Interview with Zachary M. Bennett, 2023 Murrin Prize Winner

Zachary M. Bennett’s article, “‘Canoes of Great Swiftness’: Rivercraft and War in the Northeast” EAS 21, No. 2 (Spring 2023), won the 2023 Murrin Prize.

The Murrin Prize is named for John Murrin (1936-2020), Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University, who was a scholar of early American history and an active member of the McNeil Center community. The prize is awarded annually for the best article in EAS.

The prize committee praised Bennett’s work as follows: In “’Canoes of Great Swiftness’: Rivercraft and War in the Northeast,” Zachary Bennett reveals that the key to Wabanaki success in repelling English colonization was their watercraft technology, which allowed them to dominate the complex river networks of Northern New England in ways the English failed to do. This article makes a significant contribution to a growing historiography on the Red Atlantic – that is, the way native peoples encountered European empires in the littoral zones of North and South America. It shows how geographical differences between northern and southern New England contributed to technological differentiation which in turn allowed the Wabanakis to more effectively resist English colonization. Bennett counters assumptions of European technological superiority with his focus on canoes–how they were built, their size, and their use.  In doing so,  he makes birchbark canoes compelling, exciting, and articulates well their historical and cultural importance. All of this adds dimension to the history and brings it to life.  

In honor of this recognition, we are reposting an interview we did with Bennett last spring.

Why did you choose to research canoes? What interested you about the topic?

My initial interest was in river spaces. I grew up in New England, and after living in other parts of the U.S. I began to appreciate how unique the region’s inland waterscape was, and also how it clearly defined the Northeast’s geography and history. Despite this, early American historians had very little to say about waterways. While writing my dissertation, I found an amazing story of Wabanaki resilience. I noticed that colonial officials repeatedly complained about the advantages of Wabanakis’ birch canoes. I found it interesting that although Europeans admired birch canoes, they failed to adopt that technology for themselves. This story ran counter to two themes in Atlantic World and early American scholarship. First, it was Native Americans who possessed superior technology, and second, that technology was not exchanged. I did not have time to mention this in the article, but canvas canoes (based on birch canoe construction) were developed by Mainers in the late nineteenth century in the Bangor area. That the Penobscot reservation is literally next to the Old Town Canoe Company is no coincidence. When you hop into a canoe today, its design owes much to the Wabanakis, and that should be acknowledged more.

Figure 1. This image provides both an illustration of the portability of birchbark canoes as well as a map of the portages Wabanakis made with them across river systems. The otherwise blank interior reflects European ignorance of the North American interior beyond major river systems. Jean-Baptiste Franquelin, “Map for the Clarification of Land Titles in New France,” (1760). Map. Library of Congress.

What do you think is the most interesting source you looked at as part of your research?

My favorite documents are those that contradict the official English narrative that they were succeeding in subduing the Wabanakis. Correspondence between Massachusetts’ governor Joseph Dudley and London assert that England was winning the conflict. A 1708 address from the Massachusetts General Court to Queen Anne wholly contradicts Dudley’s claims, lamenting that New Englanders could “Act only Defensively” and had “no prospect of the End of these Troubles.” It’s also where I derive the title for the piece, which can be accessed here: 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your article?

Those of us from a Western background instinctively understand space as plots of land. This is an inheritance of our European legal tradition. However, in the eighteenth century Wabanakis and even Europeans referred to Northeastern territory not as land but as a series of rivers. Fossil fuels have liberated us from having to rely on geography and weather when traveling or understanding space. But that was not the case in colonial America. My advisor Andrew Cayton described  the fundamental challenge to power in early America was space–it took months, sometimes years to relay information from imperial centers to American colonies. If we want to understand colonial America we need to do it from the perspective of historical actors, which isn’t from an automobile or plane. For example, in describing the hierarchical nature of colonial Virginian society, Rhys Isaac observed that gentlemen experienced their world “three feet higher” than enslaved and common people because they were riding on a horse. Similarly, if we want to understand the Northeast, I argue, we need to take our perspective from a canoe. Attention to the various textures of travel in colonial North America need to be considered when we try to comprehend that world.

Zachary M. Bennett is Assistant Professor of History at Norwich University in Vermont. He is completing his book manuscript Contested Currents: Rivers and the Remaking of New England.