An interview with Andrew Lipman, the latest addition to our dept & a scholar in early American history

Andrew Lipman, the latest addition to our department and a scholar in early American history, tells us below about the origins of his interest in history, his book and scholarship, and the courses he will teach at Barnard.

Q: How did you get interested in history? 

A: I think my interest comes from my parents, especially my mother. She was a travel writer, and she always began her trips by reading history and fiction about where she was going. She wasn't trying to become an expert, she just wanted some depth and context for what she was getting into. And she just firmly believed that places are defined by their past, that traveling was a very superficial thing if you did not know about the people who came that way before. I like to think I inherited her life's philosophy, her fondness for reading, her love of writing, and her quest for new stories to tell. 

My academic path was also pretty simple: I had great teachers who loved history from elementary school on into college. At some point in my time at Vassar, I realized that all my favorite classes were history classes and that writing research papers challenged and excited me like nothing else. There was something about the creative, multidisciplinary ways that history professors asked questions and answered them that really spoke to me. That was when I started to think seriously about going to graduate school.

Q: What is your first book, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, about?

A: The book is about the colonial Northeast, the area that is now coastal New York and Southern New England. This region has a curious paradox of conquest and survival. In the seventeenth century, this was the most hotly contested and notoriously violent region on all the east coast, yet today it's still home to once of the densest concentrations of Native communities east of the Mississippi. Why were colonists so aggressive in this one particular shoreline? And how were the region's Algonquian peoples so persistent? I think we can answer both those questions by flipping our traditional westward-facing picture around, and considering this region not just as a part of the continent, but instead as part of the ocean.

The book's first and most basic point is that Indians met colonists as fellow mariners. Surely we have all seen those stock historical paintings of first contact where Natives stand dumbstruck on the shore, gaping at the approaching sails. Contrary to that lazy imagery of passive landbound Indians and active seaborne Europeans, the Algonquian peoples of this region had a robust maritime culture. They regularly sailed their hefty fifty-foot canoes on long passages to destinations far over the horizon. And this region's waters, not its land, became the main contested space between Native powers and two rival European empires, the English and the Dutch. I see this region's colonization as a connected story of both devastation and navigation.

When ships started lurking off this coast in the early seventeenth century, local Algonquians became both willing and enslaved pilots for foreign captains, while Indian pirates sometimes attacked foreign vessels. Soon the invaders relied on Native watermen as boatbuilders and couriers. Indians' sacred shell beads known as wampum became a shared currency connecting Native and colonial villages throughout the Northeast. A series of offshore attacks sparked two aggressive colonial wars, which allowed the English and Dutch to expand their claims but also heightened tensions between these neighbors. I look at Indians' roles in the eventual English conquest of the Dutch colony, and how the defeat of the Dutch and the resulting collapse of the wampum-based economy led to the bloodiest war ever fought in the region: King Philip's War. The book closes looking at how indigenous people were pushed into the larger Atlantic world as both slaves and sailors, and how Algonquians were central to the founding of the Yankee whalefishery in the late seventeenth century.

That's the narrative of the book. Along the way, I introduce some interesting personalities, beginning with the first Natives taken as slaves like the famed Wampanoag Squanto and more obscure figures like the Munsee teenager nicknamed "Orson." I also sketch the biographies of Native leaders including the Narragansett Miantonomo, the Massapequa Tackapousha, and the Wampanoag female chief Awashonks, and I  flesh out colonial figures like John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Willem Kieft, and Petrus Stuyvesant. I also touch on relevant side topics that I found fascinating, including coastal geology, coastal mythology, indigenous canoe-building, European shipbuilding, the ecology of whaling, the contrasting ideologies of the Dutch and English empires, gender in Algonquian societies, the significance of beheading to both Europeans and Indians, the architecture of colonial and Native forts, and the flourishing of Native-authored histories and autobiographies in the nineteenth century.

Q: What's behind the book's intriguing, and seemingly incongruous, title?

A: That's deliberate, of course, as so often we view "frontiers" as dusty or wooded spaces where conflicts between invaders and Natives centered on territory. So adding the word "saltwater" is intentionally jarring. I also wanted the title to indicate that this book was both a "borderlands" history and an "Atlantic" history, that it combines the two main geographic approaches to studying Early America. So, in that sense, the “saltwater” in the title is not strictly literal. After all, territory is a key part of this story, especially in the later chapters. Instead “saltwater” refers to the many kinds of maritime and Atlantic connections—cultural, political, martial, ecological, and material—that formed this borderland that was not entirely based on land.

Q: Was this integration of environmental, social, cultural, and political history part of the original plan or something that emerged as you worked in the project?  

A: That's definitely not how this project started! My dissertation was a much narrower political narrative with a few patches of cultural analysis. The geopolitical contest between English and Dutch empires really dominated the analysis. In my revisions, I knew I wanted to recenter the book around the Native people of the Northeast and retell this region's history as encounter between multiple seafaring cultures. So that really pushed me to widen my lens, and ask a new set of questions about how indigenous communities experienced the twin European invasions over the seventeenth century. So I think that shift in direction added a lot more texture and characters to my book.

Q: Could you tell us about the two classes you'll be teaching in the fall?

Sure. One class is a lecture-centered survey of Revolutionary America, 1750-1815. I always find this an exciting class to teach because students come in with a lot of interest in the founding and because the scholarship on this period is so distinguished, deep, and active. I aim to make my lectures up to date with the newest work, which increasingly sees the Revolution as a global event. I also do not neglect the most basic questions about the Revolution, about the founders' motivations and philosophies, and the experiences of all those many folks left out of the phrase "all men are created equal."

My other course, a research and reading-intensive seminar, is called Colonial Gotham, 1609-1776. Historians at Barnard and Columbia often teach courses about the history of New York City, but this class is a little different, as it focuses exclusively on the colonial period. It is not a “pre-history” of the modern metropolis, but rather a stand-alone story of Gotham’s growth from a tiny Dutch trading post in the midst of hundreds of Native villages into a key port of the first British Empire. The class closes at the dramatic moment when this urban colonial society was torn apart and partially destroyed in the American Revolution. There are a lot of compelling events in New York's first two centuries: frontier wars, slave conspiracies, religious revivals, and conflicts between the official and contraband economies. All along, we will try to balance local and global perspectives, and blend social, cultural, political, and economic analyses. The course will also consider colonial Manhattan’s place in American national memory, and critically approach the many self-congratulatory and silly stories people like to believe about this long-lost island town. Students will also develop an original fifteen-page research paper on a topic of their own choosing, and will be strongly encouraged to use sources held at Columbia’s special collections or one of the city’s other major archives.

Q: And how about your broader pedagogical practices and visions?  

Perhaps this sounds a little macabre, but I always feel that history is about our imaginary, one-sided relationships with the dead. We have to be honest about the limits of ever truly understanding their worlds but nonetheless keep trying. Ultimately, I want students to see my classes as thought exercises in time travel, where we try to imagine what the past looked like, sounded like, and felt like. And the most crucial goal is the voyage into the minds of people long gone, to see how the past looked from the perspectives of those living through it. I think learning from the dead takes a lot of creativity and empathy, as you often have to wrap your mind around ideas and values that are drastically different from your own. 

Primary sources are key to achieving this exercise in imagination, though I also put a heavy emphasis on writing. I also try to give students a sense of scholarship, to get a sense of the discipline as an argument without end. The big idea is that students will leave our classes with a greater appreciation for how just how complex and contingent the past was, to resist any simplistic generalizations about how "back then" was better or worse than the present. And that they will become sensitive to the fact that so much of the present world was shaped by the dreams and failures of many generations long gone.​