Matthew Dougherty: Helmerich Center for American Research Fellow

Meet Matthew Dougherty, Ph.D., one of our Helmerich Center for American Research short-term fellows, who was here conducting research over the summer for his work dealing with religion in American expansion. With a recommendation from a Cherokee history professor, hear what he learned and how resources like the John Ross Papers at the Helmerich Center changed his interpretation of previous research sources he had studied.

Learn more about his work and our research fellowship opportunities in the video below.


My name is Matt Dougherty, I am a Postdoc in the School of Religion at Queens University in Kingston Ontario and I’m here at the Helmerich Center for American Research on a short-term research fellowship.

So I work on religion in American expansion, and the project I’m working on right now looks at the ways that people constructed religious ideas about expansion so we tend to think about, you know, Manifest Destiny is something early nineteenth century, and particularly if you include both white and missionary – white missionary and indigenous intellectuals and what you’re considering there is a whole range of other notions that frame, were essentially political ideas about expansion that frame themselves as “What does God want for America, what does God want for settlement.” And, I look at a brace of these ideas that expressed those concepts by using stories that claimed that Indigenous people were somehow or other like or descended from Israel, ancient Israel.

So, many people are familiar with this belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a somewhat complicated history, but I also look at it in a variety of other contexts, missionary contexts, some American Jewish contexts, and some Indigenous context, particularly in the context of Cherokee Mission. So, I think that what’s important about my research is that it exposes the variety of voices in early America around the question of settler expansion and what the correct relationship should be between the United States as sort of a expansive new national structure, and Indigenous nations. And we tend to have this very retrospective view and assume that everyone was all of one mind, but that was not the case.

The debates around the Indian Removal Act in 1830, for example, were very closely fought. It actually passed congress by very few votes. So, in particular, when we narrow down that range, we tend to cut out the voices of Indigenous intellectuals, particularly with those intellectuals who were speaking in a Christian theological mode as many of the people that I study were doing. The Helmerich Center for American Research was recommended to me by a professor who works on Cherokee history and she was gracious enough to have a long phone conversation with me about what resources there were in Oklahoma. And she really pointed to the center as a place that just had a wealth of resources and that has really born out.

I found great stuff here. The papers that were stored here of John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, contained some records that really changed by interpretation of my sources, in a really basic way, so the short version is that I’ve been looking at these records that were records of conversations between a missionary, Daniel S. Butrick, and Cherokee Knowledge Keepers, so people who largely did not survive the Trail of Tears. And so, for that reason, these records are really vital, but they’re also very incomplete. Butrick spoke some Cherokee, but not fantastic Cherokee. You always had to have an interpreter when he was getting these stories from people. So, what we have are these summaries of stories and my interpretation of them was really focusing on Butrick and what little we know about the people he was talking to.

Records here at the Helmerich Center, however, made it obvious that the interpreter in this case, Andrew Sanders, was really the key figure. And, if I’m looking at anyone here as someone who is using these stories that attribute a connection between the using these stories that attribute a connection between the smoking gun for that was here. It changes my research because it gives me a different person to- gives me a different person to identify as sort of the Indigenous contributor to this, or as an Indigenous contributor to this conversation that I’m writing about. About someone whom not a ton is known, but much more is known, so I can be much more specific about his context.

He survived the Trail of Tears, he lived around Dwight Mission for several decades, he has many descendants who are still in the area. So, he is someone who leaves a much wider mark in the historical record and that really helps me to contextualize what I’m doing. Records here and records in other archives in Oklahoma really helped me identify, you know, what his family was, what his church was, what his community was, and then it was here that it became apparent that really he’s the person producing, where- I think- I think he’s the person producing a lot of the ideas that I’m writing about.

I mean, for me this was one grant proposal, and I had access to five archives because of the generosity of the Helmerich Center for American Research, I was able to travel to archives in Oklahoma that do not have a lot of money to throw at visitors, particularly international visitors like me, right? Like, it’s not cheap to get from Toronto to Tulsa, so I was able to pay a visit to the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah and see some of the historic sites around there and I found really vital materials in the Western History Center at the University of Oklahoma and at the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City, and all that was, that sort of broader trip, was only available to me because of my time here in Tulsa was supported by the center so that I could get a little more funding from my University to underwrite sort of that larger research trip.

The people that have really made this trip truly special being around this area of Oklahoma, having some tire issues with one of my rental cars and being briefly stuck somewhere in the Muscogee Nation. I just found that the people I’ve encountered are uniformly generous and welcoming to someone who’s, you know, are uniformly generous and welcoming to someone who’s, you know, staff have just been so supportive of my project in particularly Renee over in the archives, and that’s been, that’s just been the most special part of it for me.