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Held Captive by History

Portrait Maura Campbell in a library

For Bucks County native, Maura Campbell '24 grew up hearing about her family's deep Pennsylvania roots. Even if she didn't know it, majoring in history was inevitable for someone who spent holidays visiting the spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware River during the American Revolution. Campbell credits Little House on the Prairie as the reason she first began to love early American history and at Lehigh has found a way to combine her love of the past with a passion to serve.

Campbell knew she wanted to go to an academic university where she could pursue a writing intensive major that could be a path for pre-law, pre-law enforcement, or teaching later in her career. In addition to her interest in history, she has always been called to service. 

The prestigious Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program is actually what brought Campbell to Lehigh. "The ROTC battalion here is a very good program," she said. "Because the Steel Battalion is so prestigious, I wanted to be a part of it." Lehigh ROTC leadership made Campbell feel welcomed and valued, showing her what it would be like to be a student and a cadet. 

Before she landed in the history department, Campbell always had an interest in languages. She took German in high school and even spent a summer as an exchange student there. When considering her research topic, she said, “I’m Pennsylvania through and through. I’ve been here my whole life and I can’t wait to come back after I’m done serving.” Her interest in her home state even took her back to Germany where she spent a summer as a Ruhr fellow in Dortmund, researching and presenting on Pennsylvania and German relations. 

When considering how best she can serve others, especially in the US, Campbell decided to pursue minors in Spanish and Latin American studies. Her interests started to meld when she took a Narcos class with Professor María Bárbara Zepeda Cortés and learned about Columbia, Mexico, and the drug trade. She kept taking Latin American courses after that, and started to really understand the history of First Nations both in South America and North America. These classes opened her eyes to just how much history in the Western Hemisphere was not being studied.

“The research of First Nation history has been seeing almost a revolution in the past twenty years where it’s being taught and it’s being studied in a new light,” Campbell explained after taking a course with Professor Michelle LeMaster on North America Native Americans who encouraged Campbell to apply to the McNeil Center. 

Maura Campbell reading books on a table

European colonists, and even some historians, viewed First Nations as a people that didn’t have the ability to run their own societies or employ politics. But of course this antiquated view dismisses the flourishing communities, extensive trade networks, and thriving nations that were established before the colonists arrived.

In ethnohistorian work, Campbell is using European documents to try to illuminate the voices of the First Nations. Campbell began to read in between the lines of these historical documents, specifically the Easton Treaties, to see the underlying story, she noted.

Instead of looking at captivity narratives, the personal experiences of individuals taken captive and what happened to them, Campbell saw that in the Easton Treaties and in letters written to the Pennsylvania governor, First Nations made requests. She argues they were savvy negotiators, not “savages” as the colonists called them.

Campell emphasizes that First Nations used captivity for multiple reasons, not just the widely accepted ones like to boost population levels. “There’s clear evidence that captivity was not just used as a cultural practice,” she said. “They were taking captives as a political tool to gain leverage during negotiations.”

Campbell acknowledges that history has not given enough credit to the early Pennsylvania First Nations. “They knew what they were doing,” she said. “First Nations had been running societies and nations and waging wars for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.”

This research led to Campbell’s acceptance at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania where she will present at their undergraduate conference on April 20. She was paired with a graduate student who will help her workshop her thesis. 

Campbell visited the McNeil Center earlier this month, and after seeing the excitement of the other undergraduate fellows, it made Campell even more thankful for her decision to go to Lehigh. She spent three weeks doing hands-on research with primary sources in the special collections library on Mountain Top, an experience many of the other fellows didn’t get to experience until the workshop. With physical copies of all the Pennsylvania colonial records, Campbell was able to work through the documents chronologically which was much more impactful and allowed her to visualize these events.

"It just made me think about how fortunate I am to go to a university where research is really encouraged."

As a senior, Campbell advises incoming history students to build relationships with professors and take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities the department has to offer. And, to make time for reading for fun. As long as it’s about American history.

Spotlight Recipient

Portrait Maura Campbell in a library

Maura Campbell

Article By:

Hayley Frerichs