Navigating the Historiography Part 2

Okay, another round of secondary sources, here we go.

Last month I was working through some of the more traditional economic histories of early Canada that most Canadian history buffs are familiar with (Innis and Creighton). This month, I’ve read some more recent work that puts the focus on regional studies. In the process, I learned the importance of understanding history in a more localized context, and not always viewing the past with a broad lens.

Two of the authors discuss similar histories, focused on rural nineteenth century Nova Scotia, and one author provides a gendered approach to this subject which has been traditionally dominated by studies of men.

Bittermann, Rusty. “The Hierarchy of the Soil: Land and Labour in a 19th Century Cape Breton Community” Acadiensis 18, no. 1 (1988): 33-55. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/view/12258/0.

Morgan, Cecilia. Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Samson, Daniel. The Spirit of Industry and Improvement: Liberal Government and Rural-Industrial Society, Nova Scotia, 1790-1862. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2008

Rusty Bittermann and Daniel Samson study the history of rural Nova Scotia, and each tackle topics of power dynamics in society, examining how farmers responded to industrialization, capitalism, shifts in labour and demographics in the mid 1800s. (Danny Samson also happens to be my supervisor… which made our discussions about these books easier in some ways, and harder in other ways, haha). Bittermann argues that the settlement of Middle River, NS experienced differentiation of wealth and influence over time. The initial distribution of resources to colonists created divisions that just became deeper throughout the 19th century. As people born into slightly more privileged circumstances put that wealth into investing in resources like land, tools, and labour, they created assets that could be passed onto future generations, therefore entrenching the wealth disparity (p. 34). Samson argues that the development of rural economies in Nova Scotia is slightly more nuanced, seeing farmers not as proletarians succumbing to the inescapable confines of capitalism, but as men and women who occasionally achieved success by other means. In this book we see examples of both successful farmers and poorer “backlanders” making choices that allowed for improvement within society (agricultural, educational, etc.), therefore suggesting that social stratification was fluid rather than entrenched.

These arguments have clear ties to my own research of 18th and 19th century Niagara, and showed me that these types of regional studies hold lot of potential for valuable discovery. Did the same social stratifications exist between farmers in Niagara? Did wealth disparities become entrenched or was equality easier to obtain? How did geographical features like the “Black Swamp” on the south shore of Lake Ontario (see map above) affect settlement patterns and subsequent crop growth? In a similar vein, how did merchants interact with farmers, and what was the role of paternalism in their relationship over this short but turbulent time period? Doing these readings has brought up a lot of new, but important questions that I hope to answer as I begin looking through primary sources.

Cecilia Morgan’s book provides an interesting look at Upper Canada from a more socio-political standpoint, dismissing the traditional argument that men and women of the nineteenth century operated only within their own public and private spheres of life. She examines gender roles throughout the century, arguing that masculinity could be defined both at home and in the workplace, and that females exerted influence in public places like temperance parades and church bazaars. She relies heavily on newspaper accounts for evidence, which I thought was a fascinating avenue of understanding the politics, religion, and social standards in this time period. I am currently TA-ing a Post-Confederation Canada history course at Brock where just this past week the students completed an assignment that forced them to think about the ways in which newspapers can prove useful to historians… well here’s another good example!

Thanks for reading!

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