Elizabeth Elbourne – Orality and literacy on the New York frontier: Evidence from the Draper papers

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Elizabeth Elbourne (McGill University)
Orality and literacy on the New York frontier: Evidence from the Draper papers

In the 1860s and 70s, the historian Lyman Draper collected frontier stories from the descendents of settler and Six Nations families living in what were then upper New York state in the U.S. and central Ontario in Canada. Despite significant methodological problems (which I shall discuss), this paper proposes an exploration of the oral histories written down by Draper. I want to use this material as a springboard to examine both the interaction between orality and literacy on the New York frontier during the turbulent 1760s and 70s, and the uses of memory in the 1870s. I suggest overall that literacy was a route to power and a means to participate in a transatlantic public sphere for those who could take advantage of it in the revolutionary period. At the same time, the evidence of the Draper papers suggests that an oral public sphere co-existed with the public sphere of the written text which is more visible to the historian. Stories clearly circulated across the frontier. I take the example of Six Nations war chief Joseph Brant. I argue that he had to perform to this frontier audience (as stories about Brant’s behaviour in battle suggest) even as he also tried to perform to an elite British audience in two visits to London and to control the circulation of written texts about himself. Some of these stories seem to have crossed between settler and Six Nations families, raising the possibility of shared oral space. At the same time, the papers also give the historian the opportunity to think about memory, and in particular the memory (and forgetting) of colonial violence.

Draper’s collection of stories relating largely to conflict and coexistence in the borderlands between white and Six Nations territory was only part of his indefatigable and well-known work “collecting” American history more widely. Draper’s work on western frontiers is well-known. At the same time, much of Draper’s work on what was in the late eighteenth century a highly contested frontier between Six Nations groups and setters in the New York region is relatively under-utilized in part, I think, because it is so difficult to work out what to do with it. Clearly much of the context of collection is missing, and these snatches of oral evidence and family stories cannot be taken as unmediated. Nonetheless I want to suggest that these confusing, meandering, jam-packed notebooks contain some alternate memories that cut across the grain of an era in which far more official and nationalistic stories about the frontier predominated. They also reference a number of Six Nations traditions relating to a period in which relatively few Six Nations’ peoples were literate. Whatever the problems of source material, Draper’s oral histories, transformed into text, remind the historian both of the depth and importance of the world beyond written text but also of the intimate interaction between written and spoken word.

Elizabeth Elbourne, McGill University,  email
Elizabeth Elbourne is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, McGill. Her research and teaching interests include eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain and the history of British imperialism, with particular attention to comparative frontier history in the white settler empire. Current research includes comparative work on indigenous-settler relations and humanitarian intervention in the white settler colonies of the British empire, including New South Wales, the Cape Colony and northeastern North America. More particular interests include religion and cultural colonialism; the history of “humanitarianism”; debates over Aboriginal sovereignty and citizenship; gender and sexuality. Past publications include Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions and the Contest for Christianity in Britain and the Eastern Cape, 1799-1853 (McGill-Queens, 2002). As of September 2009, she is, with Brian Cowan, joint editor of the Journal of British Studies (she’ll be the principal editor 2012-14)








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