21 few american historians have taken a critical look

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21 Few American historians have taken a critical look at white kinship practices in the colonial and early national South. Why do we write about Indian “kinship” and white “families”? In part, this is a legacy of a disciplinary divide: to generalize, historians often naturalize the paternal, nuclear family; ethnohistorians, borrowing from anthropology, have invested great energy in studying expansive kinship networks. These divergences have affected not just our semantics, but, far more importantly, the kinds of questions that we ask as historians. A recent anthol- ogy of European kinship practices warns, “The old story of the rise of the nuclear family and the decline of the importance of kinship is not simply innocent. It has been used as the model that all modernizing economies and societies are held up to. . . . The history of the family is part of the history of the rise of the Western individual, cut loose from the responsibilities of kin, and cut out for the heroic task of building the self-generating economy.” Indians and settlers lived not in oppositional realms, but were instead intimately connected, and over time borrowed much from one another. Even as the United States expanded, beneficiaries like the Jacksons maintained broad and flexible notions of kinship, a necessity in the face of such high mortal- This content downloaded from 129.174.21.5 on Sat, 23 Nov 2019 18:42:31 UTC All use subject to
Andrew Jackson’s Indian Son | 99 ity rates. In fact, white descent reckoning had much in common with Indian practices. Joan Cashin, one of the few historians to analyze this trend, has argued, “The planter family had a nuclear core of parents and children, but . . . its borders were perme- able and its structure was elastic.” Households often included extended family as well as “fictive kin”: in the words of Caro- lyn Billingsley, “those whose kinship ties are not biologically or legally based but who, for a variety of reasons, are treated and named as kin.” In contrast to the rugged individuals of Amer- ican myth, settlers, like their Native neighbors, relied on an expansive and dynamic network of kin to support them by pro- viding labor, fulfilling social obligations, and generating polit- ical capital. 22 Some whites even recognized kin across color lines. Consider, for example, Amanda America Dickson, an African American woman in Georgia who inherited—and, perhaps more signifi- cantly, retained—her white father’s $500,000 estate. Like Aman- da’s father David, Kentuckian Richard Mentor Johnson, vice president under Martin Van Buren, also had a long-term rela- tionship with an enslaved woman. Johnson and his slave Julia Chinn had two daughters, Imogene and Adaline, whom John- son emancipated, educated, and financially supported.

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