Robert Morrissey is Assistant Professor of History at University of Illinois. This interview is based on his new book, Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in the Colonial Illinois Country (University of Pennsylvania Press, March 2015).
JF: What led you to write Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in the Colonial Illinois Country?
RM: Growing up in the Midwest, I was always aware of a “hidden” colonial history of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. A college course on Native American history followed by a trip to the Boundary Waters wilderness area in Northern Minnesota prompted me to start learning about the history and environment of the mid continent in a serious way. By the time I started working on this project, many historians were debating the nature of empire in early America. I knew that the kind of colonialism that people created in the interior of North America was a special and diverse phenomenon, a product of multicultural negotiation on an early American frontier. This book was my effort not only to recover some of the “hidden” history of the colonial and Native Midwest, but also to tell the story of a fascinating kind of politics that took shape here.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empire by Collaboration?
RM: In the middle of North America, Indians, colonists and successive imperial governments made a distinctive political culture over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries which was not what any of them would have planned, but which had benefits for many participants. Not just a matter of accidental accommodation, this political order was a conscious collaboration of many interests and the root of a distinctive, diverse, and durable colonial culture in the mid continent.
JF: Why do we need to read Empire by Collaboration?
RM: Although it is still sometimes overlooked, Illinois Country was an important place. The Illinois were among the most numerous Native groups in North America at the start of contact. The initially-illegal French and creole communities that developed in their midst eventually numbered around 1500 free and enslaved inhabitants, making them some of the largest frontier communities in North America. Their geographical location was an important ecological and social transition zone in North America and brought together diverse peoples in a rich cultural mix. For historians of the early American frontier, what happened in this special region challenges some popular conceptions of what contact zones and “middle grounds” were all about, even as it encourages a new understanding of the early modern French empire.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RM: My teachers helped me make that decision. First of all, my history teachers in high school were the reason I became seriously interested in the subject. Then my college professors showed me how much stories we tell about the past do matter in our present day lives. It was that realization that really pushed me to try to become a professional historian, and it started from a pretty early age.
JF: What is your next project?
RM: My next project is entitled "The Illinois and the Edge Effect: People and Animals in the Tallgrass Prairie Borderlands." It is a study of the relationship between people and non-human nature in one of North America's most distinctive ecological and social frontiers from 1200 to 1850.
JF: Sounds interesting. Thanks Bob!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner