In Memoriam: Neal Salisbury (1940 – 2022)

By Dana Salisbury and Jennifer Guglielmo

Neal Salisbury, a historian of Native Americans in early modern North America, died on May 27, 2022. He was the Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor Emeritus of History at Smith College, where he taught from 1973 to 2014. He was a pathbreaking scholar and beloved colleague who will be remembered for his brilliance, generosity, integrity, and "legendary kindness," in the words of Philip J. Deloria.

Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Neal's academic journey began when he enrolled in Pierce Junior College. He flunked out, but with the help of his mentor Walter Porges, he gained admission to UCLA, which was then tuition-free for in-state students. To get by, he took odd jobs, working as a drugstore clerk, cab driver, and interviewer for the psych department. He briefly worked the graveyard shift at a Chevy plant but was fired for falling asleep under the machines. Seeing his promise and intellectual talent, the UCLA History Department bent their requirements to admit him into the graduate program. He studied under Gary Nash, who inspired Neal to look beyond traditional sources and produce his own body of visionary scholarship.

Neal's research and writing centered on Native Americans as central to North American history, with a focus on Native New England, circa 1500–1700. He was a leading figure in presenting Indigenous history on its own terms, countering narratives established by colonizers that continue to pervade academic scholarship, popular culture, and political discourse. His many publications include Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), A Companion to American Indian History, edited with Philip J. Deloria (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), The People: A History of Native America, with R. David Edmunds and Frederick E. Hoxie (Boston: Cengage, 2007), and The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson (2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2017).

For his innovative work, Neal received fellowships from the Smithsonian, the Newberry Library, National Endowment for the Humanities, Charles Warren Center at Harvard, National Humanities Center, and American Antiquarian Society. A past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, he received the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He was also named an honorary member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and was the Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society in 2018-19.

Neal often collaborated with other scholars to shift popular perception of Native Americans, including bringing Native history to K-12 curricula and museums through such outreach programs as the Five College Public Schools Partnership and Native Americans of New England, a Summer Institute for Teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2013. He was also instrumental in creating and sustaining a vibrant Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies Program and community.

Over time, Neal's scholarship was expanded on and enriched by Indigenous scholars, many of whom he mentored. He encouraged them to enter the field and redefine its terms; he championed respect for their contributions. He also helped to connect Indigenous elders, teachers, and community members to audiences eager to hear their experiences and history. Lisa Brooks notes, "I am indebted to Neal for making the space in which we thrive." Nancy Marie Mithlo remembers, "​​He made a way for us during a time when others often reacted defensively." Frederick Hoxie writes that Neal was "a vital spirit who drew us together and helped to generate many libraries of new knowledge." Perhaps R. David Edmunds best sums up the sentiment that so many of us share: "His scholarship and teaching made the world a better place."

Neal is survived by his wife of fifty-two years, Dana Wallach Salisbury, his daughter Cleo Salisbury, her husband Tony Lobay, their children Zeke and Niabelle; brother Clyde Salisbury and his wife Shirlee Read; brother Keith Salisbury and his wife Kim Packard; their extended family and his extensive network of friends, former students, and fellow scholars. We will all miss his warm spirit and bright smile.

Posted: June 22, 2022
Tagged: In Memoriam