- Science in the Borderlands
The history of science in early America was once a story of the genteel scientific circles of Eastern cities like Philadelphia and Boston. It centered on natural philosophers, tradesmen and statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and the origins of urban institutions like the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It was about how––in fits and starts––the foundations of a national scientific culture were built through the efforts of a nascent community of colonial men of science.
Ultimately, historians were concerned with elucidating the origins of what made "American science" unique––a historiographic focus that owed much to its development during the Cold War. This framing put a spotlight on Anglo-American relations, as exemplified by classic works by I. Bernard Cohen, Brooke Hindle, Raymond P. Stearns, and John C. Greene. How had Americans gone from colonial junior partners in the scientific enterprise to world scientific leaders in their own right? How had American science achieved its intellectual and institutional independence? Not surprisingly, democracy played a central role in this literature, with the democratic values of the early republic fostering the formation of scientific institutions while also manifesting in an emphasis on utility and a skepticism toward the authority of experts. The struggle for patronage was also a major theme. Scholars like A. Hunter Dupree and William Goetzmann showed how naturalists and geologists vied patriotically for state support. Science at last found a place in the federal budget as the United States itself became an empire that sought to understand and rule an expanding western territory.
At a time when the field of the history of science generally remained centered on Europe and dominated by the history of ideas, the emergence of interest in the social and cultural context of science in colonial America and the United States was a refreshing development. Since the 2000s, authors like Joyce Chaplin and Susan Scott Parrish have deepened and complicated our [End Page 168] understanding of the cultures and range of participants––including Native Americans, women, and enslaved people of African descent––involved in the creation and circulation of knowledge about the natural world and human bodies in early America. Andrew Lewis and others have also emphasized the dependence of urban natural historians on networks of non-elite observers and collectors in the hinterlands. Nevertheless, even as the purview of this field broadened, it largely remained oriented toward the East Coast and the British Atlantic world.
Cameron Strang takes this longstanding historiography in quite literally a new direction with Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500–1850. Strang leaves behind the tiny, elite world of what he vividly describes as "North America's eastern Anglo fringe" (p. 6). We journey instead into a vast territory of battlegrounds, Indian villages, and plantations across the southeast borderlands, stretching from Florida to Texas. More than simply a change of venue, this regional reframing opens up a whole new world of questions and a new way of looking at what is "American" about American science. Where an older tradition located its essence in a national culture of democracy, liberty, and patriotism, Strang unearths enduring legacies of imperialism, slavery, and violence amid a patchwork of shifting allegiances.
Between the 1500s and mid-1800s, the Gulf South was a region of competing empires and unstable power dynamics, a true borderland where diverse peoples met and no single empire was able to hold complete sway. Such a context offered myriad opportunities for individuals who could stake a claim to specialized knowledge about the lands, resources, and peoples of this contested territory. Thus we encounter a wide range of historical actors who rarely feature in more traditional histories of science––perhaps especially not histories of science in America. We meet slaves, slaveowners, spies, herbalists, and shamans. We meet men like Lamhatty, a Tawasa Indian enslaved...