News Feature

Vanessa Sherman Earns BSU's 9th ‘Posters’ Berth

Senior’s research on Mayflower Compact earns trip to D.C.

A Bridgewater State University student is garnering national recognition for research that helps Plimoth Plantation reinterpret key colonial texts.

Vanessa Sherman, ’19, uncovered documentary evidence related to the Mayflower Compact and Plymouth Colony’s three groundbreaking law codes. Her research draws new attention to the influential role the compact and codes played, and continue to play, in American constitutional, judicial and legal traditions. 

When Mayflower landed off Cape Cod in 1620, the Pilgrims were outside the legal boundary of the Virginia Company, the mercantile corporation that had given the colonists their land patent. Without an authorizing document from England, passengers threatened mutiny. Settlers drafted the Mayflower Compact, which is America’s original social covenant, to maintain peace.

Historians often explain the compact as an agreement used until settlers received a new patent from London for the land where they landed. At least that was the explanation until Vanessa began studying the Mayflower Compact’s role in Plymouth Colony politics as part of research she will present at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill.

“I grew up thinking the Pilgrims were just happy-go-lucky churchgoers,” said Vanessa, who is mentored at BSU by Dr. Jordon Barkalow, a political science associate professor.  “It was really a political enterprise.”

Vanessa, who researched at Plimoth Plantation thanks to an internship and BSU’s Adrian Tinsley Program for Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, knew she found something significant when she noticed reference to the compact in a transcribed 1636 law code (incidentally, 1636 is now her favorite number).

Vanessa’s research highlighted the Mayflower Compact’s influence over Plymouth Colony’s seven decades of existence, according to Richard Pickering, ’82, (pictured at right with Vanessa) Plimoth’s deputy executive director.

“Not only was Vanessa pushing forward an understanding of how the document works, her research has enabled us to ask new questions about the function of the document over time,” Pickering said.

While there was knowledge of the compact’s use, “Vanessa helped put things back in the right focus,” he said.

Vanessa, who is majoring in political science and cultural anthropology and minoring in Middle East studies, hopes to take her knowledge of colonial governance and apply it to modern countries in need of democracy.

First, she’s heading to Washington, D.C., for Posters on the Hill April 29-30. This marks an unprecedented ninth consecutive year that a BSU student has attended the prestigious event.

“I’m looking forward to talking about the research,” she said. “I’m excited to show it to the world.”

Vanessa has already presented her work before high-profile audiences. She participated in the Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago and spoke to visiting scholars at Plimoth Plantation.

Pickering, who studied English at Bridgewater, is excited to see a student from his alma mater excel. Supporting BSU students is his way of thanking Bridgewater for his education.

“One great thing about Bridgewater is everybody cares about you," Vanessa said. "Bridgewater gives you a great education but also teaches you how to be a good citizen.”

She praised Plimoth Plantation and undergraduate research at BSU for their support: “They’ve all given me more than other schools think an undergraduate deserves.”

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