In Memoriam: Mary Elizabeth Young, 1930-2021

Mary Elizabeth Young, Professor Emerita at the University of Rochester, died 12 February 2021 at the age of ninety-one. Young received her B.A. from Oberlin College in 1950 and her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1955. She taught at Ohio State University from 1958 to 1973 and then at the University of Rochester until her retirement in 2000. She served as president of SHEAR in 1994.

Young is best known for her unfortunately titled book, Redskins, Ruffleshirts, and Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830-1860 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961; paperback, 2002). This pioneering work on the nineteenth-century southern frontier did not look for central themes. Instead, Young focused on opposing forces within the American and Native nations that led to the dispossession of the Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws and the speculative frenzy that followed. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, U.S. Indian policy sought to both “civilize” and expel southern Indians, but “civilization” enabled many tribal leaders to acquire personal wealth and equipped them to resist cession of the lands that had made them wealthy. Following the expulsion of the Indians, U.S. policies that sought to protect the American settlers of Indian land often facilitated the very speculation that dispossessed them. This is a complex story that brought a new understanding to Indian removal and to the politicians, planters, and settlers who forced the Indians west. Professor Young later turned her attention to the Cherokees, on which she published four articles, and to southern frontier history more broadly, including three articles that appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic. My favorite, “Conflict Resolution on the Southern Frontier” (vol. 16, pp. 1-19), analyzes removal of the southern Indians as an example conflict resolution rather than conflict. I am not sure I agree with her, but it certainly made me think more deeply about removal. Examining the past from a different angle was her great talent, and her work made me and others better historians. For her, the past was always more complex than villains and victims.

Professor Young shaped the study of the southern frontier in another way. She reviewed manuscripts and books thoughtfully. At scholarly meetings, she listened to papers with eyes closed but opened them to pose questions that no one else had thought of asking. She wrote letters of recommendation that were substantive and honest. And she enjoyed helping those starting out in the profession. That last quality shapes my favorite memory of her. I had just submitted my revised dissertation to a university press when a book on precisely the same topic came out. This book was on display at the meeting of the Organization of American Historians, but when I arrived at the booth, the book was nowhere to be seen. Then I realized that a woman sitting in the booth was reading it. I stood on one foot and the other for what seemed like hours. Finally, she looked up, smiled, and said, “I’ll bet you want to see this.” Of course I did. Mary introduced herself and, as a reader of my manuscript, told me I had nothing to worry about. Then she offered me relevant notes that she had taken in an archive I had not been able to visit on my assistant professor salary. I will never forget her intellect, her generosity, or her example.

Theda Perdue, Atlanta Distinguished Professor Emerita

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill