Hull PDRA Susannah Hopson reflects: “Treatied Spaces: Environment and Peoples in America 1607-1890”

Dr Susannah Hopson

I have just joined the History subject group in the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures as a research assistant on the project, ‘Treatied Spaces: Environment and Peoples in America, 1607-1890’, after completing my PhD here at Hull in 2017. My PhD was a study of the collective memory and memorialization of two western Native American massacre sites, Bear River (1863) and Sand Creek (1864). While studying for an undergraduate degree in American Studies at Swansea University in 2008, I took a couple of modules run by Professor Joy Porter, who was then lecturing at Swansea.  Since then, I have been interested in Native American history and culture. I was particularly drawn to the literary works of Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich and her portrayal of Ojibwe family life before and after destructive policies such as assimilation, Christianization and urbanization took hold in Native communities. As my fascination with these distinctive cultures grew, I started to focus upon the 19th century American West and the impact mass Euro-American settlement had on indigenous American peoples. In particular, I considered the relationship between violence and European-America colonization and how this has influenced the affiliation between Native and non-Native cultures today.

I am currently a research assistant on an exciting new project led by Professor Joy Porter and Dr Charles Prior. ‘Treatied Spaces’ will use a collection of treaties owned by the University of Hull, (one of only two universities in the country to be in possession of this collection) to determine how treaties conducted between colonials, settlers, federal governments and Native peoples convey questions related to sovereignty, the use of space and the environment, the movement of peoples and goods, including resources as different as food and weaponry, as well as pathways of disease and war. The aim of the project is to strengthen understanding of treaties as vibrant and disputed documents that are not simply tied to the dispossession of Native lands but remain central to contemporary debates on social and environmental justice in America and trans-national contexts.

By converting information from the treaties into geospatial data (GIS), the outcome of the project will be a complete, digitized and multi-layered map of pre-revolutionary North-Eastern America, an area and time of which historians have limited visual understanding. The map will harmonize and analyse data from this era to produce a complex yet comprehensive study of this period. Firstly, the map will re-create an area of diplomatic space that will depict loss of Native land but fundamentally demonstrate just how dynamic political interactions between Native and colonial peoples were within this environment. A complex and ever-evolving balance of power was at play in this colonial/indigenous space and tribal alliances and hostilities shifted throughout the colonial period as a reaction to diplomacy, increased settlement and the preferences of colonial governments. Whilst some tribes, such as the Iroquois, remained powerful, tribes in Virginia and New England were often reduced to tributary status.

Another layer of the map will depict a landscape of war. The treaties highlight small and frequently occurring wars between different tribes and settler colonies as the documents were used to implement the seizure of native land. Firstly, treaties established boundaries and zones of control and, secondly, they were used as a form of legal certification to transfer ownership of land to colonial settlers and begin the process of removing Indians from the landscape. Indian land loss was inextricably linked to the displacement of peoples and subsequent land gain for settlers. Another layer of the map will therefore demonstrate the movement of peoples and the new alliances that were shaped as Native and non-Natives moved into new spaces.

As people moved so, of course, did goods and resources. Native cultures, many of which were nomadic and relied upon seasonal resources, were severely impacted by the arrival of European settlers whose treatment of the land resulted in a rapid decline of Native resources, including animals central to the fur trade. A layer of the map will depict the transforming landscape, the introduction of agriculture and the depletion of nomadic lifeways, as well as new trade movement such as the transference of firearms and alcohol to Native peoples.

The relationship between Native peoples and early Anglo colonization was shaped by more complex notions of violence that were interlinked with trade, diplomacy, movement of peoples and shared spaces and resources. However, at the root of these issues was an aggressive European quest for land and dominance, shaped by inherent beliefs in land claim, beginning in the 1600s and officially confirmed by the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ in landmark legal cases such as Johnson v M’Intosh in 1823. The ‘Treatied Spaces’ project will provide an invaluable future tool for researchers and transform the way we regard treaties into dynamic instruments of colonialism.

What are your thoughts?