Open Letter to a Future Thesis Writer

Dear Junior History Major,

It’s that time of year again. You’ve probably returned from spring break, hopefully in one piece and with your liver only a little worse for wear. Maybe you’re terrified by the senior history majors gliding across campus like ghosts, baggy-eyed and shell-shocked from the prospect of finishing writing starting their theses in the next four weeks. That will be you in one year’s time. But for now, you are just coming to the beginning of the thesis road, and wondering how to start walking down it. Here’s my step-by-step guide to making sure you get off on the right foot:

1. THINK about your interests

Treat it like an assignment – go to the library, the coffee shop, the bar, the gym, wherever it is that you get your best thinking done. Think back on the past couple of years, and write down every book, article, movie, lecture, discussion, or passing comment that has struck you as a topic you are really, truly interested in. Were you absolutely drawn into that lecture on Qing China? Scintillated by reading King Leopold’s Ghost? Avid reader of Jane Austen?  Presumably you became a history major for a reason – you enjoy studying history. Include everything. Don’t stop to think about whether “that article in Newsweek about ‘Dark Knight’ being a totally badass movie” is a plausible research topic – jot it down anyway, and move on to the next one. Keep that list handy, and add to it whenever you think of something else.

Finding an idea that interests you is half the battle in choosing a good thesis topic, and arguably the most important step you can take. The cliche that writing a thesis is like being in a relationship is largely true – you will be spending a ridiculous amount of time with this topic, and choosing one that you are passionate about will partially determine how much you enjoy writing your thesis. After you’ve got a decent list, sit down and narrow it down to 5-10 topics that most excite you and that you can imagine absolutely consuming for the next year.

2. TALK it over.

With everyone.

Start with your advisor. Email her or him your list of 5-10 topics and ask to set up a time to discuss them. They will (presumably) have a lot of experience in just this sort of advising, and are the single best resource for determining whether a topic is academically feasible. Ask them the following questions about each topic:

– Too narrow, too broad?

– Will there be enough (accessible) source material?

– Will it be difficult to do original research?

– Is this a realistic scope for a senior thesis?

If they don’t openly advocate for one or two of your topics, they should at least help you narrow down the list by eliminating topics that aren’t feasible. From there, talk with other professors in the field you’re looking at. Ask them the same questions. Talk to senior history majors. Talk to friends. Talk to family. As you spend more time talking about the couple of topics you’ve chosen, it will gradually emerge which you are most passionate about, which one you most easily articulate, and ultimately which one you should choose.

3. PLAN your research.

Again, your advisor should help you with this. If they are not going to be your primary reader, have them refer you to another professor. Meet with them and discuss how to begin tackling the topic. Everyone has different approaches to starting research, but many will likely recommend the following:

Start doing some cursory investigative forays into your topic, especially if you don’t have a definitive set of primary sources. Familiarize yourself with the basics – both surrounding historical context and at least a working knowledge of what (if any)  major research has already been done. From there, ask your advisor or reader about avenues to take towards finding primary source material. One of the most important things to find out is location – is it available online? Can your school’s library give you access? Will you have to travel to any distant archives?

Think carefully about how you want to take notes and what has worked for you in the past. I’d stump mightily for the benefits of Zotero, but it ultimately comes down to what you are comfortable with using. Whatever it is, use it. Faithfully. Short of having a photographic memory, methodical note-taking is an absolute lifesaver throughout the entire process, and will end up saving you time and effort.

4. START working.

Like, now.

The upcoming summer is presumably your last summer vacation as an undergraduate, and possibly your last three-month summer vacation for the foreseeable future. You should do everything you can to enjoy and take advantage of it. But here is the trade-off. Starting to work on your thesis during the break is a really, really good idea. Especially if the bulk of your source material is not available on campus, it becomes imperative to get a head start on research over the summer.

Although some of your classmates may have the ability to smoothly conjure out of thin air a brilliant and deeply profound thesis in the last two months before its due date, the majority of us mortals are forced to rely on hard work. There is a surprisingly sticky correlation between the amount of time one spends on their research and the quality of their end product. Hard work on the back-end of the process can not only mask other deficiencies, but it will also save your future self an incredible amount of undue stress and despair. Having said that, take some time off to be a college kid during your last summer vacation. Your thesis will still be there lurking in the shadows like voracious alien monster when you get back.

5. ENJOY it.

Writing a thesis will be the most difficult and rewarding accomplishment of your college career.

Have fun.

Best of luck,


Story of a Thesis, Part 4: Maturation

(This is the fourth installment of a multi-part post detailing my undergraduate thesis. See part one, part two, and part three.)

As I continued my research into Venture Smith’s life as a free man, GIS allowed me to construct a visual narrative of his forty years in Haddam, CT. After reconstructing each of his real-estate transactions, I was left with a surprisingly nuanced and revealing portrait of a free black man riding the tumultuous waves of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary New England. In this post I will present a selected sample of some of these recreated transactions, and briefly discuss what they reveal about Smith’s life and the broader world in which he lived.

By 1778, Smith had gone from the owner of a meager ten-acre parcel of low-quality land, to the proprietor of a sprawling 128 acres:

Venture Smith Property - 1778
Venture Smith Property - 1778

The fifty year-old Smith faced the enviable prospect of having simply too much land to effectively use. Consequently, later that year he sold a twelve-acre tract to two free black men named Whacket and Peter:

Sale to Whacket and Peter - 1778

In effect, the modest real-estate transaction provided Smith with four additional laborers for his land (Whacket, Peter, and their two wives), while allowing him to recreate a semblance of black communal life in an overwhelmingly white town and region. On several occasions in his narrative, Smith mentions buying the freedom of slaves. In exchange, the men would work under Smith for a period of time. His sale of land to Whacket and Peter marks yet another instance of utilizing black labor, possibly in the tradition of “pawnship,” a West African practice described by Paul Lovejoy and David Richardson. The 1778 real-estate transaction offers a glimpse into both the economic and social motivations of a black man deftly maneuvering within a white world.

Another revealing transaction occurred in 1787, when Smith embarked on a joint business venture with a local man named William Ackley. Smith leased a small island in the nearby Salmon River to Ackley, and in the deed, spelled out with precise detail a contract for the two men to construct a fishing seine on the island. The enterprise was divided equally, with each man supplying half the labor and equipment, including lead, hair for ropes, twine for nets, a boat, and general repairs. In attempting to geographically locate this deed, I turned yet again to GIS. The deed spelled out its locations as “off of Beaver Point.” After finding a nineteenth-century map that labeled Beaver Point, I knew roughly where the island was. Unfortunately, the GIS datasets I had been using didn’t adequately portray the island. This time, I employed aerial photographs of the region in order to locate the island:

Lease to William Ackley - 1787

As is often the case, GIS offered up as many questions as answers: The island wasn’t entirely contiguous to his property, so how did Smith come to own its leasing rights? Was it a clause within a previous land deed, or was it an entirely separate transaction? I never found answers to these questions, and this investigative process provided me with the valuable (and frustrating) realization of the limits of historical inquiry. Instead, what the transaction did reveal was the phenomenally diverse activities of an independent property owner in the eighteenth-century. Beyond fishing in the river, Smith engaged in prolific woodcutting, tended an orchard, raised livestock, and engaged in trade throughout southern Connecticut and Long Island Sound.

Of course, as with almost any rural inhabitant with a large tract of land, Smith was a farmer. In order to investigate his agricultural pursuits (which both deeds and court files allude to), I looked for farming data I could use in GIS. Fortunately, the US Department of Agriculture created an extensive dataset of soil quality data for the state of Connecticut. I imported this data into GIS and overlaid it onto Smith’s property, creating a precise summary of Smith’s agricultural activity:

Soil Quality Data of Venture Smith's Property - 1790

I filtered the data to isolate only high-quality soil well-suited for farming. Two factors go into this characterization: the slope of the land, and content of the soil. Armed with this information, I found that Smith enjoyed a particularly rich area of farmland in the upper region of his property. I could personally attest to the suitability of this area, as I had walked through it several times:

The land lent Smith with several advantages. It was a short walk to both his homestead and the Salmon River, allowing for easy access, storage, and transportation of goods. In lieu of employing an official currency (which was famously wracked with inflation at the time), Smith, along with much of the rural populace, often utilized goods and produce as a means of exchange. His lucrative pasture provided him and his family with not only sustenance, but a means of obtaining goods with which to participate in the regional economy. As a black man and former slave, his land granted him with a critical foothold within the dominant economic framework of rural New England.

Without GIS, I never would have been able to effectively analyze the relationship between Venture Smith’s freedom and his property. Instead of making abstract conjectures based solely on written primary documents, I was able to add a visual and quantitative element to my investigation. Suddenly I could answer with precise and revealing detail the questions of where, what, how much, and to what degree. I could now recognize patterns, rebuild processes, and craft a visual construction of Smith’s land. With GIS at my fingertips, “ten acres of land” no longer a set of words on a yellowed property deed, but became a deeply nuanced story of where and what the land consisted of, how it reflected and revealed Venture Smith’s motivations and decisions as a free man, and finally his place within the wider world of late eighteenth-century rural New England.

Story of a Thesis, Part 3: Growth

(This is the third installment of a multi-part post detailing my undergraduate thesis. See part one, part two, and part four.)

When faced with the challenge of exploring the real-estate transactions and land holdings of Venture Smith, I ran up against the methodological barrier of analog technology. Reading the boundary descriptions were not enough. Neither was drawing them out by hand on a piece of paper. I needed the accuracy, fluidity, and versatility of a digital environment. This challenge led me down the path towards GIS, and I introduced myself to Beverly Chomiak, a geology professor at Connecticut College who kindly let me into her computer lab and showed me the basics of the software.

It was overwhelming at first, and the simple polygons I created in the beginning felt a lot like a student driver inching their way around an empty parking lot in a Porsche. I could literally feel the power of the software, as the computer’s hard drive frantically whirred and spun just to boot up the program. But what I was doing with it was almost comically simple. As I grew more comfortable with the interface, I began to explore, and soon hit that eureka moment of placing a series of puzzle pieces together: by creating polygons of neighboring parcels and overlaying them onto a basic map of the general area where I knew his property was located, I could place his first purchase in Haddam:

Once I had those pieces in place, I quickly learned it was a matter of finding data to add to the system. Next up was a hydrography layer, which gave phenomenally detailed information about various bodies of water across the state:

Specifically, this layer revealed something important: Venture Smith’s first purchase in the town, besides being small and narrow, had its eastern portion in a swampy marsh called Dibble’s Creek. Back at Pomona, I enlisted the generous help of Warren Roberts, GIS specialist at the Claremont Colleges’ library. He suggested I look into topography layers, and showed me how to obtain a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) for the region online. DEMs allow the user to minutely examine the elevation and slope of the land, and the regional DEM for Haddam, CT turned out to be exceedingly well-detailed:

Like the hydrography layer, this additional information provided another insight into the quality of his land for that first 1775 purchase: it was incredibly hilly, especially in the eastern portion near the river. Warren also showed me how to create an elevation profile, as if one were walking from west to east across the narrow parcel:

The end conclusion was that this piece of land was not particularly valuable, especially for agriculture: marshy on one end, hilly in the middle, and with a steep bank on the other side. This evidence, supported by a clause within the deed itself, pointed towards Smith using this first parcel of real estate for two purposes: as a spatial placeholder within the town, and as a base of operations for his more lucrative pursuit: cutting timber.

Warren then taught me how to use the DEM data to render a beautiful, shaded effect. Using the elevation data, GIS can create an artificial light source and “raise up” the land to create shadows and highlights. After getting in touch with my artistic background and playing around with transparency, topo lines, and color schemes, I managed to create something that I thought looked pretty good:

While I had spent countless hours examining Smith’s land, both on a computer screen and through on-site exploration, I realized that anyone reading my thesis would have only their imaginations and my flat, two-dimensional maps with which to recreate his property holdings. Fortunately, the seemingly limitless toolkit of GIS allowed me build a 3-D tour of the land through the ever-handy DEM data:


Beyond creating pretty pictures of Smith’s first two property transactions that I could later use as a visual supplement, GIS allowed for in-depth historical analysis of Venture Smith’s real estate. Without this tool, I would have no idea what his first ten-acre purchase actually consisted of. Instead, I knew that it was poor land, and with this knowledge, the technology gave me a glimpse into the motivations and perspective of the middle-aged Smith during those first two years in Haddam. It allowed me to recreate his experience: cutting wood on the side of a hill, moving his timber down the steep embankment and onto the cart path mentioned in the deed, and stockpiling it for transport downriver to a town market center. Using GIS, I knew that these first years were more precarious than Smith let on in his narrative. He faced the daunting prospect of providing for a wife and children, one of whom was a newborn, moving to a new town as black outsiders, and settling onto a narrow strip of land with little to no value. All of this occurred against the backdrop of a quickly-erupting war between the colonies and Great Britain. Armed with the toolkit of GIS and peering through the lens of property and land, I was ready to construct my own narrative of Venture Smith’s life as a free man.

Story of a Thesis, Part 2: Birth

(This is the second installment of a multi-part post detailing my undergraduate thesis. See part one, part three, and part four.)

The need to specialize is a lesson that any undergraduate history major is forced to confront at some point in their studies. I learned this lesson early on in the summer after my sophomore year, when I came to understand the wide extent of the scholarly community who, like me, was studying Venture Smith. In order to find my specialty within this community, I turned to the most obvious starting place: his widely-read narrative.

The one aspect of Smith’s narrative that struck me again and again was his near-obsessive focus on money. Dictated at the age of sixty-nine, the elderly and ailing grandfather managed to recall the exact prices of financial transactions from three or four decades in the past. Scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Philip Gould have written articles about Smith’s sometimes-disturbing commodification of just about everything, including relationships with family members. As an example, on two separate occasions he mourns the death of a child not only with grief, but an exact recounting of how much money their deaths cost him. This narrative theme offers up room for fascinating historical inquiry – had Smith deeply internalized early American capitalist values? Was it a reflection of his childhood experience in Africa, when he witnessed his father tortured to death while refusing to tell his captors where he had hidden his money?

These questions, while interesting, had already been asked and discussed by scholars. Instead, Smith’s exacting financial memory offered up another opportunity. Included in these transactions were several scattered remarks concerning property purchases and sales. Some of these memories included not only a location, but the seller/buyer and sometimes the price as well. I quickly recognized this might be my opportunity for completing something original. So I drove to the town vault of Haddam, Connecticut, and immersed myself within their land records with the happy abandon of someone who was quickly discovering the addictive appeal of archival investigation. After some searching, I managed to find Smith’s first real-estate purchase in the town, when he bought 10 acres of land from a man named Abel Bingham for twenty pounds in the spring of 1775:

Abel Bingham Sale to Venture Smith

I have always known that I was a nerd. But nothing drove home that point more than when I let loose an involuntary and decidedly undignified fist-pump upon turning the page and seeing “Venture a free negro Resident in Haddam” written on the yellowed page. The thrill of discovery, the firecracker string of additional questions that immediately rose with each new piece of evidence – I was hooked. This is what I wanted to do.

Over the course of a week or two, I spent most of my days in the cramped quarters of the Haddam town hall vault, flipping over crackly pages underneath a horrible fluorescent light. I quickly decided to transcribe every deed I could find, which, while laborious, felt like the scholarly thing to do. And during this time, I learned the frustrations and rewards of working with 230 year-old documents. Deed indices, while occasionally helpful, were often incomplete or inaccurate. Venture Smith’s name could be spelled any way from “Venter” to “Vinter” to “Ventur,” and varying had either his surname or simple “negro,” “free negro,” or “a resident in Haddam.” And while transcribing was usually fine, there were several occasions when I labored over a string of words that I simply could not decipher.

As I typed all of these deeds (at the final tally, I found 29 land deeds that bear Smith’s name), I found myself wondering what exactly these pieces of property might look like. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have a real-life idea, as I had been tagging along once a week with the archaeological team that was excavating his homestead:

In exchange for granting me access to the property (as I mentioned, it was on the site of a decommissioned nuclear power plant), I did my best to help out and learn the rudiments of archaeology. Of course I likely did more harm than good, as to my untrained eye, most pieces of pottery tended to look exactly like rocks to be tossed aside. Regardless, the experience made me wonder exactly which transactions referred to what parts of his property.

The land deeds used a metes-and-bounds system of measuring the parcels in question, whereby the description would start at one corner of the land’s boundaries, and follow the edges until it met back up at the point. The standard for measuring length were rods (1 rod = 16.5 feet), with direction given either in exact degrees (ex. “sixteen degrees north of south”), or with less precision (ex. “northerly along Abel Bingham’s land”). So one day I decided to sit down with a pencil, ruler, and protractor, and draw out these pieces of real estate. It was strangely therapeutic to become wrapped up in a quantitative exercise of units, conversions, and angles, after countless hours dealing with written words. Of course, my end result was far from ground-breaking:

After completing a few more of these drawings, I became frustrated. Not only was it time-consuming, but my attempts to put it onto a paper map largely failed – issues of transparency, scale, and unit conversion tripped me up repeatedly. But I was still obsessed with the problem: where were these pieces of property, and what did they look like? This frustration with the inadequacies of pencil and paper ultimately drove me into the arms of a digital technology that would widen my perspective on the possibilities of historical research: Geographic Information System (GIS).

Story of a Thesis, Part 1: Conception

(This is the first installment of a multi-part series detailing my undergraduate thesis. See part two, part three, and part four.)

It has been nearly three months since I graduated from college, and almost four months since I submitted the final draft of my senior thesis. I remember dropping off my three freshly-bound copies to the history department in a surprisingly anti-climactic ritual. In my sleep-deprived state, eyes bleary from hours of proofreading close to a hundred pages of my own writing, I experienced more weary relief than triumphant euphoria. Those pages represented the culmination of not only close to two years of work, but in many ways my collegiate career. Despite this, on that day my mind was too burnt out to clearly reflect on the process. Now, with a couple of months to clear my head, I’m ready to revisit the subject. I was always told that you should be able to summarize your thesis in thirty seconds to someone with no prior knowledge of it. This is a modified version of that summary, with a narrative slant on the story and process behind it, and with a special focus on its digital methodology.

The road to my thesis began my sophomore year (2006), when Pomona’s Hart Institute for American History generously gave me a summer research grant. My original proposal included the intention to examine prominent free black merchants in the New England shipping industry. Once at home in Connecticut, I sat down at my computer and had the crippling realization that I might be in over my head. In my grant proposal, I had confidently listed a wide variety of sources, libraries, and archives that I would use. Abstractly thinking about doing research proved much easier than facing the hard reality that I was a 19 year-old who had only a couple of months in order to produce some kind of original historical research that would justify the grant I had received.

This intimidating reality forced me to narrow my topic, so as simply to avoid getting overwhelmed by the challenge ahead of me. I focused my area to a single historical figure: Venture Smith. Smith was born in Africa around 1728 the son of a wealthy regional leader, was kidnapped by slave traders as a child, and sold to a Rhode Island merchant who named his new purchase “Venture.” He spent the next three decades in coastal New England, working under various owners until he managed to purchase his freedom in 1765. Over the next decade, he bought the freedom of his wife, children, and several other slaves and established himself as a prosperous businessman. In 1798, seven years before his death, he dictated an autobiography that survives as a vivid account of northern slavery.

Over the course of the summer, Venture Smith seemed to pop up everywhere I turned. On the very first day I began research, my local newspaper ran an article (the first of many to come) on him. Within the week, I had met the head of an archaeological team who was excavating his former property (which happened to be on the site of a nuclear power plant). Within a month I went on an informal walking tour of another piece of his  former property, led by a UConn professor studying Smith. On this tour I was introduced to John Sweet of UNC, leading national scholar of colonial race and identity and who also happened to be working on a possible biography of Smith. The third person of note on the tour was Connecticut’s state archaeologist, just for good measure. Later that summer I saw a regional museum exhibit which paired paintings with a series of poems composed by the state’s poet laureate, inspired and culled from Smith’s narrative. And the icing on the cake became a project to excavate Smith’s gravesite in an attempt to recover genetic material for DNA analysis. This caught international attention, and included a BBC film crew that ended up making a short documentary of the project. In short, Venture Smith became a historical celebrity.

In the midst of this three-ring circus of film crews, archaeological teams, and nationally-renowned history scholars, was little old me: a teenager with barely two years of college experience. As the full extent of Smith’s popularity as a subject for crowded academic study dawned on me, I became increasingly convinced of the impossibility of completing anything original. The entire experience proved to be a baptism of fire in the perils of doing research on an explosively popular subject. By the time I realized this challenge, I was at an awkward point of no return, as I had already invested too much time into the topic to change course. As such, I decided to take a two-pronged approach to the rest of the summer: collaborate and specialize.

First, instead of trying to engage in an intellectual turf war for the topic, I would embrace the monumental wave of interest and research going on around me. I forced myself to contact anyone and everyone even remotely connected to studying Venture Smith. Second, I needed to carve out a niche for myself, to do something unique and creative in my approach to studying Smith. It was this second realization, of the need for creativity and originality, that would eventually lead me onto the academic and intellectual path that I am still walking down to this day.