Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Karin Wulf

Committee Member

Nicholas Popper

Committee Member

Hannah Rosen

Committee Member

Wendy Warren


A fluid and ever-shifting group of dependent women and men lived and labored within early New England's households. Their collaborative labor – from fetching the wood that fueled fires to weaving the fabric that dressed bodies to rowing the boats that carried goods, persons, and information – drove the economy in early New England. As collaborators, these diverse early New Englanders gained knowledge, access, and opportunities to shape the economies of which they were a part, just as their ensnarement in colonial households left them vulnerable to the precarities of dependence in a patriarchally-organized society. Colonial records paint a portrait of an economy run by propertied white men whose authority over their households was the guiding force of economic production. This dissertation challenges that image by demonstrating the diverse composition of households, the complex character of relations within these households, and the extent to which these various household members in fact exercised a good deal of power within them. By animating early New England households, this project brings to life these diverse living and working spaces and centers the many African, Native, and Anglo-American women and men who were frequently coming and going for labor and support. Beginning with a discussion of the various types of dependence and what it meant to belong to an early New England household, this project then explores the various negotiations at the heart of the household model. From contracting to supporting to collaborating and finally to resisting, this dissertation emphasizes the multi-dimensional processes at the heart of these collectives. In each of these five chapters, this dissertation underscores the central role that dependents played in these negotiations, revealing that household strategies were shaped by the interests of all household members. Fraught Labor, Fragile Authority: Households in Motion in Early New England shows that early New England, a region that scholars have long seen as the most stable and homogenous, exhibited many of the same lively dynamics of other unfree societies across early America. This project aims to reknit the history of Native and African slavery with various other types of unfreedom labor in the region by showing how multiple labor practices intermingled within this space, resulting in a highly interdependent labor force. I show that slavery, servitude, and other forms of unfreedom were mutually constitutive throughout the colonial period, and by turning our focus to the household setting, we can begin to unravel the ways in which these systems of power intersected. Lastly, this project takes on methodological questions about how we can access the lives of marginalized peoples and account for their agency in shaping the early American economy and society. By examining a world in motion, I take account of the negotiations and contestations that often rest below the surface of archival records. It is often only at this scale that we can incorporate a more diverse set of actors, women and men whose names were often left out of records, and yet whose desires and decisions shaped the world in which they lived and labored.




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