OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Portrait of Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Karen Ordahl Kupperman's scholarship focuses on the Atlantic world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her current project is on language as a source of power in early English colonization. Her recent publications include Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia (2019) and an edition of Henry Spelman's Relation of Virginia (2019) from the original manuscript. She has also published The Atlantic in World History (2012), an edition of Richard Ligon's True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (2011). Among her earlier works, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (2000) won the American Historical Association's Prize in Atlantic History and Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony (1993) won the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Award.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

As English colonists arrived in America, they knew they needed to learn as much of Native languages as they could. As soon as they arrived, New England venturers encountered people who knew English, which meant they were in control. Colonists up and down the coast needed to know about the land and what was safe to eat. They also needed to understand the Natives. Learning language was crucial and the Americans controlled that process.
Kupperman explores the intertwined lives of Pocahontas and three English boys, Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, and Robert Poole, who were sent by Jamestown's leaders to live among the Chesapeake Algonquians. All were in their early teen years when they first met; Pocahontas was the youngest. Because of their knowledge of both English and Indian cultures, they were arguably the most important people in early Virginia, but their true loyalties were always suspect.
What do you do when you meet people whose language you cannot understand? The answer was simple as Europeans moved out into the Atlantic--you sing and play instruments. Americans, Africans, and Europeans all had the same response and all used music as a way to communicate.