impact, it needs to happen outside of the academy in as many ways as might be possible: through street installations, in public libraries, in community centers, on radio and television programming, and so on.

The dissemination of historical narratives of maritime circulation, migration, and labor could particularly, at this moment, create opportunities for accurate, attentive engagement in public debate. If historians are to keep pace in this new “post-truth” world, making technically nuanced historical narratives functionally accessible to the public may provide us with a much-needed tool. As has recently become painfully clear, the hurdle to cross is not merely the dissemination of facts, but also prompting the reconsideration of long-held beliefs. By scaling conversations about race, poverty, welfare, and labor to a factor of one, historians can connect dots across centuries that might otherwise be scarcely visible outside of the academy.


[1] Examination of James Huston, Examinations of Paupers, 1826-1831. Alms House Records, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

[2] Examinations of Paupers, Almshouse Records, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives, Philadelphia, PA. Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 116.

[3] Jeremiah Peirsol to Directors of the Poor of Delaware Co., Penna, 13 December 1826. Letter Book, Alms House Records, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

[4] “Poor” (1782), A Digest of the Laws of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1818); Ruth Wallis Herndon, Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 11-12; Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger, Robert Love’s Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 86-87; Douglas Lamar Jones, “The Strolling Poor: Transiency in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts,” in Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935, ed. E. Monkkonen (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 21-22; “Report of the Secretary of State in 1824 on the Relief and Settlement of the Poor,” Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York at their 47th Session (Albany, 1824), 387-390. Raymond A. Mohl, Poverty in New York, 1783-1825 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 64. Sixty nine out of 275 pauper examinations (or 25%) taken between 1822 and 1825 in the Philadelphia Almshouse had a note of “removed” listed below their record. Examinations of Paupers, 1822-1825, Alms House Records, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

[5] This has been done especially well on issues related to crime and punishment, such as the “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, and the traveling “States of Incarceration exhibit from the Humanities Action Lab.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Resistance and Adjustment in Suriname: A Durable Eighteenth-Century Cultural Schism « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Echoes of Revolution: Resistance, Hip Hop, and the Black Atlantic « The Junto


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