This panel examines the process of defining identity and community in North America in the eighteenth century. Focused on one important site of French colonization, the Illinois Country, these three papers suggest ways in which French-Indian geo-political relations were bound by marital and household-formation strategies. Robert M. Morrissey’s paper, “Facebook Kaskaskia: Kinship and Social Networks in a French-Illinois Borderland, 1695-1735,” argues that intermarried Indian women, not French men, were the most powerful agents of cultural conversion and mediation. He draws upon the technique of Social Network Analysis to investigate the importance of Godmotherhood networks, while also revealing the eventual collaboration of French women in this process of forging and controlling community. In ““No difference between a Christian Indian and a Frenchman:” Identity, Community and Material Culture in the Illinois Country,” Sophie White also foregrounds French-Indian households. But she proposes that the way intermarried Indian wives deployed French material culture was crucial to their claiming the authority to define community, thereby also raising questions about how these women understood their own ethnicity. Both of these papers engage with early eighteenth-century definitions of identity and community as malleable and constructed. Robert Englebert moves the analysis to the latter half of the eighteenth century Illinois Country and he too emphasizes ambiguity. In “Between Canadien and métis: Louis Lorimier and the process of métissage in the middle Mississippi Valley,” he juxtaposes this history of social and ethnic fluidity with attempts to set boundaries on identity, as manifested in the experience of (and reactions to) one French-Canadian man married to a Shawnee woman.
These papers present innovative and interdisciplinary approaches that reveal that concepts of Frenchness and Indianness were often defined and manipulated not at the imperial but at the local level. This session will be of special interest to historians of French colonization (and this panel is co-sponsored by the French Colonial Historical Society) as well as to scholars of race, gender, religion and Native American studies; it should prove especially illuminating to historians of early America and of colonialism. Indeed, while it is especially appropriate, and timely, to hold a session on the Illinois country at the Chicago AHA meeting, this session is not simply of regional interest. Rather, it offers critical new ways to address the heterogeneous interplay of religion, ethnicity, and gender in early America, and promises to stimulate a conversation about the need to re-think the dominance of an Anglo-centered national narrative of U.S. history.