From the desk of Dawn G. Marsh
My book, A Lenape among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman, emerged from the pages of a dissertation completed to fulfill the requirements for a doctoral degree in history. The path to that dissertation topic was not out of the ordinary. But the space between the dissertation and the final manuscript is as convoluted as the course of the Brandywine River, the center of Hannah Freeman’s world.
My interest in Pennsylvania’s Indian history was both pragmatic and personal. I wanted to work with Sharon Salinger because she was a highly respected colonial scholar, and she had a reputation for being a tough dissertation advisor. And as both a Pennsylvanian and a Native American scholar, I knew that the state’s history was a perfect example of an overly mythologized colonial story that silenced and subverted the history of Native Americans. There was much work to do on that score.
During the early stage of my graduate program, Dr. Salinger brought to my attention a piece published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Marshall Becker, an anthropologist, provided a brief discussion of a source he described as the “earliest known autobiography of a Native American woman.” That got my attention. I did not realize it then, but I was beginning a long journey, with Hannah at my side every step of the way. The Examination of Indian Hannah, written by Moses Marshall in 1798, is not an autobiography as such but rather a two-page deposition used to satisfy Chester County’s residence requirements in order to commit Hannah Freeman to the poorhouse. She was their first inmate and the only Native American woman. Two hundred years later, her story opened a door to a little-known past, and I walked through.
My dissertation constructed a scaffold of Lenape, Quaker, and Pennsylvania colonial history around Hannah Freeman. I did not have the sources or the vision to let her story stand on its own merit, but what I did produce satisfied my committee. I quickly found an acquisitions editor who was enthusiastic about the project and offered to send it to reviewers. Unfortunately, that is where the project stalled. I was on the job market, and the lure of quick publication was enticing, but each rewrite became more frustrating. I needed advice, experience, and something more. Luckily, that all came together in a lobby bar at an ethnohistory conference. There I encountered a former colleague and shared my frustrations regarding the publisher, reviewers, and myself. I felt like I’d lost the story I meant to tell, and I did not know what to do next. He generously asked me to send the manuscript, promising to give it a read.
My friend’s advice was quick and to the point. Write about Hannah. Forget the scaffolding. Go back for more evidence and write the story I wanted to write. My voice, my passion, and my confidence were clearly evident when I wrote about her. All the rest was mediocre and lacked conviction.
That was all I needed. I needed someone to confirm what I’d known all along: that Hannah’s story could stand alone and did not need to be embedded in a context of some broader historical analysis. I also needed someone to tell me that my narrative writing was better than my analytical writing. This perhaps was the hardest lesson to learn, and I had my doubts. It went against my graduate training. It challenged my ideas about being a historian. Ultimately, the advice was sound. Hannah’s story stands alone and is worthy of our attention. I think Douglas Adams sums it up best: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
-Dawn G. Marsh