Oertel examines the Civil War from the eyes of oft-excluded voices.
Part of a series looking at TU professors and their interests and research.
If you’re looking to learn more about the Civil War, especially from the lens of women, African-Americans or the poor, Dr. Kristen Oertel is the place to go at TU. Oertel, who is the chairperson of TU’s history department, has written three books: one on Bleeding Kansas, one on the activist Clarina Nichols and one on Harriet Tubman.
Currently, Oertel is focusing on teaching. After 18 years of working on projects and getting tenure, she felt “it was time to take a deep breath and think about teaching for a while.” As a result of this focus, Oertel is teaching a new class this semester, “Roots of Hamilton: Relics of Resistance in the Atlantic World.’” Oertel co-teaches the class with Dr. Alicia Odewale, a recent TU Ph.D. graduate and assistant professor of archeology. The two began working on the class last spring, meeting weekly to ensure there’d be a balance of archeology and history, while being approachable to those with varied backgrounds. She and Odewale also planned the class trip to St. Croix after the end of the semester. Odewale travels to the island every summer; she did her graduate work on an archeological dig on the island. Oertel was on Odewale’s dissertation committee, as Odewale needed someone with a history background to support her interest in historical archeology. The two women realized they wanted to co-teach after Odewale became a professor.
The “Hamilton” reference is intentional, Oertel said. In the spring of 2016, Oertel taught a class on the American Revolution. As a part of the class, she asked students who was their favorite founding father. “Prior to 2016, no one had ever said Hamilton, and then half the people said Alexander Hamilton.” She learned of the hit musical and will bookend her current class by discussing Hamilton’s life, although the middle of the course is concerned with the black experience.
Working with an archeologist has been rewarding, giving Oertel a new perspective. Historians are beginning to realize archeology can be a helpful way to understand the lives of those who were illiterate, which for much of modern history, included the poor, black people and women. Even those who were literate but not well-off may not have left many written traces of their experiences.
Oertel has not totally stopped her research. She just recently published an article about slavery in the Indian territories and the “fugitive slave problem.” Black slaves could be owned by Native Americans, and Oertel said she’s “interested in investigating that tension and reconstructing the Underground Railroad in Indian territory.” The Underground Railroad stretched to Mexico, where escaped slaves established a home. The tension between the enslaved and their Native American masters interests Oertel because she believes the enslaved’s “resistance was one of the causes of the Civil War.” Further, she said the problems discussed in Indian territory reflected the rest of the country.
Over the summer, Oertel will be writing a chapter of a book for the Oxford University Press, detailing Bloody Kansas; because of her first book, many regard her as the expert on the topic. Oertel grew up in Kansas City, in a house that was, in the 19th century, on the territory of the Shawnee Indian Reservation. “I found an arrowhead in our garden when digging when I was eight years old,” she recounted, “I was always interested in what was in my backyard.” But when she went to New York for her graduate education, she thought her focus would be abolitionist women in upstate New York. Instead, she realized no one had written about how women, African-Americans and Native Americans had influenced Bleeding Kansas, and wrote both her Masters’ thesis and doctoral dissertation on the topic.
Her book was one of the first to look at how these different people got involved. Previously, most of the focus had been on white male politicians and settlers, but “historians can’t get away with just writing about white men, most of the time. Minority voices, women’s voices are being brought to the table on a regular basis,” she said.“At one point, I went to the archives and would look at letters I knew other historians had looked at before, but they ignored that Indians were mentioned. They were in a region that had just literally become open to white settlement, so why ignore them?” she asked. Military historians have dominated Civil War history, leading to an increased focus on black and white men, and not accounting for other experiences.
Her second book, on Nichols, has potentially been the most influential. She co-wrote the book with another historian, Marilyn S. Blackwell, which was a unique experience Oertel would be willing to do again. Nichols was the reason women in Kansas were able to vote in school board elections, making the state at the time a place with one of the broadest suffrage rights in the nation. “Partly because of my book but also others, I know that when high school history classes talk about Kansas, they talk about her,” she said, “and I didn’t know who she was at that age.” She described this influence as rewarding.
All three of Oertel’s books can be found at the TU library, and her “Hamilton” class will most likely be offered once more in the spring of 2020.