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Bradley Hilltopics

Winter 2009 • Volume 15, Issue 1  



In the field of history

“Gender on the Prairie” is the topic for Courtney Wiersema’s senior research project. Dr. Stacey Robertson, left, is her adviser.

Leafing through the diaries of women who lived on the prairie in the 1800s …
finding a leather-bound book with the handwritten name
of abolitionist Lucretia Mott …
reading a letter written and signed by composer Ludwig von Beethoven …

COURTNEY WIERSEMA ’09 treasures these memories as she reflects on her experience as one of 10 history students nationwide to receive an Undergraduate Fellowship in Early American History. Wiersema went to Philadelphia last June for a three-week seminar sponsored by SHEAR-Mellon (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). She studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for the Study of Early America, which facilitates scholarly research into the histories and cultures of North America before 1850.

The seminar involved sessions on the theory of history, discussions about graduate school, and research time. “The daily getting up and going to the archives and sharing what I found with others gave me a better self-understanding. We all look at the same material differently, and it tells us more about ourselves,” says Wiersema, noting she remains in contact with the professors, graduate assistants, and fellow participants.

Wiersema completed preliminary work on her senior research project, which looks at differences in male and female reactions to the Illinois prairie between 1800 and 1860.

She comments, “When settlers came to Illinois, it was a drastically different environment than what they were used to. Europeans were used to a lot of trees, so what did it mean to not have that? The reactions of visitors and settlers to the prairie ecosystem are revealing. Since they approached Illinois with fresh eyes, the way they wrote about the tall-grass prairie shows much about their character, hopes, struggles, and reservations.”

Dr. Stacey Robertson, associate professor of history, attended the seminar during its final week. Faculty advisers were encouraged to both help students hone their prospectuses and to do their own research. Wiersema and Robertson enjoyed that collaboration, including the opportunity to get to know each other better as individuals. Robertson is writing a manuscript about female abolitionists.

Robertson concludes, “This experience was profound. For Courtney, she learned what it means to be a historian, looking into the archives and seeing handwritten words in an old leather-bound book. For both of us, it was about understanding people and how people understood the world 150 years ago. For me, it was the potential of working with a student in many different ways. I was less of an instructor and more of a collaborator. Historians are a solitary bunch. We don’t do collaborative work much.”