Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

Time Period
16,000 BCE to 1622 CE
1623 to 1763
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
1925 to Today
Media Type
Video
Topics
Geography & Environment
Presenter
Dr. Cynthia A. Kierner

On February 13, 2020, Cynthia A. Kierner delivered the Banner Lecture, "Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood."

When hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other disasters strike, we count our losses, search for causes, commiserate with victims, and initiate relief efforts. Inventing Disaster explains the origins and development of this predictable, even ritualized, culture of calamity over three centuries, exploring its roots in the revolutions in science, information, and emotion that were part of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America. 

Beginning with the collapse of the early seventeenth-century Jamestown colony, Cynthia A. Kierner tells horrific stories of culturally significant calamities and their victims and charts efforts to explain, prevent, and relieve disaster-related losses. Although how we interpret and respond to disasters has changed in some ways since the nineteenth century, Kierner demonstrates that, for better or worse, the intellectual, economic, and political environments of earlier eras forged our own twenty-first-century approach to disaster, shaping the stories we tell, the precautions we ponder, and the remedies we prescribe for disaster-ravaged communities.

Dr. Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University. She is the author of numerous books, including Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America; Martha Jefferson Randolph: Daughter of Monticello; Changing History: Virginia Women Through Four Centuries (with Jennifer R. Loux and Megan Taylor Shockley); and, most recently, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood.

This lecture is cosponsored by the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Virginia and is free to its members.