Panel 4: The Power of Rivers

1:30pm, Saturday, October 15, 2016

Respondent: Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History, Princeton University

Zachary Bennett, “Flowing Power: Rivers on New England’s Eastern Frontier” (History, Rutgers University)

In colonial New England, mastering inland waterways was the sine qua non for exercising sovereignty across neighboring swathes of territory. The primary trigger for conflict on New England’s eastern frontier concerned access to the region’s rivers, not disputes over land which dominate the historiography. My presentation hopes to offer some preliminary explanations as to why river spaces mattered so much in the struggle for power between the English and Wabanaki Indians.

John Nelson, “American Empire and the Fluid Frontier:
 Competing Visions of Land and Water at the Chicago Portage, 1795-1833” (History, University of Notre Dame)

Indians and Europeans in the Great Lakes country of early America harnessed the portage paths and waterways of the region for trade, travel, and sustenance, as well as war and competition from before the colonial era through the eighteenth century. Within this interior marine system, sites like the Chicago portage became spaces of heightened interaction as Europeans and Native peoples alike used the pathway as an overland linkage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River drainage. At the Chicago portage, Europeans and Native Americans understood and used the landscape in congruent ways, enabling collaboration and cooperation in a fluid network of trade and transportation. When the United States claimed the portage as part of the Greenville Treaty in 1795, this space of cultural and geographic confluence became a site of imperial contest as American officials attempted to assert their visions of a terrestrial empire onto the local Potawatomi and European peoples, and those local practitioners of a fluid system, based on the portage, resisted.

Sigma Colón, “Rivers of America” (American Studies, Yale University)

Over the span of five decades, the Rivers of America series transcended what might be considered the provincial limits of regionalism and forced the myth of national progress to contend with social and environmental justice. Focusing on volumes from the 1960s and 1970s, and David Harvey’s methodology, this talk examines the role of popular geographies in transforming the health of North American waterways and human social relations.