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W&M grad student’s dissertation breaks historical convention, offers new possibilities for telling stories

  • Fighting against historical limits:
    Fighting against historical limits:  Caylin Carbonell's dissertation on early New England households upends conventions for writing history  
  • On-the-ground research:
    On-the-ground research:  Among the households Carbonell examines is the Hempstead House in New London, pictured above  
  • Repopulating burial grounds:
    Repopulating burial grounds:  Carbonell's work brings to light the stories of those who buried the bones and built the tombstones at sites like the Antientist Burial Ground, adding more names to history than those inscribed on tombstones  
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Caylin Carbonell, a Ph.D. candidate in history at William & Mary, recalls her academic path with a laugh about its inherent irony. She wrote her undergraduate thesis in New England at Bates College about Colonial Virginia; now, surrounded by Colonial reenactors and a rich source of Virginia history, her dissertation focuses on households in New England.

Carbonell, who has been awarded various fellowships for her work on power and authority in 17th and 18th century New England households, is completing a dissertation that challenges longstanding historiographic trends and reconsiders how to document the past. 

It’s a project about households in early New England, which I think, to some extent, sounds different from what the project actually is,” said Carbonell.

Carbonell’s project is not just a project on households, the conventionally imagined archetypal institutions for organizing society, she explained; her story is about power, authority and the often unexamined relationships between non-head individuals within households.

What began as an interest in women’s authority as mistresses has transformed into a broader project about the various household dependents whose relationships and perspectives don’t feature prominently in the historical record.Caylin Carbonell is earning her Ph.D. studying early American history, specifically household dynamics in New England.

Why examine the household to historicize dynamics of authority and power?

“The household is in many ways the most important unit of the society and the economy in New England,” said Carbonell. Because the household was not only the place where individuals resided, but also where they worked — a dynamic Carbonell points out as especially visible in the contemporary moment — the space serves as a critical lens into the study of race, gender and social hierarchies.

To uncover these dynamics and reconsider households’ static role, Carbonell began by sifting through archives of court records at the Connecticut State Library, where a large repository is collected. She spent hours examining everything from slips of paper that reflected on-the-ground relationships to dense court records that summarized elements of cases, photographing the archive and transcribing texts.Carbinell conducts extensive work transcribing primary source texts.

Her receipt of multiple fellowships enabled her to expand her research to the Massachusetts Historical Society and American Antiquarian Society, where she accessed family papers, letters, diaries, account books and supplementary records.

These fragments allowed her to understand how families interacted over spatial divides and how men — primarily the keepers of diaries — represented their own experience, as well as the experience of the household dependents.

According to Carbonell’s advisor, Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History Karin Wulf, this type of rigorous methodology is “path-breaking.”

“A lot of historians are thinking about how to deal with the fact that a lot of those records were generated with a different purpose than we want them to speak to,” Wulf said. “Court records, for example, are generated around conflicts. Those records were not made to show us the lives of people within households, for example.” 

Carbonell’s research contributes to a growing body of work fighting against these limits, she explained.   

“Caylin has taken this really interesting approach to reading for the people who only appear fleetingly in those records to tell us a little bit about their experiences and their household situations,” said Wulf. “By reading into these tiny, marginal glimpses, she’s able to repopulate these domestic spaces. Methodologically, that’s really cool.”  

While Carbonell has worked to refine her methods to expose the hidden dynamics and relationships in households, upending conventional historical traditions is subject to challenges.

“The biggest challenge is remembering constantly that these are constituted by erasure,” she said. “It’s so easy to be enamored by our sources and to get absorbed by your archive because, in a way, it’s a world that we want to know intimately. Yet there’s a constant challenge of reminding myself that I am a foreigner, writing against narratives that have been so established.”

The challenge, she explained, often manifests itself in the selection of language. Because her secondary sources are written largely from the perspective of white, male heads-of-household, she must find new language to inhabit the subject position of dependents.

“That’s something particularly challenging, but also particularly important,” said Carbonell. “Being really careful about the language we use, which is continuing to shape our interpretation.”

After defending her dissertation in June, Carbonell will engage in the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. Reflecting back on her years writing her dissertation, she recalled what she often heard about the importance of a dissertation: that often, these works would just be a line or, at best, a paragraph in a textbook.

“I don’t see my project that way,” she said. “I see my project as a shift in the way we approach records, outlining the possibilities for telling these stories in a different way.”

“We need to nuance our telling of these stories.”