Ask An Americanist New Research

Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America – Q&A with Dr. Jonathan T. Hancock

What sparked your interest in this area of research? 

I entered graduate school broadly interested in cross-cultural relations in Early America. While working on an undergraduate senior thesis about Protestant missions in the Cherokee Nation, I came across some fascinating material on Cherokee earthquake interpretations in 1811 and 1812. Putting off a science class required for graduation was fortuitous, because as I was working on the thesis, I learned in an introductory geology course that these New Madrid earthquakes’ epicenters were on the Mississippi River in the Missouri Bootheel – a good distance from the Cherokee Nation. 

Once I started graduate school, I wondered if I could use the earthquakes’ massive scope to survey a broad swath of eastern North America, and I began compiling earthquake accounts. Reading across the fields of religious, environmental, and intellectual history, as well as Native North America, the early U.S. republic, and the history of science, I realized I could use the earthquakes as a vehicle to do the kind of cross-cultural, field-blurring, and creative work that interested me in the historical study of Early America.

Could you give us a short overview of Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy and the Remaking of Early America

The book focuses on how prophets and revivalists in the United States, Creek and Cherokee Nations, and Ohio Valley Indian country situated the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 in their designs to bind religious and political authority within their nations. The War of 1812 era was critical for nation building, not only in the United States, but among Native Americans in the Ohio Valley and the southern Appalachians, as authorities debated political and diplomatic consolidation and the role of religion in nationalizing orders.  Convulsed States uses the earthquakes, and the interpretations that they elicited, as windows into these debates and the connections that people across eastern North America drew among matters of nature, spirit, politics, and territory in the early nineteenth century.

What sort of source material did you mostly draw on for the book? 

I use a wide range of source material, from scientific studies in paleoseismology to oral histories. And if people living within range of the shaking between December 1811 and March 1812 generated material that’s now in archives, chances are they commented on the shaking and its significance to them. I also made wide use of early U.S. newspapers, mission records, and military reports.

What was the most challenging thing about writing Convulsed States

Figuring out how to organize the book. I found great material for a comparative study, but I struggled with how to put it together. I wanted to avoid a “show and tell” approach (“here’s what Creek people thought, now here’s what Cherokee people thought,” etc.), and my dissertation was more of a series of case studies of different national spheres, which undermined the comparative analysis. Theda Perdue suggested a more topical approach at my dissertation defense. I broke apart the dissertation, did some more research to facilitate the parallel tracks that the book follows within the United States, Creek, Cherokee, and Ohio Valley Indian nations, and reshaped chapters to follow a topical approach.

What’s next for you? 

I’ve started research for a new book project, The Indigenous Lowcountry: A 4000-Year History of Native American Communities near Charleston, which is a deep time study of a region brimming with historical scholarship and public history efforts that often neglect its original and continuing inhabitants. Native communities that the English referred to as “Settlement Indians” are prominent in studies of the Yamasee War of 1715-17 and the end of the Indian Slave Trade, but I take a much longer view of the way that Indigenous communities navigated environmental changes, European colonialism, and South Carolina’s evolving racial regimes to maintain their place in the region to this day.

I’m also working on a couple of public-facing projects: consulting for a local museum to reinterpret a land cession treaty line that runs through its property and working with Hendrix College students to investigate race and historical inquiry at the institution over time.  The Dunning School of Reconstruction historiography was quite prominent here, and we’re doing research to examine its influence and legacy in Arkansas.

Jonathan T. Hancock is associate professor of history at Hendrix College. Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America is available now through UNC Press: