2020 John Winthrop Student Fellow Ishan Narra: on Researching the French and Indian War

By Kate Melchior, MHS Assistant Director of Education, and Ishan Narra, John Winthrop Student Fellow

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention!  Both student and teacher each receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2021 student fellowships are due on 18 February 2021.  Learn more and apply!

This year, John Winthrop Student Fellow Ishan Narra and his teacher Ed Rafferty of Concord Academy are researching Mashpee resistance and the web of colonizer and indigenous relationships in the conflict known as the French and Indian War.

John Winthrop Student Fellow Ishan Narra, Concord Academy

This summer, I intend to write a research paper on Indigenous and European experiences during the French Indian War. I hope to utilize a variety of primary sources from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s archives in order to analyze the complex network of relationships between Indian nations in the Northeast, French colonists, and English settlers. Due to COVID-19, my research paper will not be completed until later this summer. However, before it became clear as to how I would access the MHS archives in the midst of the pandemic, I continued to conduct research for my paper by reading secondary sources regarding the French and Indian War. Using books such as The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America by Colin Calloway and The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson, and articles such as “We, as a tribe, will rule ourselves”: Mashpee’s Struggle for Autonomy, 1746-1840 by Daniel Mandel, I was able to craft an introductory piece of prose that focused on Native American historiography. The unique manner in which the Mashpee resisted British imposition on their culture resonated with me, and in the historiography section of my paper, I emphasize how the Mashpee nation engaged in a legal rebellion rather than a physical one, and employed their knowledge of legal documents to hold the settlers accountable for their wrongdoings. The objective of this section is to counter the common narrative that depicts war and Indian resistance as a unidimensional conflict. Specifically, I highlight the Mashpee Revolt to demonstrate how resistance occurred in many different forms and resulted from protracted animosity between communities. Furthermore, this introductory portion provides the backdrop to the main section of my research paper as it challenges the reader to confront the convoluted tensions between Indian nations and European settlers that had already been established prior to the war, and eventually erupted into a massive conflict that affected every population in North America.

In the primary section of the paper, I intend to elaborate this thesis by bringing to light not only the experiences of individuals during the French and Indian War, but also the systems that were in place that caused Indian communities to make the difficult decision of engaging in the war. One primary source that will provide me with useful evidence is Jeduthan Baldwin’s journal. Because the military official’s account spans over thirty years and begins just one year after the start of the French and Indian War, it details his experience when Indian soldiers first enlisted to help the British and how Indians were treated by newly allied officials. Furthermore, these documents record Baldwin’s experiences while working for the English military as both a military engineer and a commander. As such, the documents will allow me to contrast the ways in which lower ranked soldiers engaged with Indian allies and how highly esteemed officials valued Indian soldiers’ and leaders’ knowledge. Another source from the Society’s collection that would complement Baldwin’s account is Timothy Nichols’ diary. This diary will provide me with another perspective of a British soldier during the French and Indian War that I could compare with Baldwin’s viewpoints. Additionally, as this diary accounts for a more specific time period (one summer), and details a particular battle at Quebec, I can compare Nichols’ descriptions of Indian soldiers when they were the British soldier’s allies and descriptions of Indian soldiers when they were the soldier’s enemies to determine which biases about Indians had been instilled in English soldiers.

The John Winthrop Fellowship has provided me with an opportunity to deepen my understanding of a topic that has intrigued me and to develop my ability to conduct in-depth research. Having the vast collection of the MHS at my disposal will allow me to compare different perspectives and to learn more about Indigenous history and Indigenous people’s interactions with Europeans. Native American history is a subject that is often overlooked and suppressed by White perspectives. I believe that it is critical to understand multiple historical narratives of Indigenous people in order to truly understand the impact of historical events, social factors, and beliefs on present-day U.S. society. I have been fascinated by Native American history since the first course that I took on this topic during my Freshman year. This Fellowship has allowed me to more thoroughly explore this subject and understand how important it is for present and future generations to learn about this history.