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Current Issue Article Abstracts

Spring 2019, Vol. 17.2

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“Being Old and Dayly Finding the Symptoms of Mortality”The Troubled Last Years of Hannah Beamon of Deerfield and the Law of 1726

Carl I. Hammer

In early 1730 two prominent townsmen of Deerfield, Massachusetts, petitioned John Stoddard, judge of probate in Hampshire County, to provide for the care and maintenance of Hannah Beamon, a widow of Deerfield who had become non compos mentis, since there was no one legally qualified to take charge of her. Judge Stoddard then instituted a procedure under the Massachusetts law first enacted in 1726 concerning “idiots, persons non compos or distracted,” which augmented an earlier law of 1684 and then was periodically reenacted. This law specified the procedure for determining “non compos mentis,” provided for the institution of guardians, and regulated their activities. Hannah Beamon lived under such guardianship until early 1739, when she died at the age of ninety-three. The numerous documents generated by her guardianship [End Page 151] under the law were submitted to the Probate Court during that time and were included in the file when her will of 1723 was proved. All the original documents are now preserved at the Probate Court in Northampton, and digital images can be viewed at the American Ancestors website. These documents enable us both to follow the implementation of the law and to estimate the quality of care provided to her as well as the quality of the guardians’ management of her estate. These documents indicate that the law was followed scrupulously, that large amounts were expended on her care, and that her property was soundly managed and carefully preserved so that her testamentary bequest to the local school of Deerfield could be funded.

Social Mobility and Satire in the American Plantations

Edward Cahill

In the seventeenth-century Chesapeake and West Indies, significant wealth acquisition and status promotion occurred largely among affluent, well-connected English migrants. But despite the optimistic claims of some promotional tracts, social mobility was rare among indentured servants, and only a very small minority of freedmen and freed-women rose to become wealthy planters, merchants, and colonial office-holders. Nevertheless, literary accounts of early colonial life often radically exaggerate the incidence and extent of servant mobility and describe plantation colonies as beset by uncouth upstarts and rampant status confusion. Drawing on an English tradition of antimobility rhetoric, such texts satirize risen former servants as ignorant, vulgar, and immoral, mere caricatures of the polite gentry they seek to emulate. In doing so, these satires obscure both the brutal suffering of colonial servitude and the extensive mobility frequently experienced by middling and elite migrants. But they also betray their authors’ ambivalent attitudes about the morality of English colonialism and the unchecked pursuit of gain it facilitated.

Frontiers of Grain: Indigenous Maize, Afroeurasian Wheat, and the Origins of Industrial Food

Natale A. Zappia

This article seeks to reimagine the multidirectional spread of maize and wheat production within the “Old Northwest” during the early period of U.S. nation-state formation. Using a food systems lens, this work reveals deep interconnections among indigenous and non-Native food commodities, land-use practices, and imperial objectives across North America. It also brings the “West” into the web of connections spun in the Atlantic world during and after the Age of Revolutions, highlighting “food frontiers” as agents of historical change influencing coastal urban development.

The Enslaved Ants and the Peculiar InstitutionArgument by Analogy in the Slavery Question

Timothy K. Minella

In the early nineteenth century, European naturalists wrote about certain species of ants that enslaved ants of other species. This essay traces the movement of this knowledge of enslaved ants from natural history texts to the heated discourse surrounding slavery in the antebellum United States. For both proslavery and antislavery figures, the enslaved ants prompted reflection on the nature of evidence and human reason. Although proslavery ideologues included the enslaved ants in their writings as evidence for the natural basis of slavery, they used this knowledge sparingly because of the dubious legitimacy of an analogy drawn between the animal and human worlds. The Enlightenment philosophy of mind stressed the fragility of arguments by analogy in general, and the sharp divide between animal instinct and human reason further weakened the analogy between ant and human slavery. Antislavery writers attempted to goad their proslavery opponents into drawing this analogy, without much success. Examining this strange episode enhances the understanding of the place of science in American cultural history by showing how scientific knowledge moved across various venues and discourses.