Interview with Peter Olsen-Harbich, Associate Director, MCEAS

As the spring semester winds down, Peter J. Olsen-Harbich is also finishing up his first year as the McNeil Center’s new Associate Director with the remit of Academic Affairs. It’s an exciting time for MCEAS, and we at EAS Miscellany wanted to learn more about his work at the Center and in the field of early American studies more generally. Peter graciously took the time to answer some questions posed by Laura Keenan Spero, Peter’s predecessor at the McNeil Center (in the role of Coordinator of Scholarly Programs) and the current managing editor of Early American Studies.

Figure 1. Peter Olsen-Harbich in front of the McNeil Center. Photo provided by Wendy Coffman.

LKS: Peter, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. You and I have known each other since you were a McNeil Center Advisory Council Dissertation Fellow in 2019-2020, and I’m thrilled to see you back at the Center as an Associate Director. I’m also excited for the chance to help people get to know you and learn more about your work at MCEAS, so let’s get started!

POH: Hi Laura, thanks sincerely for the invitation. I feel like I should put a few more years in before an honor like this, but I won’t turn it down. 

LKS: We always like to start with the basics: what first drew you to the field of early American studies?

POH: I entered my undergraduate studies determined to become a professor of history.  At seventeen, I imagined that this would mostly consist of talking to audiences of enraptured teenagers vaguely but enthusiastically about European wars. I had never met a history professor, and had no concept of research, let alone anything like the McNeil Center. Luckily the first professor I spent time with, Michael Leroy Oberg at SUNY Geneseo, turned out to be an extremely serious scholar. Michael’s presentation of early America was richer than anything I could contrive. His narratives in the classroom and in his writing stressed the interplay between realpolitik and ethos in human affairs. This drama, especially in Michael’s accounts of the earliest American and European encounters, was stark, tangible and, indeed, enrapturing. I decided to commit myself to learning everything I could about the era and never looked back.     

LKS: How did you end up at William and Mary for graduate school?

POH: Michael encouraged me to apply to W&M. I’d never been to Williamsburg or known any other kids who had visited. Colonial Williamsburg’s marketing wasn’t reaching eastern Long Island in the ‘90s. But I trusted Michael, and he said it would be a good fit, since my work was congruent with that of this “up-and-coming guy” named Brett Rushforth. When I arrived at the College, Brett told me in our first meeting that I should plan on attending the Omohundro Institute’s colloquia or, alternatively, drop out. I didn’t miss one for years. I think that conveys some sense of the rigor and zeal the department’s history faculty who published on America before 1800—Brett, Josh Piker, Karin Wulf, Chris Grasso, Paul Mapp, Fabricio Prado, Guillaume Aubert, Chandos Brown—were then cultivating in W&M’s graduate program. Studying also with Brett and Josh were five other students, which meant there were eight of us in the same department who had a significant background in the sources of early modern Indigenous history and deep familiarity with the subfield’s twentieth-century scholarly debates. There were so many of us, in fact, that I originally identified the cohort around Josh, all of whom studied the North American Southeast, as working outside my research area, then defined as the North American Northeast. This was ludicrous, and once Brett left for the University of Oregon, Josh became my advisor—another massive windfall into which I essentially stumbled. Josh transformed my work in dozens of ways, but most particularly through his nudging that I pay attention to different types of political governance. Over time and through Josh’s influence I came to understand my work as Indigenous political history, which is still, I think, the simplest way to explain it.  

LKS: Speaking of your work, your dissertation starts by taking seriously the idea that when Europeans described Indigenous leaders as “kings” in the first centuries of contact, they were simply describing what they saw: sovereigns who wielded coercive authority like contemporaneous kings in Europe. From there, you show how the political structures of these kingly regimes influenced colonization. How did you become interested in this topic? How are you attempting to intervene in scholarly conversations? 

POH: I should be using that for my abstracts—thanks for the generous read, Laura! My interest in the topic originated in my belief that to understand the formation of England’s first North American colonies one must model both how early colonists viewed the authority of the Indigenous rulers in whose territories they settled, and the actual nature of that authority. At the outset of my project, I thought this first issue of settler comprehension would be easy. I was disabused of this notion while reading the writings of Richard Hakluyt the Younger, whom I noticed kept referring to Indigenous rulers as “petty kings.” That discovery sent me on a multi-year investigation of late Renaissance conceptions of kingship. Renaissance readers found in Roman histories a concept of kingship that was barbarous and fit only for less civilized, diminutive nations. Though they considered their own kingdoms of ordained Christian princes distinct from that lower type, they retained the notion for thinking about the pagan New World. I conclude that barbarian petty kingship was the key political type by which English colonial planners comprehended Indigenous rulers. Petty kings were dynastic rulers with some degree of what legal historians call civil authority, or what anthropologists call coercive authority, along with martial authority. So, that’s the comprehension angle. My research on the second issue—the actual nature of Indigenous authority—concludes that coercive practices, exercised alongside practices of consensus building, formed a key, real element of Indigenous sovereignty. Much of the dissertation documents observations of this coercion that reinforced the judgment of educated Englishmen that they were indeed dealing with kings. If kings could control their populations, it made sense to pursue vassal relations with them and gain a foothold on the continent via their assistance. But in most early English colonies, things played out very differently. Many settlers had no interest in learning about or acknowledging Indigenous politics, and instead acted belligerently, provoking violent retaliations that wrought colonial failure. Only in Plymouth Colony was the strategy of vassalizing kings borne out successfully, establishing the stability necessary for the puritan Great Migration and thus the first massive settlement of northern Europeans into America. 

LKS: I appreciate the more nuanced overview! Do you have any other research projects on the horizon?

POH: I have several ideas for linguistic work with early historic Wôpanâak texts, and I’m also gathering materials for a project on eastern Algonquian polygyny, the current understanding of which I think is poor. However, I’ll take this opportunity to bind my future self to the simpler task of publishing the dissertation-derived monograph. If it’s not done in a few years, please send me a link to this conversation with this section highlighted! 

Figure 2. Peter Olsen-Harbich and Simeon A. Simeonov at the McNeil Center in 2019. Photo provided by Peter Olsen-Harbich.

LKS: I have to ask, because this is so aligned with my own interests in editing work: how did you and Simeon (Simeon A. Simeonov, also a member of the 2019-2020 McNeil fellowship cohort) come to launch The New American Antiquarian? First, can you briefly tell our readers what it is? But also, I’m very interested in the impetus behind it—what need in the field do you see the journal as addressing?—and how it works as a publishing model.

POH: The New American Antiquarian (NAA) is a peer-reviewed journal published annually, the purpose of which is to foster the empirical reconstruction of the American past before 1825, principally through the publication of edited sources. We also publish traditional secondary scholarship in the subfield usually known as reception studies, as well as non-peer-reviewed essays. The journal emerged out of conversations Simeon and I had in the Center during our time as fellows, mostly late at night while we picked at cheese platters leftover from recent seminars.  We wanted to support empirical, esoteric scholarship that was unapologetically for scholars—the ideal form of which was, we determined, edited sources themselves—especially obscure ones. We wanted to incentivize scholars to produce such antiquarian material, as well as secondary analyses of how early Americans received antiquities in their own era. I elaborate on these points in a five-page essay I wrote for our first issue. Now, the publishing model. Early in our discourse Simeon and I often wondered why new peer-reviewed journals were so rarely founded. As it turns out there are a litany of extremely practical answers to that question. I’m proud to say we found solutions to all these obstacles. We’ve now published two c.100-page issues and been ingested into several major indexes, which makes our content discoverable in all university library catalogs. We print-to-PDF and host issues on our own domain (along with archival backups in the indexes, the Internet Archive, and Google Books). This allows for each issue to have pagination and a stable citation. We’re always looking for new submissions, so if any of the above is exciting to any readers, please reach out. 

Figure 3. The title image of The New American Antiquarian. Image provided by Peter Olsen-Harbich.


LKS: Tell us about your work at the McNeil Center as an Associate Director. What is under your remit of Academic Affairs? 

POH: My principal responsibilities are our programming (seminars, conferences, brown bags, and assorted lectures/symposia, all excellently organized in 2023–2024 by my predecessor!), fellowships (doctoral, post-doctoral, and sabbatical), and our consortium. Basically, the remit is assisting Emma with everything that involves scholars.  

LKS: How is your first year going? What projects are you really excited about?

POH: It’s been a fantastic year and there’s lots to be excited about. On a day-to-day basis, I get most of my kicks simply from conversing with our brilliant fellows. The fellowship program is the heart of the Center, and making sure the fellows have what they need to research effectively is my main priority and source of satisfaction. We’re also working on a half-dozen or so new initiatives that will be announced formally in the coming months, so I don’t want to be a spoiler. Many of these are associated with our efforts to expand the Center’s consortium. We’ve added eleven new institutions to the consortium since September, significantly increasing the resources we have available to fund new initiatives. As just one example, this year we launched a new workshop for master’s students at consortium institutions that will run in April, and we currently have sixteen students enrolled. There’s a lot more coming down the pipeline—be sure to open the Center’s emails!

LKS: I always do! What else would you want our readers to know about you? About the McNeil Center?

POH: I’d like to convey that the McNeil Center intends to work relentlessly to expand the research enterprise in early American studies. We will be growing our existing initiatives that enable early American scholarship and will innovate many others. The most exhilarating and opportune years to dedicate oneself to producing knowledge about early America are in our future. If you’d like to help the McNeil Center bring them about, please become a Friend and advocate for your institution to join the Center’s consortium.

Thanks for this, Laura. And thanks for your own diligent years of service to the Center, which I will aspire to equal.  

LKS: Thanks so much for answering my questions, Peter. We both know that the McNeil Center is a special place, and I look forward to seeing everything you’re going to accomplish there!

Peter Jakob Olsen-Harbich is an Associate Director at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Peter earned his Ph.D. in History from William & Mary in 2021 and served as a McNeil Center Advisory Council Dissertation Fellow in 2019-2020. Peter’s research interests include Indigenous North America, comparative early modern European colonialism, and antiquarian practice in early America. He is editor of The New American Antiquarian, co-author of Native America: A History, 3rd ed. (Wiley, 2022), and author of a 2021 article in Early American Studies, “Wilmot Vaughan’s A Plan for the better Government of British America, 1769: Imperial Fantasies in the Throes of Crisis.”

Laura Keenan Spero is the former Coordinator of Scholarly Programming at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and currently serves as managing editor of Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal and the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, both published by the University Pennsylvania Press. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010.