Q&A with 2021 ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellow Alexander Cors

Earlier this year PhD candidate Alexander Cors was named a 2021 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. In the following Q & A exchange, Cors offers more context about his dissertation, titled “Newcomers and New Borders: Migration, Property Formation, and Conflict over Land along the Mississippi River, 1750-1820.”

What was the genesis of your project, and how has it changed since you first entered graduate school?

The project I am working on now is quite different from the project I started with when I first entered graduate school. Geographically, I stayed in the wonderfully complex eighteenth-century Mississippi Valley, but thematically, my project has changed directions many times. My interest in the process of land-claiming expanded from an inquiry into colonial migration and European competition to a much broader analysis of property formation, settler colonialism, and dispossession.

My dissertation project now examines how small and mobile Indigenous groups from the Houma, Shawnee, Delaware, and Avoyelles-Tunica-Biloxi nations used Spanish colonial laws to protect their land, property, and sovereignty from white settlers. I argue that the process of property formation was a contested and malleable set of practices, negotiated through occupation, land grants, and court proceedings. My dissertation challenges traditional periodizations and geographies of North American history by viewing colonial expansion, Indigenous dispossession, and the rise of the slave-plantation economy as interconnected processes that spanned across national and imperial boundaries.

What has the research process during dissertation fieldwork been like? 

I am fortunate that my fieldwork takes me to many interesting and beautiful cities. Following archival trails and trying to piece together stories that happened in the eighteenth-century Mississippi Valley brought me to libraries and archives on both sides of the Atlantic – from New Orleans to Aix-en-Provence, and from Mexico City to Madrid.

I analyze every-day interactions and conflicts between Indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans through the lens of property formation using French and Spanish correspondence, Euro-American travel accounts, Indigenous oral histories, Spanish judicial records, and maps, land surveys, and archeological reports.

Despite its challenges, working with such a wide variety of sources ensures that I never have a boring day in the archives. It also helps that archives like the Historic New Orleans Collection are located in the French Quarter, so I can always be sure to find a nice Feierabend drink at the end of a long day in the reading room.

How do digital humanities approaches figure into your work?

Digital Humanities has been a key element of my dissertation process since the very beginning. I use historical geography and digital mapping not only as a tool for visualization, but also as an integral research methodology. Trying to map Indigenous, colonial, and African settlement patterns has led me to both ask new questions and offer different approaches than previous scholarship.

Support from the Fox Center, the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation enabled me to develop technical skills and conduct research for a digital mapping project that has since become an integral part of my dissertation.

Are you partial to a particular chapter, section, or story from the project so far?

I decided to start with the chapter I presumed to be the most challenging. Chapter 3, “Possessing the Border,” is a case study of property formation and dispossession that analyses Houma and French-Acadian settlements in the Lower Mississippi Valley from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Using eighteenth century French and Spanish notarial acts, correspondence, and Houma oral history, this chapter is a legal history of migrating, settling, claim-making, titling, and defending property. One challenge was that all actors in this chapter are constantly re-locating – there is no static “homeland” over time. In part, I argue that the notion of “homeland” is fluid and malleable as people adapt to new circumstances and locations.

What I like about this chapter is the variety of sources that helped me draw this story over almost two hundred years. By looking at original and rarely used Spanish and French handwritten archival records, I could draw out perspectives that differ from the nineteenth-century English translations that previous historians used.