The History Department is proud to announce that recent History MA graduate, Blake Grasso ’21, has won this year’s CHASS Thesis Award. Grasso joins a select group of History MAs in winning the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Thesis Award for “Sheep in the Wolf Den: The End of the Struggle for the Upper Ohio in the Seven Years’ War, 1758-1759,” which was completed under the direction of Dr. Megan Cherry.
Grasso’s thesis is an interrogation of the events surrounding the French abandonment of Fort Duquesne in the Upper Ohio Valley during the Seven Years’ War. Previous scholarship explained the French defeat through supply shortages and a separate peace conducted by the monolithic “Ohio Indians,” but Grasso’s research found that even after the fort fell many Lenape, Shawnee, and Haudenosaunee continued to side with the French and fight against British encroachment. The French defeat is explained by the work of a small Anglophile faction led by the Lenape leader Tamaqua. Tamaqua and his allies fooled the French into abandoning their position and convinced the British that the diverse groups on the Upper Ohio were ready for peace. The fate of the region was decided by Indigenous actors that managed to successfully manipulate their peripheral European counterparts.
Unfortunately for Grasso, Covid hit right as he was beginning work on his thesis in his second semester of graduate school and dashed his plans to travel to Quebec and Pennsylvania for archival research. Luckily, a substantial body of primary sources had been digitized in both the American and French archives. Sources used included letters and reports from French officials and Army officers in the French Overseas Archives, some of which had not yet been translated and required painstaking work to decipher 18th century French handwriting via digital copies.
The Pennsylvania Archives provided council minutes and various messenger reports that aided his work, while the Journal of Christian Frederick Post provided an invaluable glimpse into an important and otherwise unrecorded period in the fight for the Upper Ohio. In many of these sources he had to “read against the grain” to try and see past the author’s inherent biases and understand Indigenous actions and words without the filter of 18th century European preconceptions. Some of his most rewarding research came after hours of poring through digitized archival volumes cover to cover in hopes of finding a previously unacknowledged Indigenous presence. Says Grasso about the experience, “My eyeballs suffered, but it was exhilarating to find sources that drove my thesis in directions I never anticipated.”
Grasso’s thesis committee was made up of chair, Dr. Megan Cherry, as well as Dr. Keith Luria and Dr. Judy Kertesz. Luria was Grasso’s instructor for Historical Writing early in grad school, and his feedback was vital as he made his first grasping attempts at establishing his thesis topic. Without it, he claims, he would have been lost in an archival wilderness.
Dr. Kertesz was absolutely invaluable to Grasso’s project, as his early research made it clear that the history of French North America was inseparable from the history of Indigenous North America. Her insight helped him to understand inherent biases within archival sources as well as new conceptions of enduring historical narratives. Working with Dr. Kertesz helped him overcome his own preconceptions and grounded him in Indigenous history.
Grasso is especially grateful for the patience and time Dr. Cherry dedicated to helping him complete his project. He came to graduate school with a vague interest in New France, and with Cherry’s guidance, he was able to narrow down his thesis topic to the Upper Ohio in the Seven Years’ War. Says Grasso, “Her dedication helped motivate me during long nights and difficult research.”
Grasso is currently working for an imports and logistics company and would eventually like to land a job with the Department of the Interior. In a couple of years he plans to apply to PhD programs.