Jan. 6, 2022

217. Exploring Star Territory with Dr. Gordon Fraser

217. Exploring Star Territory with Dr. Gordon Fraser

In the 18th and 19th centuries, North Americans looked up at the sky in wonder at the cosmos and what lay beyond earth’s atmosphere. But astronomers like Benjamin Banneker, Georgia surveyors, Cherokee storytellers, and government officials also saw in the stars ways to master space on earth by controlling the heavens above. And print technology became a key way for Americans of all stripes to find ways to understand their own place in the universe and their relationship to each other. On today’s show, Dr. Gordon Fraser joins Jim Ambuske to discuss his new book, Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2021. Fraser is a Lecturer and Presidential Fellow in American Studies, University of Manchester in England, and Fraser and Ambuske were joined today by Dr. Alexandra Montgomery as guest co-host, who is heading up the Washington Library’s ARGO initiative. And yes, they talk about aliens. 


Exploring Star Territory with Dr. Gordon Fraser

Interview published: January 6, 2022

Transcript created: July 6, 2022

Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon

Co-Host: Dr. Alexandra Montgomery, Postdoctoral Fellow in in the Digital History and Cartography of the American Revolutionary War Era

Guest: Dr. Gordon Fraser, University of Manchester

Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. In the 18th and 19th centuries, North Americans looked up at the sky in wonder at the cosmos and what lay beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But astronomers like Benjamin Banneker, Georgia surveyors, Cherokee storytellers, and government officials also saw in the stars ways to master space on Earth by controlling the heavens above and print technology became a key way for Americans of all stripes to understand their own place in the universe and their relationship to each other.

On today's show. Dr. Gordon Fraser joins me to discuss his new book Star Territory: Printing the Universe in 19th Century America, published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2021. Fraser is lecturer and Presidential Fellow in American Studies at the University of Manchester in England. And we're joined today by Dr. Alexandra Montgomery as guest co-host who is heading up the Washington Library’s ARGO initiative. And yes, we do talk about aliens. So get out your telescopes and let's explore Star Territory with Dr. Gordon Fraser.

Gordon, thanks very much for joining us all the way from Manchester. Although we're looking at you from a computer screen, we're delighted to have you here with us to talk about your book Star Territory. And I should note before we really dive in that our postdoctoral fellow Alexandra Montgomery is joining us as co-host today and we've decided that she's going to play bad cop. 

Alexandra Montgomery: Yes.

Jim Ambuske: Uh, and we'll see how that looks over the course of our discussion today.

Alexandra Montgomery: Happy to he here and be unnecessarily hostile 

Jim Ambuske: Excellent. Well, Gordon, I was really excited when this book came across my radar because there's two things I loved. One is history and the other is space.

And if I could do math competently in a way that wouldn't get people killed, I would be an aerospace engineer. And so history is kind of like my fallback career, I guess you could say, but the book brings together two things that I find delightful. And I'm really excited to talk about all of the different components of it today.

I wanted to start though, by asking kind of a big philosophical question. When you look up in the night sky, what do you see?

Gordon Fraser: That is a big question. Well, first thank you very much for having me. I'll start with a story. So, it didn't occur to me until I was about halfway through my doctoral dissertation, focusing on outer space, that I had this very kind of vivid experience when I was maybe nine or 10 years old.

I lived in a small town, but it was, you know, a lot of artificial light. And so I got used to a particular look of the night sky, but I grew up in New Hampshire and I was out camping with my family and I look at the sky and it was the first time I'd really, truly seen the Milky Way and all its vividness. And when I was thinking about that during my doctoral dissertation, I realized that I was seeing what a 19th century person would have seen when they looked up at the night sky.

I was seeing it without the artificial light and when I looked up at the sky for most of my life, and even today, I see artificial light and I see a few stars and I can pick out some constellations. But [00:03:00] for many of these 19th century people, when they looked up, they would have been inhabiting or they would see themselves as inhabiting a very different universe than you or I inhabit, kind of on a daily basis, living in cities or towns.

Jim Ambuske: Would Americans, or North Americans, I should say because there's a constellation of actors here in your story.

When they looked up at the sky in the 18th and 19th century, how do they make sense of it both from a scientific standpoint, but also I think actually much more importantly, in some ways, from a cultural standpoint?

Gordon Fraser: That's what's so interesting about the story I tried to tell in the book that it was never entirely a scientific perspective, even when it was, putatively, a scientific perspective.

So when I think about the Early Republic and these very early efforts to either train surveyors or astronomers, or to use surveying and astronomy to map spaces, for instance, Washington, DC, that always went hand in hand with this kind of metaphorical discussion of the United States. I mean, the most obvious example is the U S flag, which from 1777 onward was covered in stars because the Continental Congress said that the United States would be a new constellation in the firmament of nations. 

And one of the first US warships was called the Constellation, coins bore the imprint Nova Constalatia, or new constellation, and in a fascinating letter, uh, Francis Hopkinson, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he compares the new American Empire to a new planet in the solar system. 

He has this 18th century theory of planet formation, which involves matter being spun off from the sun to produce planets. Now, that's not precisely how planets are made, but he imagined that that was the case. And so he imagined this new empire being spun off from the British Empire.

And so even as people are speaking scientifically or trying to use scientific tools for nationalist projects, it always is going hand in hand, that behavior is always going hand in hand with these metaphorical or almost kind of quasi spiritual ways of thinking about the cosmos in relation to human lives.

Jim Ambuske: You make the point in the opening sequences of your book that really we should be thinking of this period as the true first American space race. What's the thinking behind that? How do you see this as more significant in some ways than the 1950s and 1960s, when we're sending rockets up there?

Gordon Fraser: I don't necessarily think that it's more significant, but I think that because it's overlooked, it's important that we think about this early 18th and 19th century space age now, because when I think about the 1960s, this era of sending rockets up, the language of that era is the language of the frontier.

John Kennedy famously gives the new frontier speech when he accepts the democratic nomination in California. And he says, I'm standing here on the last frontier, California, and I'm looking toward the new frontier, which will be the future, it will be computers, it will be space, it will be nuclear development.

And so the space age era is imagined as a continuation of the 19th century. And we can think that it's just a metaphor, but it's really, it's not a crazy way of thinking about the Apollo era because [00:06:00] these men, and usually it's men who are being launched, it's always men who were being launched, in rockets.

These men are co-opting frontier mythology. And then frontier mythology was part of the expansion of a land empire that itself depended on surveying, map-making, and all of these activities that were very much engaged with outer space.  

Alexandra Montgomery: Yeah. That was a part of your book that I found the most compelling.

And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more, because there is an interesting tension between the, that trend where there's this idea of a mastery of space is a sort of imperial project, a master space is necessary to create the things that you need in order to take over land territory. We can also think about it in a more direct way in terms of like the space imperialism of the, of the 1960s.

But that kind of exists in tension with space, as like a space is, a space is a space of, um, all kinds of different possible imagined futures. And one of the things you really do well in the book is look at all these different communities that are using space in slightly different ways. So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to that tension? 

And how space can kind of be a national imperialist project, but also possibly a liberatory one?

Gordon Fraser: Um, I'm really glad you asked that question because really what the book tries to do is follow not just the nationalist project, but these other communities, the first Black publishers in the United States, uh, the Cherokee Nation, uh, publication efforts that deal with outer space, the Hawaiian Nationalist Movement.

And one of the things that's really striking, if I step back for a moment, is that we often think about the Earth psychology as separate from outer space, and that's a completely reasonable assumption. We haven't been able to get to outer space until very recently in human history. As far as we know, there's no life outside of the earth, although perhaps we may discover some soon.

And so we tend to think of the Earth’s psychology as this little bubble, where we work out our political issues and then outer space is this separate location. And what struck me when I started reading a lot of these writers in the 19th century was that they don't think about outer space that way. And this goes for, for instance, Cherokee writers who have a very easy time imagining that the universe is peopled and inhabited and they don't necessarily know who's peopling the universe, but they assume probably there are people. 

And it also goes for people like more well known in our kind of particular educational discourse, people like Henry David Thoreau, who very much imagined that the planet Venus for instance, was its own ecology. And we don't know anything about it, but we know that there's an ecology there.

And so we should think about that as an ecological space. And so, when we start to do that, we start to compress the idea. We start to compress spaces. We start to think, well, well, Texas can be a little bit like Mars, you know, or Jupiter, that these are just other spaces. And then the question becomes what is our ethical relationship to those spaces.

And if we're willing to conquer Texas and turn it into a slave state then presumably we're willing to conquer lots of places and turn them into slave states. And we should reflect on that. We should reflect on our relationship to all space and that means Texas and that means the movement. 

Jim Ambuske: That's really interesting. And especially the ethical relationship between the two and you had mentioned surveying. Surveying is a huge component of how [00:09:00] people like George Washington, other Early Americans, the Cherokee, are thinking about and attempting to claim space, define space, defend space. What is the relationship between surveying and the star scapes you describe?

How are they using the heavens in order to actually map on the ground, these places that they're trying to define?

Gordon Fraser: When I first started this project, I really knew very little about surveying. And so I thought the relationship was going to be very easy to explain. I thought every single surveyor is going to be looking up at the stars and that's going to be an absolutely easy relationship to create.

And what I realized is that most ordinary 19th century and the late 18th century surveyors are not doing that. They have fixed monuments that are on the Earth, they know what those are, and they're relating they're creating space in that way. But then I found some of the more sophisticated surveyors were absolutely doing that work.

And so an example from the first chapter of my book is Andrew Ellicott, who laid out Washington DC with the help of, uh, an assistant Benjamin Banneker who was a self-taught Black scholar. And in the case of Ellicott and Banneker, they had a zenith sector. And a zenith sector is basically a telescope that points straight up at the sky.

And it measures when celestial bodies pass the zenith or the point directly overhead. And they used the zenith sector measurements to create those fixed monuments from which they could measure and map the rest of the city, and Banneker’s job was actually to maintain the zenith sector. He was the one who was responsible for making sure that it was accurate and that the clock that they were using alongside the zenith sector is accurate.

And so in some of these more sophisticated surveyors, they absolutely were looking directly at the night sky. But in all of the surveys, the surveyors are thinking about the earth essentially as a rotating body in space. You're thinking about the earth as a body that has a relationship to the rest of the universe.

And then you're trying to map and divide that body in various ways for instrumental pieces. 

Jim Ambuske: Can you tell us a little bit about Benjamin Banneker? His name pops up in school texts every once in a while, but I would imagine most folks don't know much about him beyond that. Tell us a little bit about his astronomical background.

Gordon Fraser: He's a fascinating figure in part, because the way he came into the popular imagination was really quite misleading. So Banneker was a self-taught astronomer. He was born free in Maryland as a free Black person. His father, very cleverly was a landowner and had put his son on the deed of ownership when he bought the farm that he owned when his son was just an infant.

When Benjamin Banneker was an infant, his father feared rightly that Black people would cease to be able to inherit. And so by putting his son on the deed of ownership, it meant that this infant child owned the land all through his childhood. And then when his father passed away, he owned the land. And this gave him some degree of autonomy, gave Banneker some degree of autonomy in his life.

He lived near the Ellicott family, which was this very wealthy family, but they were also very scientifically minded. And because he demonstrated mathematical ability from an early age, he was gifted some astronomy textbooks, a table and a telescope, and just a few odds and ends items. But with those, he was able to train himself in astronomy to the point where he was able to create an ephemeris, which is a predictive map of the movements of bodies in the solar system for the coming year. 

And it's the building block of an almanac, and from there is astronomical renown basically in the local community leads to some manumission-based backers in Philadelphia, publishing his almanac, the almanac spreads from there.

It also leads to him being hired by Andrew Ellicott, when Ellicott is assigned to survey Washington DC. 

Jim Ambuske: To what extent does Banneker’s notoriety begin to challenge perceptions of African-American inferiority? I'm thinking about Jefferson. He writes to Banneker and says, hey, you’re proof of the fact that I think he says, quote, our Black brethren are capable of uplifting themselves or being on par intellectually with white people. 

Gordon Fraser: The Jefferson-Banneker relationship is a fascinating one because Banneker writes to Jefferson, he writes a letter and Jefferson replies saying exactly what you're pointing out. He says that you Banneker are, are proof that Black people are capable of higher mathematics. Earlier Jefferson had said in Notes on the State of Virginia that he thought it was unlikely that Black people would be capable of higher mathematics. 

That letter is then used essentially against Jefferson. So the letter that he sends to Banneker gets passed on to the manumissionist backers of Banneker, the ones who were publishing his Almanac in Philadelphia. They then publish Jefferson's letter without his permission.

And this puts Jefferson in a bind political because one constituency immediately begins attacking Jefferson because he's too anti-slavery. So William Loten Smith, a South Carolina Congressman, says something along the lines of what should we think of a Secretary of State who sends epistles promising quote negroes good wishes on their speeding emancipation or something along those lines.

And so he gets attacked that way. He also gets attacked basically for being a hypocrite saying one thing in private about slavery and saying other things in public and Jefferson is a working politician. And so he tries to manipulate the situation. He writes to the marquis de Condorcet and takes credit for hiring Banneker, which was technically true because Jefferson was Secretary of State.

Jefferson is trying to play all angles here as a working politician and when it comes out that his private correspondence doesn't match his public writings, he's attacked essentially from all sides.

Jim Ambuske: I want to talk a little bit about almanacs. Uh, you mentioned it just briefly here a moment ago. Almanacs are fun things for historians.

I would suspect a lot of people who were not in the guild when they hear Almanac, they think of Poor Richard's Almanac. You know, that's a fun one, right. But almanacs are a delicious source of information about how people are thinking about themselves, their relationship to others, how they're orienting themselves in space and time.

Can you tell us a little bit about what makes up an Almanac in the late 18th, early 19th century? If, if I had gone down to the local tavern and purchased one, what would I have found in it?

Gordon Fraser: You're absolutely right. They're absolutely fascinating. And I was trained as a literary scholar and so I was focused on novels and poetry.

And then when I saw the numbers of almanacs that were being published in the Early Republic, I thought to myself, this is where the literature is happening. There's the orders of magnitude more almanacs published then than really anything else. And if you bought one in the late 18th century, the early 19th century, it would have been this miscellany of important and weirdly ephemeral information.

So you would have found at the most basic level predictions about the future. When would the tides come in? When would the moon be waxing or waning? Um, when would you find the sunrise in your particular location? So essentially, uh, celestial production of the future. But interwoven with that, you would have found weather reports from the future based on last year's weather or 10 years ago’s weather.

Um, and these are quite funny because when you look at them in the archives, you'll see things like the weather is predicted as sunny and clear, and people will have written in the margin things like terrible hurricanes, weather reports were not terribly accurate. And you would have found a Zodiac information, predicting things about either the human body or the human future.

Um, you would've found stories and poems. One predicts that the, America would dissolve, one of Banneker’s almanacs. Now, Banneker didn't write this. This was written by somebody else in his almanac, but a short kind of quasi poem predicting the destruction of the United States under its third president, which turned out to be Jefferson.

And so what you end up with is this kind of weird miscellany of all kinds of different information, descriptions of how the world works, but also predictions of the future.

Alexandra Montgomery: Yeah, no, I really appreciated your work with almanacs in the book. And as an 18th century historian, I've never quite known what to do with them.

They're ubiquitous. There's a lot of them. And there are these very strange documents as you've just sort of spoken to. And you touched on this a little bit, when you were talking about how you'll see people interjecting comments about how the weather report was wrong but one of the things that I've always noticed about almanacs and what you do discuss in the book is that they are magnets for people to sort of insert themselves onto lots of almanacs have lots of marginal notes.

People are using them as diaries. People are marking them off in all kinds of interesting ways. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

Gordon Fraser: It's fascinating because some of them, as you're pointing out, some of them you could have even bought from the printer interleaved. And so every other page in the almanac would have been a blank page for you to write your diary or your kind of day-to-day account of your life.

Um, in one of them held by Christopher Columbus Baldwin, who was a figure associated with creation of the American Antiquarian Society, Baldwin records the death of his mother. Um, he describes her circumstances when she died and then he puts in that her maiden name was Abigail Wareforece and he gives a little account of her life.

And so this becomes the memorial to his mother and it's in an almanac. It's next to when the sunrise will be and what the weather will be. I mean, I think that they had a few things going for them for 18th century people. One they’re ubiquitous, there are thing you're going to buy anyway, to describe the weather and the sunrise.

And they are an account of, you know, they were an account of what this year will be in relation to all the other years. And so as you live that year, it becomes a natural place to say, well on this day they predicted good weather and then it wasn't good weather. And on this day my mother died and I want to account for that.

And so our relationship with time is really bound up with our relationship to the universe under the cosmos and the stars and the earth and weather and all of these things. And so the almanacs become a kind of a whole universe in a printed text that people can interact with.

Jim Ambuske: I wanted to ask you about the temporal dimension, because as I was reading your book and you discuss quite well this relationship of time, it's almost like a kind of preliminary theory of relativity in a sense where people are using these things to orient themselves in a particular space, both geographically and then temporarily, but then they're, they're relating themselves to some other fixed point or some other group of people who were in a distant place.

Can you talk a little bit about then, how, as you're looking at these vast archives of almanacs and making sense of them, you began to see the map as it were of how people are doing this and thinking about themselves both spatially and in time as well?

Gordon Fraser: Yeah. That's a really interesting question. I mean, I feel like in our conversation we've been circling around mapping and at some level it seems to me that this is what the almanacs are doing.

And this is what a lot of the texts I talked about in the book are doing. Which is that human beings are, are confronted when they look at the universe, we are confronted by an undifferentiated reality, and we can only do things with that reality or make sense of that reality if we map it. And that means highlighting certain elements of that undifferentiated reality and ignoring others.

And that creates real problems for us. You know, famously there's a philosopher, James C. Scott, who writes a book, Seeing Like a State and he points out one of the problems that states have when they map things. They say, well, we want to harvest the Oak trees so they look at a forest and only see the Oak trees so they kill everything else. And then suddenly the Oak trees are struck by a blight because they've ignored the fact that there's a complicated ecology here.

And so, you see that a lot when people make maps. They look at an undifferentiated reality, they highlight the things they're interested in and then they are inadvertently destructive. But map making itself isn't necessarily bad.

In fact, it's the thing we have to do in order to interact with the world at all. And so when I look at early almanacs, seems to me that what I'm seeing are people in an ad hoc way.

Trying to make sense of the universe by creating these maps. Well, how does the death of my mother relate to the weather, relate to when the moon is full, relate to politics, relate to how long it will take me to get to Baltimore? Like all of these things that get in an almanac it's a map of the world at individual human scale.

Here am I and here's how the universe, all of it, relates to me.

Jim Ambuske: And then when we're talking about enslaved people who are in the Southern states, who are, or states where there still is slavery legal, slavery, how are they using this kind of knowledge, both in written form, but then literally looking up at the sky and benefiting from the collective knowledge that's been gained over the course of the decades, thinking about these problems? How are they using that to their advantage to try to make their escape?

Gordon Fraser: Well, one of the things that's fascinating, as soon as you don't have enslaved people who are getting access to a lot of almanacs necessarily. And so my initial thinking was that this was all folk knowledge that is passed between people. And what I found when I looked at Freedom's Journal, which is the first Black newspaper published in the United States, it’s published in New York.

And I initially read it as this kind of New York document. You know, it's talking about New York and a few more cities, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston. And when you start to look at it, you realize that they're transmitting this newspaper through agents. To the South and not just Southern cities, not just, not just, uh, New Orleans, but they're transmitting it to rural Southern places like deep in North Carolina, rural areas in Virginia.

And so what you see very quickly is that printed information from the North is getting to enslaved people in the South. We have some documentary evidence of people reading that newspaper aloud. So one African-American person who can read, reading it aloud to scores of other people who can read, and of transmitting that information by passing the newspaper along.

And so what emerges in the newspaper, then is all of this information about outer space, about comets and constellations. And you start to think, gosh, this has a lot of functions. One of them is it's a mode of navigation and it's being transmitted through print to enslaved people in the South. Now that's not the only way that it's like people were getting access to celestial information.

We have evidence of other ways that that information was being passed, but it is striking that Northern abolitionists in the 1840s and 1850s, recount frequently stories of enslaved people escaping by the storms. It's almost become a kind of like a folk myth. You look up at the night sky and you follow you follow the Big Dipper toward freedom and at some level that's mythological and that's a fantasy produced by abolitionists, but there is evidence that it really did have, I mean, there were lots of people who really did use celestial navigation to make their way through the world and to escape.  

Jim Ambuske: Is it your sense then that the publishers and the editors of, of these Black newspapers, are they consciously aware that by including information like this, that there's a possibility that they can transmit a kind of, um, coordinate map as it were, or they can inform discussions amongst enslaved people who are thinking about self-emancipating?

Gordon Fraser: Yeah, partly I think, their goal was to create a kind of navigational map, but I think they had other goals as well. And I'll just give two quick examples. So first, Samuel Cornish, he was the first editor of Freedom’s Journal, one of the first two editors. He later creates his own newspaper called The Rights of All.

And in that newspaper, he creates a scientific department and his idea is that we need to educate all of our readers, enslaved or freed. We need to educate all of our readers about science because a deep scientific education will allow people to think politically. And so they can think in terms of the rise and fall of empires, they can think in terms of how civilizations progress or don't progress, that all requires scientific and ecological knowledge.

So he creates the scientific department, but there's another example that I think is even more vivid. John Russwurm, who was co editor originally of Freedom’s Journal and then he was the last editor of Freedom’s Journal. When he's editor, he promotes the poetry of a Black poet named George Moses Hornton. Who was an enslaved poet.

So he lived under slavery in North Carolina. He initially couldn't read and write. He learns that over time, but his initial columns were composed in his head. He listened to Methodist hymns. He over time taught himself and with some help learned to read and write. But he wrote these poem and the poems were transmitted to Freedom’s Journal and published by Freedom’s Journal.

And what's fascinating about the poems is they are all about exuberant flight and uplift and, and the air and outer space and astronomy. I mean, he has this very vivid portrayal of space and that portrayal of space is really not about how do I in practical terms get freedom, it's about how do I feel free as a person who is in the universe and part of the universe? 

And this poetry is being transmitted from an enslaved person in North Carolina to readers of Freedom’s Journal inNew York or Boston or Philadelphia, or even in the South. And so it's this fascinating example of a relationship to space under the cosmos that isn't merely instrumental, but that is actually trying to theorize freedom.

Jim Ambuske: That's really fascinating. It gets back to that point you were making earlier about thinking about this as a whole ecology, not simply as distinct parts, but we're all part of the universe and the universe is part of us in some ways. 

Gordon Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. And it's, it's funny because we, in our language, we created this boundary.

There's a, there's a point in the atmosphere, the ionosphere, and that's where Earth ends and space begins. But like so many borders and maps it's fictional. Right. We imagine that there's a hard boundary that you begin in outer space, but it's a fiction boundary. And we see this with billionaires launching themselves into orbit. 

Right, that there's this argument of whether do you know, did Richard Branson really get into space? Did Jeff Bezos go high enough into outer space? Um, these arguments they're silly because, because space doesn't begin in any particular place we just say that it begins in a particular place, or we create like, in so many other areas, like, we create artificial boundaries and borders.

Jim Ambuske: The next natural question is, have you, uh, booked your ride on Space X or Virgin Galactic or one of the services?

Gordon Fraser: I think that might be a little bit out of my price range. Um, I mean, if the book sells really well, maybe, maybe that I'll use the money for that. 

Jim Ambuske: Excellent. Well, we're going to try to move as much product as we can, and we'll get you a ride on one of those things.

Alexandra Montgomery: Well, listeners, please consider purchasing a copy of Star Territory immediately so we can achieve our goal of sending Gordon Fraser to space. 

Gordon Fraser: Oh God, what have I gotten myself into? 

Alexandra Montgomery: If I can pop back for a quick second to the mapping question? So my work, uh, with Mount Vernon, um, and with the Leventhal Center is in putting together this online portal of different geographic depictions of North America in the latter half of the 18th century. 

And you know, part of the reason why I'm on this is that there is this interesting relationship between that kind of mapping and, uh, the kind of star knowledge in different conceptions of space and the cosmos that you've talked about. 

So in some senses, this is kind of a rephrase of things we've already talked about, but to put a fine point on it, if you were approaching that kind of project, you know, if you were in my position, trying to put together ARGO. What do you see as the connection between some of these very literal maps of, here is a map of the United States, here's a map of North America and the kinds of things you talk about in your book? And also what kinds of things would you want to see included that might reveal some of those connections in a way that might not be obvious to someone who does not have your depth of expertise on this question?

Gordon Fraser: I think in terms of what I would want to see or what maybe what I, what I needed to see in my own research and it took me a while to see.

Is exactly how these maps are produced because it seems to me that, that, the material practices of mapmaking and the goal of the map making process, both shaped the map and really radical ways. And so I read a lot about Georgia surveying when I was working on the chapter about the Cherokee.

And what took me a while to kind of get my head around was that a lot of the Georgia surveyors, they were hired, weren't actually very good. They needed a lot of surveyors quickly. And so what they did was that, and there's the wonder, I wish I could remember the title of it. There's a wonderful book that's a really granular history of Georgia surveying in the 19th century.

And when I was reading that book, it became kind of fascinating. Like what do you do when you have to make maps of the space and you don't have enough qualified mapmakers and you give a kind of rough and ready training, you know, here's the equipment, here's the chain that you, that you drag out and here's how you, here's how you write the numbers down and then you send people out.

And in that case, the map-making’s shaped by really two things. One is the state of Georgia trying to seize Cherokee land and the other that the Georgia surveyors who were hired oftentimes weren't  top quality surveyors they were trained in the latest methods. And so what you end up with are these very different, it's kind of an uneven reality.

This area is mapped quite well. This area is mapped poorly. And the, the model of reality that gets produced across the culture is, is lumpy. And for someone like me and I'm used to, so Google Maps, I'm used to it perhaps inaccurate depiction of reality, but have kind of a precisely even depiction of reality. And what struck me about the 18th and the 19th century is the lumpiness of the, of the mapmaking process and the way things don't line up together.

A quick aside on this, there was a complaint in 1823, the US Congress ordered a study of maps in the United States, and they reported that the maps didn't line up. That, that if you tried to follow especially sea routes, if you tried to follow a sea route from Washington DC to New Orleans and you followed the maps, they had precisely you wouldn't end up in New Orleans.

And the reason they were ending up in New Orleans was because the navigators knew what they were doing because they had a practical reality based view. But they're borrowing from the French and from the British and some of their own maps. And they're trying to suture them altogether and make a reality reality. And it doesn't, it doesn't work, doesn’t line up.

And that's, I think something that's strange about this period, as much as the kind of imperialist, the kind of the open imperialists desire, the lumpiness of the realities. 

Alexandra Montgomery: Yeah, that's it, that's a fantastic point. Maybe you could use this as a, as a jumping off point to get into a little bit of your work.

Um, on the Cherokee specifically, you open that chapter with this really striking anecdote about a Cherokee family sitting on their farm, and all of a sudden these surveyors appear and they're measuring their land and they start marking directly on their house. Very very striking to me. So if you could talk a little bit more about that part of your work and where the Cherokee come into this story?

Gordon Fraser: I was really struck by, by the Cherokee project. 

So the Cherokee beginning really in 1909, they start, Cherokee leaders start to realize, and they're living in for people who aren't kind of aware of the original Cherokee nation it's in present day, Georgia and North Carolina, and the Cherokee Nation in 1909 begins this product of reform.

And what they realize is that they are a political community that doesn't match other political communities in the 19th century, which are defined by governments, constitution recognized groups. And so their strategy is to essentially reform governments to make it recognizable so that they can interact with for instance, the United States and assert claims.

And so they begin this project of reform and part of the project of reform is, or two parts of it are publication and education. And so they ordered the publication, the Cherokee government orders the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix, which is the first newspaper to be published by an Indigenous Nation.

And they also bring in missionaries to train students. One of the things that's really striking to me is that astronomy plays a big role here. There's a lot of astronomical information in the newspaper and there's significant astronomical information being conveyed to students in their education. One Cherokee leader says he's looking forward to the day when we can say that this astronomer was a Cherokee, they have this vision that this will happen.

And it makes sense because the claims against the Cherokee were being made astronomically. The claim was, you know, Georgia surveyors would come in and they would say, actually, this isn't Cherokee land. This is, this is Georgia. This land belongs to the people of Georgia not the Cherokee people. And so to be able to contest those claims, you really need to know the language of your adversary and the kind of mode of thinking of your adversary so there's significant astronomical education. 

And years later after the Trail of Tears, which displaces the Cherokee to the present day Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. Years after that, some Cherokee remain in Georgia, North Carolina, and an American sociologist, white man interviews Cherokee people.

This is several generations after the reform era. And he asks them questions and some of the questions are about space and he asks things like, what are the stars like? And he gets these fascinating answers because I think they were having a little fun with him because of the first tell story and they'll say, well, in ancient times there was hunters and they came across creatures that had terrapin  heads with silver fur and at nighttime, the silver fur would wave in the breeze and reason sparkle and twinkle.

And one day the terrapins ascended to the heavens, and so if you want to know what stars are like, I'll tell you they're flaming balls of gas the planets orbit.

And so what you see are people engaging with, engaging with both ancient stories and ancient traditions, but also like they're modern people. They're perfectly well-acquainted with theories of planet formation and how stars work and things like that. 

Jim Ambuske: Well it's fascinating because it provides a lot of insight to how Cherokee and other peoples thought about the formation of the universe and how we can use those kinds of stories to track back across time.

If we don't have written records, uh, their thinking on astronomical developments and finding comments and things like that, that part of your book, that was absolutely fascinating to me how, yeah, they were probably having some fun with them, but they're holding those two things at the same time and both are equally valid in their conception of how the universe is formed and how it exists in operates.

Gordon Fraser: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true because what you see are people who, um, and this is true to the Cherokee, it's true of others as well. People who, who recognize that you can hold kind of multiple epistemologies in your head at the same time. And no map of the universe is actually an accurate map. So as a human construction, that's there to do particular things.

And so a kind of hidebound adherence to the particular artificial abstraction that helps you understand the universe is, is not necessarily going to be helpful. It's going to blind you to other elements of that, that reality that, that aren’t visible on the map.

Jim Ambuske: Let’s go to Hawaii for just a moment. Uh, one, because it's cold here in Virginia, I bet it's cold there in Manchester.

Gordon Fraser: Let’s go to Hawaii.

Jim Ambuske: Let's talk a little bit about how the Hawaiians are using the universe.

Gordon Fraser: Yeah. So just for people who aren't familiar with this history, I'll just give you kind of recap. Over the course of the 19th century, there are number of white, either American or European settlers in Hawaii who buy up land, who run sugar plantations, who do have other business ventures in Hawaii.

This group had always had some problems with the Hawaiian government with, which is a monarchy. The head of the Hawaiian state is [the elite.] Although usually that person would be referred to in Western sources as the king or the queen. And so in 1893, the queen or [elite] Liliuokalani, she tries to reform the constitution.

And she's overthrown in essentially a coup d'etat, where white sugar planters who are nominally part of the legislative branch of the government basically overrule her and they seize the government. The government, the United States is unclear about its position and because of that Liliuokalani thinks that she has a legal claim against the United States where the US will restore her.

So in 1893, she doesn't try to fight back militarily. She accepts the coup and then launches a legal claim. But when the legal claim starts to flounder and she realizes that she has to take a different approach, she adopts several strategies simultaneously. But one of them that I'm fascinated by, and maybe it's kind of a minor strategy element in her toolkit, but I'm fascinated by is she publishes a document called the [kumu leaf], and this is the Hawaiian creation chant.

It's the account of the creation of the universe with all of the descendants of that first creation ending with her. That the Royal Hawaiian line traces its lineage to the beginning of the universe and she publishes it in English. And obviously it's an original Hawaiian, Hawaiian oral text that had been published before in Hawaiian.

She publishes it in English and she transmits it as a gift to allies and enemies. I think in one case there's a decided enemy that she transmits it to as a, kind of, as a, kind of remember, who's in charge here, but she transmits this book it's privately printed and she gives it away. She gives it to senators and congresspeople. 

We think she gives it to a one university. She gives it to the Library of Congress. She gives it to several scholarly societies, several activists, and the book becomes a kind of a calling card that establishes the authority of the Hawaiian monarchy. What's fascinating about the translation, and I don't read Hawaiian, but I've looked at the other translations done by Hawaiian language scholars who, who do read Hawaiian.

What's fascinating about the translations they've done is that Liliuokalani very clearly changed her translation to align it with contemporary 19th century contemporary theories of planet formation. There was a theory called the nebular hypothesis about planet formation and so when she talks about how the earth was created, it was the nebular hypothesis and when you compare it to other translations, you'll see that she, she hasn't lied.

She's used the original language, but she's framed it in such a way that it would lead a reader to conclude that the Hawaiians are really onto something here in ancient times that really aligns with cutting-edge 19th century science. And then in the introduction, she says, you know, you'll notice that this text aligns with 19th century science.

We knew this before you knew this. And we have a real claim here, not just to national autonomy, which we do, but also to a position of authority. And so it's this fascinating move that she makes. And she's handing this book out while she's lobbying the U S Congress to return the Hawaiian islands to the Hawaiian monarchy and the Hawaiian people .

Jim Ambuske: The documents sounds fascinating. And I think what you've just described is what the kids these days would call a boss move.

Gordon Fraser: Yeah, yeah it was a boss move.

Jim Ambuske: What's the thing that surprised you the most when you were working on this project?

Gordon Fraser: I got surprised a lot, but I'll tell you one of the earliest things that really surprised me working on the very first chapter. I was reading this pamphlet put out by an astronomer named Bartholomew Burgess,

And it's about comet and he's predicting the appearance for a comet and the comet never appears, but it wasn't because he was wrong the comment broke up. It's really out there and we just couldn't see it. So Bartholomew Burgess publishes a pamphlet, predicting the appearance of this comet. And in the back of the pamphlet, he has this section, and this is 1789, and he has the section where he says, some people have asked if there are, he doesn't use this word but I am going to, space aliens on comets and he gives it some careful consideration and he quotes some sources and he bases basically says yeah, it's plausible. 

And the reason it's plausible, and it's fascinating the logic here, the reason it's plausible is because we've just discovered how the atmosphere transmits heat around the earth.

And so here I am in England, which is really, really far north, and it's not nearly as cold as it would be if I were in Canada. And it's because of the atmospheric circulation. And so they've made this discovery, about atmospheric circulation. And they said, well, you give a comet that gets super heated, this isn't true, by the way, this not actually how comets behave, it's a nice theory.

A 19th century theory, you get a comet that gets superheated around the sun and circulation would cool it because one side is going to heat and one side is not, and that would keep it warm as it travels away from the sun. And so you could have a kind of balmy temperate comet and the aliens who live on that comet, they would have a more understanding of how the solar system works because they travel in wider orbit.

And so while we just see our local neighborhood, we see Mars and Venus, they would see Jupiter, Saturn and the sun, and they would travel in this wide orbit. And so Burgess concludes, and this is 1789, that there could very well be aliens on comets and those aliens may very well have more information about the solar system than we do.

And so they may very well be more advanced than we are. And I really did not expect the 1780s to find, in the 1780s, to find a book about space aliens, but by gosh, 1789 spacing aliens. 

Alexandra Montgomery: Can we talk a little bit more about aliens? Yeah cause what are the ways that space figures most prominently today is in this kind of imaginative science fiction realm, right?

Where space is the location of a lot of stories that we tell. They're often about ourselves, but it's a very important backdrop. What is the state of science fiction in the 19th century to sort of use a slightly anachronistic term? How do you see these? You see the aliens and the comet. What is sort of the 19th century Star Trek equivalent?

Gordon Fraser: It's actually really interesting because if you go back to the 17th century and you get the plurality of worlds theories. And, um, the 18th century, you get a continuation of that. So Thomas Paine talks about this. I think it's in, um, in Age of Reason, I think Thomas Paine has this moment where he talks about basically using space aliens as a thought experiment.

Like if space aliens existed, what would their rights be? And this was a common way of like abstracting political rights from its contingent circumstances and saying, let's think about space aliens. It reminds me a little bit of when Ronald Regan asked, was doing arms control treaty and asked if aliens attacked the earth, if they attacked the United States would the Soviet Union help, and this becomes a way of abstracting the political conversation.

And so that was common in the 18th century. In the early 19th century, though, we really get kind of wacky discussions of space aliens. And so, uh, very early in the 19th century, there's the New York Sun publishes a moon hoax, what it later was called. It is a fictional account, but it's not written by the astronomer Herschel, but it's purported to be. Supposedly at this remote observatory, this group of British astronomers had looked up at the moon and they had seen wingback people living on volcanoes, eating fruit.

They published this in New York as news. And some of the accounts of people's reactions might well be apocryphal. But according to some of those accounts, people were genuinely concerned. That uh-oh, we’ve now found people on the moon and their bat winged people who like to live on volcanoes and eat fruit. And what do we do about this?

Are they a danger to us? Could we maybe send someone up there as a missionary to bring the word of Jesus Christ to them? Like how, how do we interact? And so you see a lot of frankly imperial anxieties, the moon looks an awful lot, like the South Pacific, a lot of imperial anxieties being played out in this kind of space alien way.

So it's a real change from that 18th century thought experiment, how do I think about natural rights? 

Jim Ambuske: That's really interesting. And it kind of gets back to the whole point of your book and a lot of ways where all of these different actors are trying to control space and master the universe. There's a lingering fear that amongst the stars, there is, uh, uh, people or peoples out there who could in turn master us. And we may not be able to successfully contest their dominion of the cosmos.

Gordon Fraser: And this fear persists. I mean, there's a Department of Defense agency right now. That's studying unidentified aerial phenomena, UAPs that are been seen by fighter jets and things like that.

The question is, are these a figment of our imagination? Are they drones from some other adversary? Are they space aliens? Who knows.

Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.

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Jim Ambuske: Gordon, what book are you reading right now? 

Gordon Fraser: I just read Pekka Hämäläinen’s history of the Comanche empire

Jim Ambuske: Oh, nice.

Gordon Fraser: I won the Bancroft prize a while back, I hadn't read it just until now. And I'm thinking about wrapping some work on the Comanche into the next book project

It is called Engineering Peace and it is a history of the word peacemaker in the 19th century because it's in the 19th century that the word peacemaker changes from a religious account of either Jesus Christ or of a person who is peaceful.

And it becomes a technological tool for supremacy. 

Alexandra Montgomery: Very cool. 

Jim Ambuske: Yeah , we look forward to. Yeah, it'll be a while. So you'll be looking for, 

Gordon Fraser: Yeah, it’ll be a while. So you’ll be looking forward for a while. 

Jim Ambuske: No pressure. Who is the author you most admire? 

Gordon Fraser: My doctoral thesis advisor was Sharon Harris whose work is in the 19th century, but very different from my work. But I think to be honest, I learned how to be an academic writer, not just by getting feedback from her, but also just by reading her work

So methodologically and organizationally precise. That she very early on sets out the parameters of, of her studies and is just crystal clear in her pros about what the study does, what it doesn't do, and how she plans to proceed and why she's proceeding that way. And so there are lots of writers. I admire lots of writers I love, but in terms of my own writing and learning the skills of scholarly writing, reading her books really was a profound education for me.

Jim Ambuske: We kind of touched on this, a question in the first half of the program where the first 75% of the program, I guess, as it were, but what is the most exciting document you've ever found in the course of your research? 

Gordon Fraser: Well, I already told you about space aliens from the 1780s. So I'm going to give you a different, exciting document that I found.

Alexandra Montgomery: It's difficult to top that, to be fair. 

Gordon Fraser: I'm actually, I'm, I'm straining to top space aliens from the 1780s, but, um, well, I'll give you, I'll give you a document that is a little on first glance, I think it was a little bit boring, but I found it tremendously exciting. 

Um, I was looking through Civil War records and so in the fourth chapter of the book, I explored this, this effort by the United States to publish in the middle of the 19th century The American Ephemeris and Astronomical [Survey.]

And so this is a document that is used by military navigators and commercial seamen to map and measure space. And my theory was that this document would be incredibly important during the civil war, but I didn't really know if that was the case. And so I spent time at the National Archives looking through civil war records and I saw them shipping this document to military outposts all through the war.

Um, some of the records have been lost, but the records I do have, you can see that this is a document that they're sending to soldiers and sailors and various people all through the war, the Union Army is. One of the documents that I found really striking was the record of the seizure of a Confederate privateer.

And after this privateer is seized off the coast of Maine, they catalog almost everything that’s seized in quick, summation like our short paragraph. Here's what we found, but they precisely catalog two categories of items. One is guns and ammunition and the other is almanacs and the reason is because they were military hardware and they needed to report on how much of this military, where these almanacs, um, these accounts of space and where the stars would be, how many they'd seized from a privateer.

And it was this kind of confirmation that, yes, the people who are fighting this war really do take this seriously. The Confederate sailors are stealing these things, the union sailors are trying to get them back. And this is military hardware, just like guns, just like ammunition. 

Jim Ambuske: I bet that was a good feeling 

Gordon Fraser: Yeah, it was, it was a nice feeling. It was nice to have a theory kind of confirmed. To have the 19th century people reached out to me and say, yep, your theory of why, how we think about this, your theory’s is accurate.

Jim Ambuske: At the end of the day, then Gordon, how do you hope people remember your work?

Gordon Fraser: I hope that they think of it, that they think of it and not me in some sense, right?

Like, I think, I think what I want is to create a, a useful map back to mapmaking, a useful map for future scholars, for future readers in order to understand this past. And so for me creating that, that document that says, well, here's a, here's a roadmap to, I went into the archives in 2018, 2019, 2017, I went into the archives and here's what I found.

And if you follow, um, I hope you find more and I hope you expand this history and I hope you have other stories to tell. And so I hope people do remember the work, but I hope they remember it in some ways in instrumental terms. And they remember it as a tool that they can use to find out more. 

Jim Ambuske: That might be my favorite answer to this question so far. That's a good one. 

Gordon Fraser: That’s wonderful, thank you.

Alexandra Montgomery: That's a very, very good answer. 

Jim Ambuske: Well, Gordon, thanks so much for joining us. Ala, thanks for riding shotgun on this adventure.

Alexandra Montgomery: Happy to be here. Thank you so much, Gordon.

Gordon Fraser:  Thank you very much for having me.

Jim Ambuske: Thanks for listening to Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. For this episode, we received additional support from Mount Vernon's Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witches Brew” by CK Martin. Now before we go, please do us a favor and rate and review Conversations on your favorite podcast app.

It helps others find the show and lets us know what you're learning about our Early American past and be sure to head over to our website at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com to find more great episodes. Thanks, and we'll see you next time.

Gordon FraserProfile Photo

Gordon Fraser


Gordon Fraser is a lecturer and presidential fellow at the University of Manchester, where he teaches in the American Studies program. A past winner of the 1921 Award in American Literature and the William Riley Parker Prize, Fraser's scholarship has appeared in PMLA, American Quarterly, and other journals. He has also written for the Washington Post, the National Post of Canada, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His book, Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2021.