Daniel Tortora is Assistant Professor of History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. This interview is based on his new book Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763 (University of North Carolina Press, May 2015)
JF: What led you to write Carolina in Crisis?
DT: In 2005 I was transcribing the diary (1757–1761) of Charleston pastor William Hutson for the South Carolina Historical Society. I encountered vague references to Indian war on the frontier and discovered hints of its social and political consequences. I became even more curious as I continued to study religion in eighteenth-century South Carolina. As a Ph.D. student at Duke, I discussed my budding interest with Peter Wood and Elizabeth Fenn and did some reading. I was captivated. I found that many people were unfamiliar with the dramatic and momentous French and Indian War era in the Southeast. I saw a need for additional work and Carolina in Crisis was born. One of my first research trips took me to Fort Loudoun in Tennessee, and there was no turning back.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Carolina in Crisis?
The series of clashes that erupted from 1758 and 1761 between Cherokees, settlers, and British troops transformed the social and political landscape of the American Southeast. Three years of war devastated the Cherokees, and they went from British allies to enemies to mistreated subjects; the conflict also destabilized South Carolina society and created military and political turmoil that nurtured that colony’s nascent Revolutionary movement.
JF: Why do we need to read Carolina in Crisis?
DT: Carolina in Crisis offers an engaging and immersive look at the world of the mid-eighteenth century Southeast. You’ll come to better understand the social, cultural, political, and military dimensions of the era.
Carolina in Crisis shines new light on Cherokee culture, motivations, and divisions in the eighteenth century. It reveals the tensions—sparked by Cherokee attacks, a smallpox epidemic, a slave conspiracy, and British-colonial military campaigns—that divided white South Carolinians and British officials. It details the opportunities and challenges awaiting slaves during wartime. And it provides links to the Revolutionary era.
You will encounter suspense, heartache, betrayal, and controversy. A colorful cast of characters awaits you: Cherokee warriors and women; frontier soldiers and settlers; British officers and colonial politicians; and enslaved messengers and militiamen. You’ll also learn more about historic places well worth visiting. While writing the book, I traveled extensively to the forts, villages, settlements, and battlefields discussed and led two bus tours of Anglo-Cherokee War sites.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DT: One source of inspiration came from listening to my grandpa tell of his adventures hitchhiking across the country in the 1940s when he was a teenager. These tales filled me with a sense of wonder about the past and showed me the value of good narrative history. I watched with respect and interest as New England Indians fought for recognition and sovereignty. I had also been intrigued by dinosaurs and volcanoes, so I majored in both history and geology at Washington and Lee. Ted DeLaney’s class on the Civil Rights Movement further convinced me that I wanted to study American history. I have since gravitated toward colonial American history and American Indian history. I especially appreciate the struggle of the underdog, and my work reflects that.
JF: What is your next project?
DT: I’ve just returned from a research trip to the Huntington Library where I worked on my two new book projects. One book explores the lives of Indian people along the northeastern borderlands during the Revolutionary era. The second book is a social history of Virginia from the 1750s through the beginning of the Revolution, told through the travels, missteps, and misfortunes of an often overlooked figure. I am seeking publishers for both projects. I remain eager to learn more about early Maine history. I continue to study the Indian tribes of southern New England and the early Southeast. I also hope to contribute to an edited volume. I have also been active in the implementation of a plan to upgrade historic interpretation at Fort Halifax Park, the beautiful French and Indian War and Revolutionary War site in Winslow, Maine.
JF: Sounds great! Thanks Daniel!