Landlocked Maritime History on the Great Plains

Paul A. Gilje

I have written three books on maritime topics, and I almost failed to bring maritime history into the classroom. Why is that? How could I have been so thoughtless?

I ask these questions of myself since I am absolutely convinced that not only did America begin as a maritime nation, but the sea remained a dominant force in American history well into the nineteenth century. Scholars embrace the idea of the relentless march of Americans to the West. And yet we often fail to acknowledge the even more relentless pull of saltwater to the east, the south, the north, and, the west!

“Wasp and Hornet,” from Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights (Philadelphia: D. Heartt, 1813).

I attempted to teach a seminar on maritime history back in the 1990s. I even put the word “pirates” in the title of the course. Yet, on the ever dusty plains of Oklahoma (slight exaggeration there), I was only able to garner two students. One young man, who enthusiastically embraced the topic, and his less enthusiastic girlfriend, who enrolled only so that the two of them could be in class together. (I have no idea what happened to them thereafter.) Looking back on the experience, I was fortunate that the class was not cancelled—today’s tuition-counting administrators would have nixed the two-person class in a heartbeat (if administrators had a heart, that is). I had put together a wonderful list of readings, beginning with Marcus Rediker on pirates, and working our way through Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast and Herman Melville’s Redburn. It was a great class, and both students ended up enjoying the work. But I had to promise the chair that in landlocked Oklahoma I would never offer the course again.

Foiled in this effort, I nonetheless brought some elements of maritime history into my other courses—even if did so only implicitly and half-consciously.

During my 38 years at the University of Oklahoma I taught a course on the American Revolution almost thirty times. Between covering the origins of the Revolution, the war itself, the creation of the Constitution, the politics of the 1790s, and the War of 1812, there was no way I could squeeze in a separate topic on maritime history. Instead, I snuck maritime history in, sometimes without even knowing. When I discussed the origins of the American Revolution I covered the imperial crisis and its ideological origins. But there would have been no crisis without trade and ships. Likewise, there would have been few people burning effigies and threatening government officials without sailors and dockworkers. To explain how and why the revolution came about, I had to talk about maritime history. There is no explanation for riots like the Boston Massacre without making it clear to students why the maritime world was so important to colonial Americans. I also seized upon the occasion of that particular riot to relay to students the potent meaning of “swearing like a sailor” and the complex unpacking of that glorious phrase “You damned son of a bitch!” Likewise, when I covered the war itself, I traced the arc of battles in the classroom, but when I wanted the students to understand how and why people chose sides, I turned to the story of seaman John Blatchford who served at various times under the American, British, Dutch, Spanish, and French flags for reasons that had little to with ideology. In a similar vein I also discussed how sailor prisoners of war might escape from a British prison intending to be recaptured to share the bounty with those who had allowed them to escape. When I moved beyond the war to examine the politics of the early republic, new opportunities arose as I explained to students what I learned from studying the phrase “free trade and sailors’ rights” and the importance of the American sailor as a symbol for the new nation. In short, I brought my scholarship into the classroom and as I did so, I brought in maritime history.

What was true in my upper division courses was also true when I taught that mass of near-humanity that we sometimes call the U.S. history survey. Not only would I discuss some of the same material outlined above (a professor should never be afraid of repeating material from one class to another—if there are any repeat students they never mind hearing the same thing twice) but also I could discuss the changes in ship building and navigating that brought Europeans across the Atlantic to the “Americas.” In the same vein, any coverage of the Middle Passage and the development of slavery is a form of maritime history. As for the nineteenth century, and the inevitable need to explain “manifest destiny,” that too has important maritime components. Even the development of the internal slave trade, with its horrible images of African Americans being marched west in chains, often included ocean-bound voyages from one U.S. port to another. In short, maritime history is everywhere in the American past.

Looking back now that I have completed my career as a teacher, and after lecturing to some six thousand students, I wish I had been more explicit in how I approached including maritime history. In other words, I wish I had more forcefully told the good students of the University of Oklahoma, many of whom saw themselves as a part of the great American movement to the West, that there was also a great American movement toward the sea. If I were to step into that classroom now, I would tell them that salt as well as dust was encrusted upon every American skin.

29 April 2019

About the Author

Paul A. Gilje is the George Lynn Cross Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Oklahoma.

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