Bossy Only Scholar in the Nation Working with Present-Day Yamasee Indians
Dr. Denise Bossy, a University of North Florida associate professor of history, was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to support significant research in the humanities and to further her research of the Yamasee Indians, a community that is hardly understood by scholars today.
In its last five rounds, the NEH fellowships program, on average, received over 1,200 applications per year and awarded just 80 fellowships each year—meaning only seven percent of all applicants received NEH funding.
“Dr. Bossy’s trail-blazing work explores the history of the Yamasee Indians and the strategies they used to survive amidst European colonialism and American expansion. I’m convinced that she will write an impressive book on the Yamasees, one that will challenge the way we think about this supposedly extinct group of Indians, and the Indians of the Southeast in general,” said Dr. Charles Closmann, chair of the Department of History at UNF.
Bossy, the only scholar in the country working with present-day Yamasee communities, received over $50,000 for the year-long fellowship to study the history of the Yamasee Indians, who lived in Florida and other parts of the South. The Yamasees had communities on Amelia Island, St. Augustine and along the banks of the Oklevueha River, but they’ve been erased from Florida’s history.
“My study will not only recover Yamasee history but also expand current understanding of American Indian strategies for protecting their communities,” said Bossy. “Though scholars recognize migration, factionalism and ethnic diversity as central to the ethnogenesis of Southeastern Indian communities, only a few studies have considered how select Indian communities maintained their identities as they attached themselves to more powerful Indian polities.”
With the Fellowship, Bossy has already started her research at archives around Florida and South Carolina as well as the Library of Congress and Smithsonian in Washington D.C., where she’s consulting accounts of the Seminole Wars and Seminole Removals, the Dawes Rolls and other census data, BIA records and ethnographic studies of the Seminoles and Miccosukees with whom the Yamasees lived for much of the 20th century. She has also spent time working with the Oklevueha Yamasees, who have long kept their own collection of family papers and genealogical records.
A trained ethnohistorian of Southeastern Indians, Bossy is currently writing a monograph tentatively titled, “A History of the Yamasee Indians: Ethnogenesis, Strategic Diaspora, and Resurgence,” the first book on the history of this important Southeastern Indian community.
Scouring Spanish, British and American archival records, Bossy has begun to put the pieces of their history back together. “It’s hard work, because the Yamasees responded to the chaos wrought by European colonialism and American expansionism from the 17th to the 19th centuries by moving,” she said.
When the very existence of their communities was threatened by enslavement, pirate attacks, pressures to convert to Catholicism (or Anglicanism) or wars by British and then American colonizers who wanted their lands, the Yamasees would relocate. Gathering their communities together, they moved to a safer place where there were better economic and political opportunities.
Like the Yuchis, the Yamasees lived alongside the Creeks and, like the Shawnees, the Yamasees used movement as a political strategy, but there the comparisons largely end, says Bossy. Because mobility lay at the very heart of their ethnogenesis as a people, the Yamasees were able to sustain long-distance kinship networks across the South.
Through these deliberate migrations, the Yamasees made much of the Southeast their homelands, from Florida to Georgia to South Carolina and back. Though scholars have long believed that the Yamasees were extinct by 1763, Bossy’s work reveals that they survived well into the 19th and 20th centuries—in fact, there are descendant communities in the South today. Over the past two years, Bossy has made strong connections with the chiefs and matriarchs of the Yamasees in Florida and South Carolina.
She received her doctorate and master’s degrees in American history from Yale University and her associate’s degree in history from Princeton, joining the faculty at UNF in 2007. Bossy has held fellowships and grants from the NEH, American Historical Association, American Philosophical Society, Mellon Foundation, John Carter Brown Library and three institutes at Yale University. Her research regularly takes her to archives across the South and Great Britain.
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the NEH and its grant program can be found at www.neh.gov.