Embodied landscapes: Native Americans, English colonists, and the creation of early American communities

Jason Roberts Sellers
Dept. of History, University of California, Irvine
June, 2010
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This dissertation explores the ways in which early American cultures interacted through lands and bodies. "Embodied Landscapes" encapsulates the interconnectedness of these dual physical terrains, both of which constituted malleable materials colonial Americans sought to shape. I use travel narratives, colonial era histories, treaty records, and other published and archival sources to examine these connections between early American lands and bodies. I argue that during the early stages of colonization, Americans interpreted both landscapes and bodies as physical manifestations of cultural characteristics, initially allowing for the incorporation of strangers into cultural communities. Native Americans and English settlers alike expected contact to alter cultures and reshape physical terrains to create communities contiguous with the landscapes they inhabited together. Africans sought entrance to those same communities by citing their contributions to shaping lands and cultures. For early Americans of Native, European, and African descent, attempts to physically transform cultural others and the lands on which peoples met were inseparable components of larger projects intended to build more expansive communities, and thus entailed a rhetorical struggle to assign meanings to those lands and bodies. Ultimately, however, Native Americans seeking to hybridize cultures and their physical dimensions, Englishmen intent on "civilizing" non-English peoples alongside physical terrains, and African Americans asserting claims as community members with their own relations to the landscape, clashed. By the mid-eighteenth century, contact reshaped landscapes, but groups of people retained--or were perceived as retaining--their distinct cultural characteristics. Juxtaposed with the malleability of transformed landscapes, certain bodies appeared unwilling or unable to change, a reticence that came to be attributed to fundamental physical difference. Self-presentation and landscaping efforts instead became means for Native Americans, people of African descent, and Anglo-Americans to articulate identities that ascribed to them membership in exclusive cultural communities. Rather than constructing landscapes and bodies that facilitated interaction between diverse peoples and so represented expansive, culturally diverse communities, North America's eighteenth-century inhabitants took steps to create their own distinct spaces on the landscape. Landscapes and bodies manifesting contradictory cultural traits appeared incompatible, cultural outsiders becoming racial outsiders unsuited to landscapes with which their cultures conflicted.