Early Chesapeake History and Culture Conference: Recap

Posted by on Nov 23, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 2 Comments

This past weekend I was in Solomon’s Island, Maryland, for the Early Chesapeake History and Culture Conference, which was hosted by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, in cooperation with Historic St. Mary’s City and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. It was quite an impressive conference, particularly because of the accumulation of scholars that were in attendance. I want to start this post by mentioning a couple of things: first, my focus has been primarily on the 19th century, while this conference focused on the 17th and early 18th. Second, despite having spent a couple of summers researching at Historic St. Mary’s City, I was unaware of the significance of the early scholarship that occurred there. This weekend was a crash course. I’m going to highlight some of the elements of the conference that I thought were significant, many of which Philip Morgan highlighted in his closing Plenary Address.

The Scholars

Every member of the “Chesapeake Mafia” was in attendance: Lois Green Carr, Lorena Walsh, Cary Carson, Paul Clemens, Allan Kulikoff, Gloria Main, Russell Menard, Henry Miller, Edward Papenfuse, and Thad Tate all sat on a roundtable discussion at the beginning of the conference, each discussing the earliest years of Chesapeake scholarship in the 1970s and 80s, where they saw the scholarship headed, and what traditions that it came out of. For any archaeologist, some of these traditions are pretty inclusive of our style of research. Emphasis on quantitative research, collaboration across disciplines, inclusion of material culture, focusing on the history of the “common” people, and the emphasis on public engagement through museums. Paul Clemens also made a fascinating comment about the make up of scholars: he said he went to grad school where in a history class of 150 students, there was only one woman, to working with a group of scholars (the ones above) where the leadership was by women. Lastly, and which was on display throughout this conference, was the level of decorum and respect they all had for each other and for each other’s scholarship. A lot happened at this conference that was challenging and reanalyzing the work they had done; no one got upset. Everything was done cordially, a stark contrast, I have been assured, to other regional groups. It was, in many regards, a revolutionary approach to American history.

Having these scholars at the conference was an incredible experience for me and the other graduate students in attendance. To be able to put faces to names, and to understand the tradition that we were taking part in was an incredible opportunity. To shake these people’s hands, watch them interact, and to listen to them take and give criticism…it was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Issues of Scale: Chesapeake and Beyond

One of the most contentious debates at the conference was the discussion of scale. Unfortunately, the debate started with a paper challenging whether or not the Chesapeake region was “dead”, which set a bad tone for the rest of the conference. The debate seemed to hedge over how different many elements of Maryland and Virginia seemed to appear. This had, I fear, more to do with a misunderstanding of what a region should be used as: a framework within which to ask questions, not an area in which everything is the same. That is, in fact, an impossibility. As all archaeologists know, scale can get as small as you want it: down to a 5 x5 foot unit or a single grave. What is valuable about the Chesapeake is the ability to look at certain similarities (i.e. type of agriculture, environment, etc.) and compare and contrast within that region, to see how humans reacted differently.

The other part of this discussion on scale was the potential for inclusion of other areas, such as the Piedmont or North Carolina, to enhance the comparative elements. Two impressive papers by Warren Hofstra and Bradford Wood highlighted interesting similarities due to settlement that could certainly become part of the scholarship. Also, David Hancock of the University of Michigan gave a fantastic Plenary Address discussing the inclusion of the Chesapeake within the recent scholarship of the Atlantic World, a discussion which was paramount during this conference.

Material Culture, Archaeology, and the Internet

The inclusion of archaeology within the conference was a highlight of the conference. Some fantastic papers were given which emphasized the importance of the data sets that existed. Joanne Bowen gave a wonderful talk about the enormous faunal record that they have accumulated at Jamestown, and the number of things they can track regarding human behavior, such as behaviors in diet and agriculture. Doug Owsley, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian who worked closely with researchers from Jamestown and Historic St. Mary’s City on the Written in Bone Exhibit at the Smithsonian, gave a paper discussing the contribution his enormous database of over 300 17th century individuals can provide to our knowledge of daily life for colonists. His discussion of pipe stem facets in teeth allowed him to distinguish between burials of native colonists and newly arrived indentured servants, while additional analysis allowed him to see what types of nutrition they were getting, or how pervasive disease was among different classes of individuals.

Lorena Walsh gave a fantastic commentary on this session, discussing how, in the 1980s, archaeology had not developed significant sized data sets, but now, with over thirty years worth of excavations, these data sets are large enough to not just fill in gaps in history, but to answer big questions. She also emphasized the importance of collaboration with new fields such as Physical Anthropology, in addition to the availability of these data sets on online databases such as A Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture and the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, both which provide the opportunity for historians and archaeologists alike to access this data for comparative and collaborative study.

Finally, the day trip to Historic St. Mary’s provided the opportunity for people to see first hand the way in which archaeology can be used to answer questions both large and small. The recreation of numerous structures, including a 17th century Jesuit chapel, provides insight into the daily lives of colonists that would otherwise be missed from the historical record. This was certainly driven home by the tours given by the archaeologists who work on the site, Henry Miller, Tim Riordan, Ruth Mitchell, and Silas Hurry.

Re-Writing the History of Slavery

Throughout the conference, the significance of slavery was mentioned. Russell Menard proclaimed during a question and answer session that “the rise of slavery is the most important issue in early American history.” This was driven home during one session in which Menard and John C. Coombs each gave papers that challenged and revolutionized previous conceived notions about the origins and evolution of slavery. Coombs argued that slavery did not begin with Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, as has been commonly thought by scholars since Edward Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. Twitter _ Terry Brock_ Menard_ the rise of Africa ...-1His research shows that Virginia elites had been owning slaves for a significant period before that, and that these early beginnings were beginning to catch on. Menard argues that the transition from a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society was much more gradual then previously thought, and instead argued for a continuum from Elite Slave Society to a Popular Slave Society would be a more accurate way to portray the transition. In traditional Menard fashion, he gathered data using probate records to analyze who was owning slavery over time, finding that a slave society would not have existed in the Chesapeake until the 1750s, much later than previously thought. This work could have a great deal of significance on how slavery is examined in the future.


The emphasis on a return to more collaboration was certainly heightened at this conference. Lorena Walsh emphasized this quite heavily, but almost every commentary I heard typically provided criticism that included, “you should look at the material correlates to your historical work”. The papers that included archaeology were touted by the commentors as being “perfect opportunities for collaboration”. Discussions about the early scholarship always highlighted the collaborative efforts, one person noting how you always knew that the work from the Chesapeake School was going to be good, you just never knew which two scholars would be authoring it.

Twitter _ Terry Brock_ Walsh_ it_s Time for histo ...The conference closed with this emphasis: it is the only conference I’ve ever been to where the final word was the chair of the conference holding up a packet of paper and saying, “you each have one of these in your packets. It is a list of everyone who has registered at this conference. If there is someone you’ve met or a paper you’ve seen that you found interesting, get over your fears and send them an email. Don’t be afraid to collaborate.”

In all, this was an amazing conference. I have found that I enjoy these smaller gatherings much more than the huge conferences such as SHA, in which it is hard to tell if there is anything truly revolutionary going on. Finding a good talk is a crapshoot. At this conference, you had a much better chance of landing a great paper that would make you think.

All of the papers are online for a couple of months. Unfortunately, they are password protected, restricting them to people who attended the conference. You can see a list of the papers here. Send me an email or DM on twitter if you want a copy of a paper, and I will happily download it for you. Of course, you can view the twitter stream here, under the hash tag #ECHC.


  1. brockter
    November 23, 2009

    A blog post recapping thigns I learned at the Early Chesapeake History and Culture Conference this weekend: http://bit.ly/5w4BIG #echc #fb
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. brockter
    December 2, 2009

    If you didn’t get a chance, my thoughts on the Early Chesapeake History and Culture Conference from 2 weekends ago: http://bit.ly/5w4BIG
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


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