James Snead – “Relic Hunters: Encounters with Antiquity in 19th Century America”

Visit to Mesa Verde 1889

When settlers crossed the Appalachians and moved through the Midwest and Southern United States in the early 19th century they encountered the ruins and artifacts left by previous inhabitants at every turn.  They thus experienced their new surroundings as complex landscapes already imbued with “history.”  This engagement was almost entirely distinct from more formal, intellectual approaches to the Native American past pursued by eastern savants, a discussion in which material evidence often played a peripheral role.  As scholars in Philadelphia framed indigenous origins in terms of historical linguistics and other associations, farmers in Ohio were plowing up arrowheads and building their houses atop burial mounds.  Inevitably this led to distinctive perspectives on the indigenous past which had important ramifications for cultural identity and the American consciousness.

The public engagement with this material past is a critical element of the American experience, but has received little attention from either archaeologists – who remain focused on the antiquities themselves, or historians, who have been largely concerned with the intellectual debates rather than the popular experience. Yet the archives of the United States contain a remarkable body of evidence concerning this engagement, particularly correspondence from doctors, farmers, merchants, schoolteachers, and many others regarding their own discoveries of “relics” and their interpretations of such finds.  This talk will draw from this vast body of material to explore the ways in which local people encountered the indigenous past in 19thcentury America, and how that engagement helped to shape the national experience.

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