Teaching the Unique and Concrete

Homestead patent of Jefferson Aby [Jeff Abbey], Allen Parish, Louisiana, 1894 (acc. no. LA0410_.370), U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records

Today’s guest post is by Jay Precht, associate professor of history at Penn State Fayette. His article, “Coushatta Homesteading in Southwest Louisiana and the Development of the Community at Bayou Blue,” appears in the February 2018 issue of the Journal.

I agree with historians Michael J. Salevouris and Conal Furay that “a basic defining characteristic of history is its continuing preoccupation with the unique and concrete situations at a given point in time” (The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide [4th ed.; Malden, Mass., 2015], 20). Nevertheless, I am guilty of covering topics in my American history survey courses through broad generalizations supported by examples that fit my classroom narrative. Certainly, when I cover material related to my research, my analysis becomes more nuanced. It requires effort, however, to achieve similar results when discussing topics unrelated to my work outside the classroom. Pressed for time, I sometimes rely too heavily on the textbook and consequently move away from the unique and concrete. In my experience, journal articles provide one of the best antidotes for this problem.

In my journal articles, I have written exclusively about the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, a small, federally recognized indigenous community. These Coushatta case studies don’t fit easily into master narratives about Native Americans or the American South, much less the national story. In fact, my work often complicates the more broadly conceived interpretations. Although community-level studies help shape the field, it takes time to integrate these findings into our larger understanding. Often, changes to textbooks happen even more slowly, and this lag impacts the way we present historical topics in the classroom.

Textbooks for the United States history survey, for example, offer a few consistent interpretations of homesteading. Chapters on the Civil War explain the military motivations for passing the Homestead Act of 1862, and chapters on westward expansion discuss farmers struggling to eke out a living on their homesteads. When textbooks mention Native Americans and homesteading together, it most often involves a comparison between the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act of 1887. In fact, some textbooks written for classes on Native American history don’t mention homesteading at all. Community-level studies allow instructors to complicate this incomplete picture.

My article on Coushatta homesteading in the Journal of Southern History could potentially challenge students to understand federal policy on a different level. Most textbooks do a good job explaining the motivations for and the aims of the Homestead Act. My case study provides students with an example of how communities shaped policy on the ground. In this case, the Coushattas took a policy intended to assimilate them and used it to maintain their tribal identity. While the Dawes Act led to massive land loss for most Native communities, the Coushattas used the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1884 to create a land base.

Using case studies of individual communities refocuses our students on the unique and concrete. It reminds them that individuals and communities often had the agency to shape national policy implementation at the local level. Most important, it teaches students that the discipline of history is complex and ever-changing.

About the Author

Bethany L. Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Southern History.