For her award-winning senior thesis project, which won this year’s D’Agostino Prize for Excellence in History, Alissa Andrews ’18 explored the process of self-reinvention among runaway servants in Colonial New England.
Titled “He Professes Himself to Be’: Self-Fashioning in New England Runaway Servant Advertisements, 1730-1775,” her thesis was based on an examination of newspaper notices for runaway indentured servants in New England in the decades before the American Revolution. Her research shows how descriptions of appearance and other physical attributes reflected the fugitives’ ability and determination to shape and reshape their own identities in absconding.
This deliberate process of self-reinvention—or what scholars call “self-fashioning”—also signaled a larger cultural shift, for it demonstrated how Colonial Americans increasingly came to substitute communal notions of personal identity with more individualistic ones.
“As identity became more of a personal than communal statement, individuals placed more value on their own, individual voices,” explains Andrews who was a History major with a double minor in Secondary Education and Gender & Sexuality Studies.
Giving Voice to History's "Inarticulate"
Whereas most previous scholarship on this transition focuses on the educated and literate classes, Andrews rescues the experiences of historical actors who left few written records.
By combing through the runaway notices for such identifying characteristics as ethnicity and language, clothing and various accoutrements, hairstyle (including the donning of wigs) and body alteration, skill and other talents, and possible destination, she lends voice to history’s “inarticulate.”
Combining quantitative analysis with close readings of primary source materials, and utilizing a range of primary and secondary sources, her thesis demonstrates a solid grasp of the historical context, concepts, terminology, and historiography of the topic area.
Andrews also consciously positions her thesis as an exploration of a thinly-documented and understudied part of U.S. history, using theoretical frameworks that show engagement with important ideas about identity construction.
Overcoming A Dead End
Initially, her research focused on finding autobiographical sources such as letters and diaries, but she encountered a dead end as many members of the working class of that era were not literate or, if they were, did not have the time to write. At that point, her thesis supervisor Associate Professor of History Edward McCarron, to whom she is indebted, suggested a different source of historical insight--runaway servant ads.
“There were hundreds upon hundreds of ads, each with its own detailed description of a unique individual. In practically every ad, there was a description of a man who was trying to shed his old, unfree identity and clues about who he was trying to be instead. The rich detail of these ads transformed my research topic from how individuals chose to present themselves to how they could manipulate visual indicators of identity to completely recreate themselves,” she explains.
Reflecting on her experience, Andrews notes that the biggest lesson for her was that she works best when she collaborates with others.
“I always considered the writing process to be a one-person fight: just me, the sources and a blank Word document. In reality, however, there were so many supportive and helpful people alongside me throughout the entire process, “ she says.
“My advisor Professor McCarron constantly showed me additional sources and helped guide my thinking. My course professor, Associate Professor of History Amy Houston pushed me to never accept a first draft as ‘good enough.’ My classmates were there to encourage and aid me whenever I felt overwhelmed by the task. In true Stonehill fashion, writing my thesis was a community endeavor," adds Andrews.
Remembering Peter R. D’Agostino
By offering an immersive experience, one in which the reader gains a sense of the material and socio-cultural conditions of a different time period, Andrews’s thesis is a model of historical scholarship.
The Peter R. D’Agostino Prize was created to honor the memory of Peter D’Agostino, a member of Stonehill's History and Religious Studies Departments from 1995 to 2001, who died tragically in June 2005.