This fall, the Helmerich Center for American Research welcomed its inaugural Duane H. King Postdoctoral Fellow, Travis Jeffres. Jeffres is a historian of colonial and native North America and received his doctorate in early American history from Rutgers University in 2018. Originally from upstate New York, Jeffres has traveled frequently for his research.
“I’m from a very rural part of New York, and I received my undergraduate degree from a school only 20 minutes from where I grew up, then I went to my grad program at Rutgers about four hours away,” Jeffres said. “But I lived in Santa Fe, N.M., for a couple of years, and Albuquerque while I was doing dissertation research, and that’s where I met my wife. It just has a very special place in my heart, so I would also consider myself a Westerner as well.”
Jeffres’ project has involved international travel as well. After conducting research at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research and the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, Jeffres journeyed to Mexico City and northern Mexico.
“My project is sort of a trans-national project, and it involved me going to a lot of different archives over a long period of time,” Jeffres explained. “It emerges out of my dissertation and is now transitioning into the book phase. It’s called The Forgotten Diaspora: Mexican Indians and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.”
The project draws on hundreds of Nahuatl (Aztec)-language texts to record the diaspora of thousands of Indians from central Mexico into northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest during the 1500s and 1600s.
“The greater Southwest is a term I use to refer to what’s now the southwestern United States and also northern Mexico,” Jeffres said. “The ‘Mexican-Indian diaspora’ part refers to the mass migration of people from central Mexico who were Nahuatl-speaking people. This includes the Aztecs and a lot of the Aztecs’ neighbors.”
Originally, the project began as Jeffres sought a deeper understanding of what the native peoples of central Mexico had hoped to gain from their alliances with the Spanish, but the focus of the project shifted as he uncovered more documents and information to help piece together the Spanish colonization process from the perspective of indigenous allies who were also colonial subjects. Jeffres even taught himself Nahuatl in order to understand documents from the indigenous perspective.
“It was very important to me to be able to recover their experiences, their motivations, what they hoped to get out of their participation and their alliance with the Spanish,” Jeffres stated. “That’s where the project started, and it evolved over time to be a project about movement, how identities change and how native people in diaspora – having severed ties to their original communities – were able to reconstruct those communities and retain their identities once they were removed from their original homelands.”
Jeffres’ search for that perspective eventually led him to Gilcrease Museum and the Helmerich Center for American Research, which not only houses thousands of pages of Spanish colonial documents but also Nahuatl-language documents from that period. After finding a book referencing a Nahuatl-language document housed in the Helmerich Center, Jeffres reached out to obtain an electronic copy of a document that became essential to his research.
“It’s this last will and testament written in Nahuatl by a native person in 1591, literally the day before he was sent alongside 1,000 people by the Spanish to colonize the northern frontier,” Jeffres explained, noting that this document “probably ended up being the most single important document of my entire research project over the last five years.”
This document revealed the true sentiment of a Nahuatl-speaking person from central Mexico who was being forced from his home.
“Historians have always interpreted this as a voluntary migration, that these people were loyal allies of the Spanish and they willingly went to the north to conquer, to colonize, under the banner of the Spanish empire,” Jeffres explained. “However, this document very clearly says in Nahuatl that he had been forced to be sent, and that he was leaving behind his family and his community and that he was actually experiencing a lot of anxiety and terror on the eve of his forced migration from his homeland.”
Jeffres happened to discover and incorporate this document into his research around the same time that the Helmerich Center began its search for the first-ever Duane H. King Post-Doctoral Fellow, specifically hoping to find someone who could take advantage of its extensive collection of Spanish-language materials. After teaching himself Spanish to conduct research in central Mexico and read Spanish-language documents pertaining to his project, Jeffres believes learning about this position was incredibly fortuitous.
“My project aligned very well with what the post-doc was designed for, to promote those hidden gems of the collection and the strengths of the center,” Jeffres said. “I was really excited to come here and to work more closely with the materials that had been so influential to my project.”
The move to Tulsa has been a positive one for Jeffres and his family, who were glad to get away from the seven-month winters in upstate New York and return to city life. A partnership with The University of Tulsa is an added benefit of the fellowship.
“The teaching aspect has been great so far,” Jeffres stated. “I’m really enjoying teaching at TU because the students are eager, bright, driven; it’s a diverse group, and I really like getting to know them and learn their backgrounds, where they come from and what their goals are and their aspirations.”
The fellowship also offers Jeffres the opportunity to collaborate with other faculty. “I’m really excited to work with scholars here at TU,” Jeffres noted. “I have some great mentors and colleagues that I work with very closely that have been very helpful to me.”
Overall, the position allows Jeffres to continue his research at a state-of-the-art facility that houses documents essential to uncovering new perspectives and aspects of Mexican-Indian diaspora, the Spanish colonial period and the history of the United States, while sharing his knowledge with students and like-minded faculty.
“It’s really a dream position for me in a lot of ways,”Jeffres said. “It gives me time to research, it gives me time to write, but I also get to teach and be at the epicenter of this amazing collection that is really helpful and useful to me, so I’m really fortunate.”