Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fellow's Perspective: Rachel Herrmann on Food Diplomacy

Rachel Herrmann is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and joined us as part of the 2010-11 Fellowship Program. Rachel is a confirmed foodie and brings her love of all things eatable to her scholarship, revealing the hidden worlds of food in history. The historical study of foodstuffs, their preparation, and the socio-econo-cultural significance thereof has been a growth field since the mid-1980s, so Rachel stands in good company. Her dissertation, examining the symbolic and pragmatic usage and value of food during the American Revolution, promises to provide new insights for further work on how what we eat shapes who we are and what we do.


Figuring out Food Diplomacy

by Rachel Herrmann

I arrived to take up my research fellowship at the David Library last October (2010). When I got there I thought I was interested in Revolutionary foodways of free blacks, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans. After a month at the library, I’d figured out that I was more interested in starvation and what food meant to people in the Revolutionary period, and that the types of foods people were eating were less important to me. The historical sources are much more likely to say interesting things about food when there isn’t enough of it. My time at the library allowed me to come to terms with the idea of food diplomacy, and to think about how I was going to use that concept in my research on Creek and Cherokee Indians in the American South.

Food diplomacy isn’t a new idea; it’s very popular today when people talk about U.S. food aid or disaster food relief to foreign countries such as Haiti. During the Revolutionary period it was a bit different. Food diplomacy was the use of consumable goods such as corn, salt, rum, meat—in the form of beef, pork, and sometimes horses—to communicate between two or more parties. Food diplomacy fell under the larger umbrella of trade diplomacy, and was at different times employed to gain, hold, or break allegiances between Americans, Britons, Creek, Cherokee, and Six Nations Indians. I decided that food diplomacy supersedes trade diplomacy because trade diplomacy usually lends itself to the idea that whites gave goods such as alcohol while demanding furs and skins in exchange. Although Native Americans were certainly key suppliers in this trade, they were not usually controlling demand. Food diplomacy is a better model because it allows for more give-and-take when looking at Native American history. The British or Americans could supply Indians with goods and food, but Indians could also make incursions into settlers’ lands and destroy crops and domesticated animals being raised for meat or farming purposes. Food diplomacy is more useful than trade diplomacy because it is more accommodating of shifting power dynamics.

One of the collections that I found most useful for talking about food diplomacy was called “Correspondence of the War Department Relating to Indian Affairs, Military Pensions, and Fortifications, 1791-1799,” on microfilm collection #455. These letters, which chronicle U.S. relations with Indians, shows Cherokees, Creeks, and U.S. and state Indian agents all engaging in various types of food diplomacy.

U.S. Indian agents used food diplomacy as a way to gain concessions from Indians. They promised Creeks and Cherokees gifts of corn as well as other goods if they would meet U.S. agents at treaties. Once at treaties, Americans frequently demanded that Indians refrain from stealing white settlers’ horses and cattle. It was also not uncommon to request cessions of land. This strategy was particularly effective in the 1790s, when droughts and crop failures throughout the South meant that Native Americans were short on food, and had little choice but to attend. So, in July of 1792 it made sense for James Seagrove, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Creek Nation, to suggest to Secretary of War Henry Knox the advisability of giving “those Indians Corn to carry home with them to prevent their families from starving,” because “unless assistance is given by the United States in this way...many of the unfortunate people of the Creek nation must perish as their crops of Corn are nearly destroyed by the drought.” Starving Indians would not bode well for peaceful relations between the new United States and its Native American neighbors.

At the same time, however, Indians were capable of manipulating the U.S. to obtain gifts. So, in January of 1792, Cherokee leaders named Bloody Fellow, Kingfisher, the Northward, the Disturber, the Prince, a man named George Miller, a woman named Jean Dougherty, and their interpreter, James Carey, called on Henry Knox, informing him that their “annual allowance of Goods Should now be furnished...together with some ploughs and othe[r] implements of husbandry, as mentioned in the treaty.” As long as Cherokees acted as though they were interested in growing crops, they could request other types of goods from the United States. They were also able to remind the Americans that they had been promised these goods in a treaty, and were thus legally entitled to them. Seagrove mentioned Indians’ abilities to convince the Americans to give them more than their share of provisions. He reported that “no person who is not an Eyewitness to the enormous eating of Indians can have an Idea of it.” Having tried to ration them to “a pound of Beef [per] Man each day,” he “found it would not do, they got out of all tempter with that mode, and threatened to leave me, if I would not give them their belly’s full.” Native Americans proclaimed themselves unwilling to conform to American military standards of rationing; they planned to eat until sated.

In this handful of sources, it becomes clear that when Southern Indians and Americans talked about food in the 1790s, they were not just talking about food. They were discussing power relations, and how each nation was supposed to interact with the other. Such documents suggest that during this time neither side had the upper hand, and that food diplomacy was one way of shifting power back and forth between multiple groups. These sources are also particularly good for suggesting that problems revolving around food in the Revolution extended far beyond the war’s official end date of 1783—a concept in keeping with the David Library’s housing of sources up through 1830. Without that fellowship, I might never have known that such sources existed.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read - am going to start following the David Library's blog.