Get to Know a Researcher - History's Peter Cook

Associate professor Peter Cook

Associate Dean of Research Margaret Cameron talks to Peter Cook, an associate professor in the Department of History, about his research in Scottish Studies. 

First of all, congratulations on being the Faculty of Humanities’ Hugh Campbell and Marion Alice Small Faculty Fellow! I know you’ve already begun the Fellowship, and it will carry on for the next two and a half years. Your research in Scottish Studies takes into consideration the history of Indigenous-settler relations in Ontario in pre-Confederation Canada. What led you to this area of research?

The project explores the shared and divergent histories of two non-English Catholic communities, both the products of diasporas shaped by local and imperial pressures, that came to exist side-by-side in British North America in the last half of the eighteenth century. One, Akwesasne, was predominantly Mohawk. The other, the so-called “Highland colony” centred around Glengarry County, was Scottish. I’m collaborating with Dr Katie McCullough, a specialist in Scottish history since 1750 and director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University.

The research began as an offshoot of a projected biography of Simon Fraser, the explorer. Fraser is mostly known for the years he spent as an employee of the North West Company and, in particular, for his exploration of the river that bears his name in the early 1800s. In her doctoral research, Katie had noted Fraser’s presence in the networks of retired Nor’ Westers, many of whom were Scots, who settled in the “Highland colony” around Glengarry in the 1810s and 1820s. In fact, Fraser spent far more of his adult life as a gentleman farmer than as a fur trader or explorer — and yet this period of his life has rarely been studied. One of the questions we asked was how Fraser’s experience in the fur trade might have shaped his relationships with the Indigenous peoples of Upper Canada where he became a settler. As we dug for answers, Fraser himself faded into the background as we began to discover a range of connections — social, economic, political, religious — that knit Mohawks and Scots together in the Eastern District of Upper Canada.

Increasingly we began to understand that the first several generations of contact and encounter between Mohawks and Highland Scots in what is now eastern Ontario complicate the usual narratives of British colonial settlement and Indigenous dispossession in pre-Confederation Canada. Such narratives tend to assume that Indigenous people and settlers met as strangers separated by a deep cultural and religious divide and that the two had very different relations to the colonial state. As the historian Richard White deftly characterized up this perspective, white settlers were the sea, Indigenous peoples the shore, and waves of the former relentlessly and inevitably eroded and washed away the latter. The encounter of Mohawks and Highland Scots near Akwesasne on the St Lawrence River was different. These were two Catholic communities, speakers of Mohawk and Gaelic (for the most part) respectively, who had long been regularly constructed as savage others by English-speaking Protestant elites in the British Atlantic world. For that, as well as for their relatively recent expressions of loyalism (dating, for both groups, from the period of the Seven Years Wars), those same elites sometimes viewed Akwesasronon and Highlanders with equal suspicion.

You’re working on a book project to publish this research. Can you tell us something about that project and how the research is progressing?

The book’s chapters examine different ways in which the lives of Akwesasronon and Highland Scots connected in the generations following the American Revolution. We explore the rhetoric and symbolism of British loyalism in both communities; the participation of Mohawks and Scots in the Montreal-based fur trade; the long tenure of Father Roderick Macdonell, a Highlander from Knoydart, as missionary at Akwesasne; and the pattern of settlers (including many Scots) leasing land from Mohawks. The final chapter explains how, in the decades before Confederation, the web of connections that knit together Highland Scots and the people of Akwesasne frayed and snapped.

We’ve conducted research in 2016 and 2017 at the National Archives of Scotland and National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), at the Scottish Catholic Archives (Aberdeen), at the Archives of Ontario (Toronto) and at Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa). We’ve also visited local archives and museums in eastern Ontario and have much yet to learn from local historians of the Highland colony and of Akwesasne.

Do the results of your research have consequences for other Indigenous-settler relations in North America? Or, do you find that the results are very specific and historically situated?

This research reminds us that patterns of Indigenous-settler relations varied widely and that settler colonialism took different forms in North America, particularly before the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In pursuing this project we are committed to the notion that Indigenous histories and settler histories are often deeply interconnected and therefore need to be written together and understood in relation to each other.