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Tomczak Wins Fulbright, ICCS, & David Library Fellowships

Richard Tomczak

STONY BROOK, NY – Richard Tomczak, a PhD candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of History, will be a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa for the 2017-18 academic year as part of a Fulbright Research Fellowship and an International Council of Canadian Studies Graduate Scholarship. 

Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Tomczak received a BS and MA in history from the State University of New York, College at Brockport. In addition to his research, he has completed archaeological work at James Madison's Montpelier, worked on two National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) teacher workshops in Rochester, and spent time as an interpreter at Fort Ticonderoga. He is also a group leader for the Student Conservation Association (SCA), leading high school groups in environmental cleanup work. 

In this interview with recent Stony Brook graduate Dr. Francisco Delgado, Tomczak discusses his research and how applying for fellowships helped shape and focus his current projects. 

Delgado: Could you tell us about your current research project? What inspired you? 

Tomczak: My dissertation examines how the British adopted a French form of mandatory labor, known as corvée, when they took over Quebec following the Seven Years War (1754-1763). Their experiences managing French Canadian peasants and workers in support of the military informed imperial labor policy throughout British North America, especially during the American Revolution. 

I actually discovered this topic during my tenure as the Edward W. Pell Fellow in Interpretation at Fort Ticonderoga, an eighteenth century historic site in northern New York. My supervisor there gave me a British orderly book to read, and I noticed this word “corvée,” which I had never seen before. The more I did research on it, the more fascinated I became. How did a feudal form of mandatory labor come to be used in the American Revolution, a conflict typically associated with the emergence of constitutional government? 

In addition, I have always been interested in labor history and the recovery of everyday people’s experiences. French Canadian corvée labor fit perfectly with my research interests, and has excited me from the moment I saw that orderly book. 

Delgado: What have you learned over the course of this project that has surprised you? 

Tomczak: When I first started doing research on this project, I anticipated that the British had briefly used corvée labor. I hypothesized that the British used this labor force maybe for one to two years at the most. As I started to do more intensive archival research, however, I discovered that corvée labor, and more broadly the “seigneurial system” – the French feudal form of land tenure – was the foundation of the legal regime after the British Conquest. For example, the British used corvée labor immediately after the subjugation of Canada in 1761 for a massive iron mining operation in St. Maurice, Three Rivers. 

More importantly, I have always been surprised that French Canadian peasants were so successful in evading corvée duty. Sometimes they demonstrated more traditional forms of resistance that one would expect from an oppressed people, such as refusing to show up for work duty or abandoning the army. Archival evidence, however, reveals much more crafty forms of resistance. In one case, a corvée working party stole horses from British soldiers in northern New York and rode all the way back to Quebec. At John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, the British Army’s first major defeat in the American Revolution, approximately 100 Canadian peasants fled in the middle of the night before the capitulation agreement was signed. Canadian corvée laborers were always operating in the background of the opening years of the war, and historians have missed their crucial involvement in the conflict. 

Delgdo: What compelled you to apply for the David Library Research Fellowship? How do you imagine it will assist you as you complete your work? 

Tomczak: Located in Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, the David Library of the American Revolution houses collections that are critical to my project. It’s the only institution in the United States, for example, with a complete microfilm collection of the Colonial Office Papers of Quebec. I will be in Ottawa and Montreal next year for nine months on a Fulbright Research Fellowship doing a majority of my research on French manuscript collections, so the David Library’s British and American primary sources will supplement that perfectly. 

Delgado: I understand that this is your third fellowship! What have you learned over the course of your fellowship application experiences? How has describing your research in fellowship applications shaped the way you think about it? 

Tomczak: I cannot overstate how critical the application process has been to the articulation of my dissertation. For fellowship and grant applications, you typically get two pages to describe your project. That may not sound particularly difficult, but when you have a whole dissertation’s worth of ideas in your head that space fills up so quickly. You learn what the most important parts of your project are. You also have to be very disciplined in explaining your dissertation to people who may not have heard anything about your subject. In my case, I did the applications before I did my dissertation proposal, so they provided a crash course in figuring out what, exactly, I will be researching for the next several years. 

Delgado: What additional advice could you impart to other students looking to apply for a fellowship in the near future, perhaps for the first time? 

Tomczak: Do not get discouraged! I can’t emphasize that enough. The application process is difficult—you receive a lot of constructive criticism and it can be disheartening at times. Forge a support system, whether that be other students, your spouse, family, or any of Stony Brook University’s offices associated with fellowship applications. The IREP office in particular is a great resource for Fulbright applications and helped me quite a bit. 

Delgado: Thank you, Ricky! 

Francisco Delgado graduated with his PhD in English in May 2017. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 New York Public Humanities Fellow.

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