TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS
Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman
51: David J. Silverman, 4-30-07
Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 2003-Current
Area of Research: Early American, American Indian, and Revolutionary American History
Education: Ph.D. in History, Princeton University, 2000
Major Publications: Silverman is the author of Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871,
(Cambridge University Press, 2005). He has published several essays relating to that project, including “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity on Seventeenth-Century Martha’s Vineyard,” which won the Lester J. Cappon award for best article of 2005 in the William and Mary Quarterly. Silverman is currently working on Brothertown: American Indians and the Problem of Race, (Cornell University Press), about the development of American Indian race consciousness in the colonial and early national periods told through the histories of the multitribal, Christian Indian communities of Brothertown and New Stockbridge.
Awards: Silverman is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
American Council of Learned Societies Oscar Handlin Fellowship. Grant for the 2007- 2008 academic year toward the book project, Brothertown;
Winner of the Lester J. Cappon Award for best article of 2005 in the William and Mary Quarterly;
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellow. Grant for one month of research at the American Antiquarian Society toward the book project, Brothertown. Summer 2005;
Elected member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2004;
New England Regional Fellowship Consortium. Grant for eight weeks of research at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Connecticut Historical Society, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Rhode Island Historical Society, and Mystic Seaport Museum, toward the book project, Brothertown. Summer 2003;
Phillips Fund for the Study of Ethnohistory, American Philosophical Society. Grant for research at the Hamilton College archives and the Wisconsin Historical Society, toward the book project, Brothertown. Summers of 2003 and 2004;
Mellon Post-Dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass. 2002, year-long residential research fellowship, toward the book project, Faith and Boundaries;
Colonial Society of Pennsylvania, essay prize for “Deposing the Sachem to Defend the Sachemship: Indian Land Sales and Native Political Structure on Martha’s Vineyard, 1680-1740.” Spring 2001;
Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. 1999-2000;
W. B. H. Dowse Fellowship. The Center for the Study of New England History. Grant of $1,000 for one month of research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Fall 1998.
Silverman has previously been a lecturer at Princeton University and Assistant Professor at Wayne State University.
Silverman also comments frequently on television, and has been seen on NOVA (Pocahontas Revealed), History Channel (Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower), and CNN (Wolf Blitzer Reports, on the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian).
Two overlapping goals have shaped my writing on American Indian history: first, I strive to explore American Indian lives at the local level with the kind of detail and sophistication that we normally associate with social histories of Euro-American communities; secondly, I wish to consider how Native peoples’ distinct cultures shaped their experiences without slighting the influence of their participation in an expansive colonial world. The problem, of course, is to find the sources to meet my ends. Fortunately, in my two book projects (the second of which is in progress), I’ve managed to stumble across uncommonly rich archives pertaining to some fascinating Native communities. My first book on the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard extended from my chance decision to canvass the island’s repositories during a rainy vacation day. In the county courthouse and the local historical society, I discovered volume upon volume of land deeds, court dockets, estate inventories, merchant account books, and other records related to and sometimes written by the island Wampanoags, occasionally in the Wampanoag language. These materials, supplemented by an equally rich cache of off- island missionary writing, allowed me to trace the Wampanoags’ religion, social life, politics, and economic practices in the context of their experiences with colonialism over a three hundred year period. Currently, I’m researching the emergence of Indian race consciousness in the early American Northeast through the stories of the multitribal, Christian Indian communities of Brothertown and Stockbridge. This work rests predominantly on writings by those Indians’ own leaders, including such figures as the Mohegans Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, and the Mahican Hendrick Aupaumut. We Indian historians often pride and chide ourselves that we have to work twice as hard as most of our colleagues, but we (or at least I) rarely pass on the opportunity to mine a generous archive.
Much to my surprise, the most gratifying part of my work has involved exchanges with modern day Indian communities. I began research on my first book by contacting the Education Director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah. She, in turn, put me in touch with tribal elders and other historically-minded Wampanoags to discuss my findings in light of the tribe’s own traditions. As we grew more comfortable with each other–and after I learned some hard lessons about the community’s protocols–we touched on an ever expanding list of sensitive yet essential historical issues, including Wampanoag Christianity, Wampanoag land loss, Wampanoags and alcohol, and especially exogamous marriages and their effects on Wampanoag claims to Indian identity. I received quite an education during these gatherings. The elders raised questions that I never would have considered, exposed me to alternative ways of reading my data, and taught me profound lessons about their connections to the past and to each other. Along the way, I made friendships with a handful of Wampanoag people that have enriched my personal and professional lives.
Most of my work among the Wampanoags took place on their turf, but the highlight of our relationship for me came when a Wampanoag Tribal Council member visited my undergraduate class on Colonial North America to discuss contemporary Indian decolonization efforts. Before launching his talk, he explained that the knowledge he was about to share had been handed down to him from his Wampanoag ancestors and that therefore he wished to begin by singing them an honor song. And so he did, drumming and chanting so loud that the dean across the hall probably fell out of his chair. The only comment I could muster was that the university’s namesake, George Washington, must have been spinning in his grave. I’ll consider my work, including my collaborations with Native people, successful if he continues his rotation.
By David J. Silverman
- Martha’s Vineyard’s unique history emerged from favorable conditions for Indian-English coexistence and the bold, innovative people who capitalized on them. It might seem no surprise that its model for inter-cultural peace and Indian survival was not replicated elsewhere, given that model’s contingent upon so many discrete events and personalities. However, this tiny eccentric island teaches a broad lesson about the meeting of peoples in early America by revealing the transcendent power of faith run aground the nefarious shoals of race. European settlers knew that Christianity could bring disparate human populations to terms with one another . . . . What they did not know at the onset of their American venture were the limits of their Christian convictions when dealing with peoples of another complexion . . . . It was the failure of Christian brotherhood that taught Wampanoags about the racial boundaries between them and neighboring whites. Fortunately, the faith also empowered the Wampanoags to write those boundaries onto the Vineyard landscape to safeguard parts of their culture and homeland. — David J. Silverman in “Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871”
About David J. Silverman
- “Faith and Boundaries is one of the best books on New England’s Indian history and a vital contribution to the literature of contact and community survival in early America.” — William and Mary Quarterly reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “Faith and Boundaries is one of the finest books to appear in some time about Southern New England Indians.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “This elegantly written, exhaustively researched book deserves a wide readership and is sure to have a lasting impact on our understanding of the role of Christianity in early American Indian history.” — Journal of Ecclesiastical History reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “Faith and Boundaries is a fine addition to the growing number of New England ‘town studies’ that focus on Indian communities. Silverman…shows how Indian managed to survive on the margins of New England society, and his book in an important and well-researched contribution to the literature.” — The New England Quarterly reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “David J. Silverman has written a compelling and original history of the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard using extensive archival research, personal interviews with contemporary Wampanoag residents of Martha’s Vineyard, and a firm grasp of the secondary scholarship available on the Algonquian peoples of New England…[He] uses his sources expertly, reconstructing individual lives and experiences to paint a far more complex picture of Indian life on the island than has hitherto been available.” — The Journal of American History reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “This book provides a comprehensive and well-written analysis of the American Indian communities of southern New England and their critical engagement with the British colonial world… The book has an epic quality…. As a student of both James Axtell and John Murrin, Silverman is uniquely positioned to treat both sides of the colonial encounter well, and he succeeds in fully integrating American Indian history into the broad sweep of the Atlantic world.” — American Historical Review reviewing “Faith and Boundaries”
- “Professor Silverman is the most professional, engaging teacher I have ever had the pleasure of studying with. He comes to class each time with a prepared lecture that is interesting, funny and makes you care about the subject as much as he does. Made me remember why I love studying history.”…
“Rockin’ class- this teacher is always there at 7:50 a.m w/ a cup of starbucks and a joke. *interesting fact* our good teacher was once a historical re-in-actor at Colonial Williamsburg. he also impersonates historical figures. the “southern” colonial voice reminds me of Us. Sam (the rooster cartoon character).”…
“AWESOME Prof – loves the subject, loves to teach, and loves his students (but in a good way).”… “I’ve never heard a better lecturer in my life.”… “My favorite professor EVER. Knows his stuff and wants you to learn it, too. Very passionate and personable. I wish I could take more classes with him!”… “Silverman is awesome!! he loves teaching, and loves talking about history, and he’ll answer any questions.”…
“Silverman gives wonderful lectures. He uses accents to quote historic figures and brings history to life!”…”Great class! the lectures were at 8am & I always went. he made them so interesting that i actually stayed awake.”… “Great professor, seems to be a very nice and helpful man”… “Silverman is the best professor I had this semester. Best lectures ever, and his accents are fabulous.” — Anonymous Students
Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2007 at 8:10 PM