History Department
History Department

Cameron Strang: a rising national star

Mon, April 15, 2013
Cameron Strang: a rising national star
Cameron Strang, courtesy of the Office of the President, UT Austin

When we think of the history of science, images of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud or Einstein, come to mind. We think of Benjamin Franklin and electricity, or Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We associate the origins of American cartography, geology, astronomy, and natural history firmly with institutions in Boston, Philadelphia, and Monticello.

Cameron Strang, a Ph.D. candidate in the History program at UT Austin, is thinking differently about the history of science, and has garnered a string of prizes and prestigious national fellowships along the way.

Mr. Strang arrived at UT Austin from The University of New Hampshire with his Masters in History, and immediately set forth working on his project about the history of science in the Early Republic.

Writes Dr. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at UT Austin, “Cameron has set out to prove that science of the nascent United States was not only an affair of Philadelphia and the Northeast, arguing that to succeed, the nascent Republic incorporated traditions of knowledge first developed in the borderlands of other empires in Florida, Louisiana, and the Caribbean. It is a bold new argument.”

A bold new argument that immediately caught the attention of funding institutions. Cameron’s findings have already won him national recognition, including:

  • The Donald D. Harrington Graduate Fellowship, one of UT’s most competitive prizes.

  • The Louis Pelzer Memorial Award of the Organization of American Historians (OHA), which selected Cameron’s chapter on U.S. Army skull collecting and Seminole scalp collecting as the best article submitted by a graduate student in 2012. The article, "Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains during the Second Seminole War" will be published in the Journal of American History, one of the most prestigious journals in the History profession.
  • William and Mary Quarterly, another leading journal in the History profession, will publish Cameron’s manuscript “Indian Storytelling, Scientific Knowledge, and Power in the Florida Borderlands.”
  • 13 extremely competitive national fellowships including fellowships to visit the Library of Congress, Monticello, the Dianne Woest Fellowship at the Historic New Orleans Collection in New Orleans, the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, various archives in Philadelphia, and the archives of the Botanical Gardens in Madrid.
  • Margaret Henry Dabney Penick Resident Scholar of the Smithsonian Library, a postdoctoral fellowship.

  • National Science Foundation

Cameron has spent two years scouring archives. The result is a dissertation that is profoundly changing our understanding of the role of local knowledge in the early creation of the United States, particularly the roles of geology, cartography, astronomy, and natural history collecting in the former French and Spanish borderlands.

His dissertation more generally offers a model of “science in and of the borderlands,” a model useful for any historian writing about science and empire in the world.

Because the borderlands witnessed a mix of European, African, and Amerindian knowledge, Cameron’s “science in and of the borderlands” defies description.  Before there were national borders, the Americas had myriad spaces where Europeans exerted very little power. These were spaces populated by powerful indigenous, sovereign nations and armed communities of run-away slaves. In these borderlands natives and blacks gained power by pitting Europeans against each other, obtaining guns, horses, and commodities, even becoming empires themselves, like the Comanche. Florida and Louisiana were typical borderlands. Cameron shows how violence in these borderlands created, not suppressed, knowledge.

His dissertation demonstrates, for example, that “craniometry” and “scalp collecting” in Florida were sciences of the Early American Republic. Members of the US army used burial desecration to defeat the Seminoles, a sovereign nation product of the mixing of Africans and Indians. For the Seminoles the dead were as important as the living and burial desecration could lead to the unraveling of Seminole society. Craniometry and phrenology (two 19th-century popular sciences that understood human and racial behavior through the measuring of the volume and form of the skulls) required the collection of skulls, desecration of burial sites, and cutting off heads of living Seminole warriors. Naturalists accomplished two things at once: scientific collections and removing Seminoles from Florida. The Seminoles, on the other hand, also used violence to survive. The Seminole thought that the dead needed white scalps to stay with the living. In such political economy of revenge, the collection of white scalps reinforced the decision of both the dead and the living to stay. Cameron concludes that the sciences of craniometry and scalp collecting in Florida were two birds of the same feather.  Cameron has similar striking findings for the history of early American geology, cartography, and natural history.

On Saturday, April 13, OAH President Albert M. Camarillo and OAH President-Elect Alan M. Kraut presented the 2013 Louis Pelzer Memorial Award to Cameron in San Francisco, California, during the 106th annual meeting of the organization. After the meeting, the awards ceremony program will be available on the OAH Web site with photos and a description of the award winner's work, at: http://oah.org/publications/presidential.html

Related Links:

Cameron Strang’s home page

UT News story about 2012-2013 Harrington Fellows, citing Cameron Strang:

UT History Graduate Research in Focus:

Philidelphia Area Center for History of Science, dissertation felloe page

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