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AHA 126th Annual Meeting: Chicago, Day One

Thursday, January 5, 2012 

After a pleasant enough flight from Houston to Chicago I arrived at O’Hare in the AM, took Chicago’s El trains to the Magnificent Mile shopping district just north of the Chicago River and checked in to my hotel.  Everything was smooth, no major commute or registration hassles.   
After registering at the conference I strolled up Michigan Avenue to the Newberry Library, one of the most extensive independent research institutions in the nation.  This privately funded archive and library is open to the public for scholarly and genealogic research.  I spent two hours with the library catalog and read a few documents from the 1820s to 1840s that are related to my own research on antebellum Kentucky.  I expected the Library would be overcrowded because of the AHA Meeting, but the reading rooms were very comfortable and the staff were pleasant and quick to pull the manuscripts for me.  (Thanks especially to Lisa and Meagan)

The first panel that I attended of the weekend, hosted by the Newberry, focused on Native American experiences in the War of 1812.  This anniversary year will see a series of events commemorating and critically rethinking the conflict and the city of Chicago is a particularly great place for that endeavor considering its role in the war.  The AHA is global in focus, so there do not appear to be many more 1812 panels this weekend, although I expect my summer trip to Baltimore for a 19th century meeting to give much more attention to the War.

The panel, Perspectives on the War of 1812 from the Collections of the Newberry Library highlighted the scholarship derived from sources collected by the Library.  Susan Sleeper-Smith spoke about the role of women in the wars and treaties of the Old Northwest and Illinois leading up to 1812.  Gregory Dowd’s presentation noted and gently chastised modern scholars for taking for granted racialized, antebellum associations of southern Indians and cosmological superstition.  According to a small number of 19th century southern commentators, Tecumseh’s pan-Indian missionary efforts to the Creeks depended upon “paranormal” associations that Creeks made with the presence of a rare comet in 1811 and subsequent earthquakes.  Dowd’ asserts that the sources, sequence of events, and racially dismissive if not patronizing accounts by southern whites make it unsatisfactory at best, wrong at worst, to attribute Creek militancy to meteorological events.  Scott Manning Stevens, a Mohawk scholar from a reservation divided between the US and Canada, on the New York/Ontario/Quebec boundaries, discussed the very present legacy of the border and reservation for the Iroquois people.  The other two panelists provided useful and enlightening commentary on early map making in the Chicago area of the 1790s to the 1810s using maps and atlases held in the Newberry Library.

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