History major combs through correspondence for clues to the past

-John Winthrop’s name is famously synonymous with the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But a wide-ranging research project by Jacob Pomerantz ’12 shows the Pilgrim father’s influence on the British colonies was felt far from Plymouth Plantation.

Pomerantz spent two semesters last year in Wheaton’s library poring over archival letters sent and received by Winthrop, his sons and their associates, piecing together how they spread their wings from Massachusetts to Connecticut, the Caribbean, and England—and the vital role played by written correspondence in connecting their distant societies.

“Within one generation, the Winthrop family went from being an unremarkable Puritan family living in England to a family that spanned the globe,” says Pomerantz, a history major who grew up in New Jersey. “The Winthrops were not just founders of Massachusetts, but also participants in the development of a much broader English Atlantic world.”

Assistant Professor of History Yuen-Gen Liang, who has been a mentor to Pomerantz since sophomore year, points out that Pomerantz’s research is of interest to a general audience because “it reveals the interconnections between different regions of the Atlantic world in the 17th century, and that globalization and the resulting interaction between diverse peoples and communities long predated our age of globalization today.

“Jake’s work builds on those of recent scholars, to explain how these individuals emerged and helped shape an early globalized world. This helps broaden our study of early America and early Americans to include a richer geographic, social, cultural, and racial-ethnic context of the Atlantic world.”

Winthrop PapersThe senior’s research also highlights the collaborative nature of Wheaton’s academic departments, notes Assistant Professor of Art History Touba Ghadessi, who also helped the student refine his research paper. Ghadessi, who co-organized the New England Renaissance Conference last fall with Professor Liang, invited Pomerantz to present his research as the keynote speaker for a student-organized conference that was modeled on the main conference.

“All of the continued support from various professors this student had over two years in pushing his research forward from idea to final form was essential,” said Ghadessi. “This is precisely what is fantastic about Wheaton: Because we truly believe in a liberal arts education that promotes varied intellectual vectors, we, as faculty, work together to make the experience true for students as well.”

Pomerantz originally got an idea to examine the role of the American colonies during the English Civil War while taking a seminar taught by Professor Dana Polanichka. Then, Professor John Bezis-Selfa directed him to the Winthrop family’s letters and the story they told. Eventually Liang suggested Pomerantz spend another semester expanding and refining his original paper. So Pomerantz dove back into the archives, this time focusing more closely on John Winthrop’s children.

“Reading the letters themselves, as well as researching what other historians have written about the Winthrops, opened up a whole new world for me,” Pomerantz says. “It was challenging and frustrating at times, but the reward of being able to produce my own history was absolutely worth it.”

He plans to use his paper as a writing sample when applying to graduate schools to continue his study of history. He says he’s grateful for the guidance provided by Liang and his other professors. “For me, being able to work with professors that take a real interest in your work and academic development is what makes Wheaton such a unique and rewarding school.”

Keith Nordstrom photos