Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Young Historian Spotlight: Davis Tierney

Davis Tierney as a Loyalist

Today, we are continuing with the second of a series of interviews with a number of young historians. By the time this series concludes in early November, we will have heard from Jack Weaver, Andrew Warren, Ben Olex, Casey Hill, Samantha Sproviero, and Davis Tierney. All of these individuals are broadly interested in the Kabinettskriege era, and have been selected as a result of recent promotion, impending graduate school applications, or work recently begun in graduate school or at a historic site. Today's young historian Davis Tierney, a seasoned historic interpreter, and graduate of William and Mary. Davis currently works as the director of the Old Fort Niagara historic interpreter program.

Alexander Burns: What drew you to study the history in this era? In 2018, much of popular memory of military history in the United States is focused on World War 1, World War 2, and the Vietnam War. What about the history of the 1688-1815 era do you find so compelling?

Davis Tierney[1]: Honestly? I totally stumbled into it. I’d always liked history but never really nailed down a particular period, but if I had to credit one thing, it was being introduced to Rev war reenacting in college, particularly going to events at Colonial Williamsburg. I had worked at Jamestown doing 17th century stuff in the past, and had been doing great war for a while, but being in a living 18th century town of that scale and seeing everything that 18th c. living history could offer really got me hooked. The more I read about the time period the more interesting I found everything. I liked being able to see the battlefields without having to buy a plane ticket, I loved (and still love) the aesthetic of the period, and found many of the period writers surprisingly relatable.

AB: Is there a particular person, conflict, event, or geographical setting which draws you to this era?

DT: I’m definitely a revolution junky. I enjoy reading about and studying the other conflicts (Seven years war is my #2) but the revolution is what I always come back to. In particular, the study of loyalists during the revolution is a subject that really grabbed onto me in college and didn’t let go. Whether it’s looking at tories raiding the New York frontier with Six Nations war parties, highland loyalists at moore’s creek, or the better known loyalists under Simcoe and Tarleton, I’m all about it. Loyalists have been given such a bad reputation for such a long time. I feel like much of the American public either knows nothing about them, or believes they are the incarnation of satan (Thanks Mel Gibson). As a public historian I feel it is my responsibility to humanize these people, explain their motivations, and show the public the facts of their actions in as plain terms as is possible, and let them draw their own conclusions.

Davis (left) with some of his interpretive staff from Fort Niagara

AB: Working at a historic site, do you ever get push-back from the public as you attempt to humanize these figures? As your historic site is close to Canada, what do Canadian visitors think of your humanization of Loyalists?

DT: It’s extremely rare that people react negatively in any significant way. They might crack a joke or two, but I have yet to encounter anyone really nasty about it. The closest I get are traitor comments, (in a joking manner) which are easy to direct into a discussion about who is betraying who in this conflict. As to the Canadians, they love it, as it’s totally not the perspective they thought they’d get in the US. Southern Ontario, being the place where many loyalists ended up after the war, is full of families that can trace their heritage to American Loyalists, and references to important loyalist figures are all over the area.

AB: How do you plan to continue your research into this era? Many of you have been employed in public history settings, or are currently applying to graduate programs. Why have you chosen your particular path?

DT: I chose public history largely because I needed a break from school. I just didn’t have it in me at the time to go get another degree, but I still wanted to spend my time doing historical work, and now here I am. I absolutely love my job. I get to go to work, do cool stuff, learn interesting things, and then tell other people about them. I get to come up with the programs that will (hopefully) light a spark in some kid’s head, maybe convincing them to become historians. The further I get from my undergrad days, the more I like the idea of going back to school, but that’s years in the future.

AB: How does your particular line of research or interpretation style share your topic, not just with fellow historians and researchers, but with the public in the United States?

Davis working at Old Fort Niagara

DT: Being at a historic site, sharing with the public is the job. The key to that is making sure you’ve done your reading on the academic side, and knowing how to distill With Zeal & With Bayonets Only into a demonstration in a way that people who aren’t massive nerds like us will actually understand. Generally I find that the public, whether children or adults, are almost always capable of understanding more than you might initially think. We are here to make this more than an old place with some “boomsticks”. It is the job of a good interpreter to impart why all of this is important, how did these things change the lives of very real people, and what can we learn from them.

AB: What have you been reading, recently? Could you recommend one book on your topic of interest, or any recent work on the era?

DT: I’ve been working my way through a bunch of books by Gavin Watt. Right now I’m on his book called  I am heartily ashamed, The Revolutionary War’s Final Campaign as waged from Canada in 1782.   I continue to be impressed by the degree of specificity with which he nails these raids down. Compared to reading about the massive coastal battles, his works on the frontier war feel much more personal and specific (perhaps because of the smaller scale?) and are introducing me to an element of the revolution I only had vague knowledge of. I knew there were raids, and what their broader objectives were, but to get nice and detailed about each one is fantastic.

AB: Thanks Davis! I look forward to seeing where your career takes you!

[1]Davis Tierney has been a historic interpreter for nine years, both professionally and as a hobbyist, starting out with the Jamestown-Yorktown foundation. After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a bachelors in History, he worked for the Colonial Williamsburg foundation as a tour guide, military interpreter, and a brief stint in historic trades. He is currently the Interpretive Program Manager at Old Fort Niagara.

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