Archiving the American West

Archiving the American West (HIS 431), is an experimental course first offered at Princeton in Spring 2021 and again in Spring 2022 by Professor Martha Sandweiss (History), in collaboration with Gabriel Swift, Curator of Western Americana, and Brian Wright, Ph.D Candidate in History. Its goal was to offer students advanced research skills in Western American history, while also introducing them to the history and contemporary politics of archives and special collections.

As originally conceived, the undergraduate seminar was to be taught around a large table in Firestone Library’s Special Collections department. Students would (carefully) pass around manuscript materials, transcribing the handwriting together. They’d work together to decode the logic of photographic albums or old account books, and work in teams to find related materials in the collections. The COVID-19 pandemic compelled the class to pivot to an online format, so Princeton University Library staff generously fast-tracked our voluminous digitization requests, and by the first week of class had digitized more than 850 photographs and 2,000 pages of manuscript material for the students’ study.

The class returned to its original in-person model in the spring of 2022, meeting weekly in Special Collections in Firestone Library. While the instructors and students were grateful to work face-to-face with their material, some of the unique advantages of remote teaching continued: curators, dealers, scholars, and Native American collectors Zoom-ed in to share stories from the world of western americana, and digitization allowed students further flexibility working with their manuscripts.

Over the course of the semester, students completed three main assignments. They researched new acquisitions and documented their findings for the use of Library cataloguers. They worked with online bookdealers’ sites and auction records to locate material currently on the market that would add to Princeton’s expansive Collections of the American West (an experiment which successfully led to numerous acquisitions). And finally, students created the online exhibitions you see here, each of which reflects the first scholarly engagement with an under-catalogued piece within the library’s collection.

Our hope is that these undergraduate exhibition essays will attract more researchers to the collections they describe, and bring even greater attention to Princeton’s prominence in the field of Western Americana. The University’s collection is particularly strong in materials related to American Indians, the indigenous languages and peoples of Mesoamerica, the Rocky Mountain states, the Spanish Southwest, the Mormons, territorial imprints, and the popular image of the West.


The students’ articles run the gamut in theme and context. Native Americans, so often sidelined in American history and obscured in the documentary record, take center stage. Jacquelyn Davila ’22 ponders artist Julian Scott's work photographing Indian tribes in the Southwest for the game-changing 1890 census, asking: “Why would the data-loving bureaucrats of the ‘electrical census’ hire a painter to document the Indian?” Noa Greenspan ’23 unearths how wealthy tourists relied on the protection and know-how of Black “buffalo soldiers” and two Oglala Lakota guides to survive Yellowstone National Park’s cultivated “wilderness” in the late 1890s. And Joe Ort ’21 explores the “complex dynamics of power, representation, and cultural autonomy (or lack thereof)” at the heart of a 1901 anthropological research trip through what is now northeastern Arizona.

Several students tackle objects that elude easy description as objects. Ben Bollinger ’21 “dusted off [his] trench coat and magnifying glass for some archival sleuthing” to decipher a mysteriously annotated copy of a popular 1869 transcontinental railroad guide. Connor McGoldrick ’21 takes us to the “resort frontier” of 1870s Colorado Springs by meticulously cross-referencing a photo album owned by socialite Frances Metcalfe Wolcott with her 1932 memoir. And Katie Bushman ’22 surveys the personal and professional papers of William Courtenay—a postmaster at the Fort Berthold Reservation in Dakota Territory in the 1870s—to reveal the “beating heart” at the center of the collection: a love story.


In its second iteration, students explored material that, inspired by the first run of the course, had been recently acquired by the library.

Evan Brandon ’23 and Julia Chaffers ’22 take on a wealth of material produced at the camps that incarcerated Japanese-Americans during World War II. Brandon exposes the routine censorship and propaganda at the heart of camp publications, and Chaffers explores the culture of memory that internees cultivated for decades after the camps closed. Austin Davis ’23 pieces together clues from a photo album to tell the story of the Indian Service Library and Motion Picture Service, a traveling bus bringing books and films to Native American reservations in southern Arizona. And Meredith Summa ’22 illustrates the delicate dance of agency and expression at play between Havasupai people and the noted naturalist George Wharton James in a manuscript draft of one of James’ photography projects.

Some essays explore objects that needed some coaxing and prodding to tell their stories. Lois Wu ’23 takes us through the public controversies and private twists at the heart of a set of postcards made by an interracial couple in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Sophie Goldman ’23 tracks down the anonymous author of a photo book depicting the 1947 Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company Strike in Omaha, Nebraska. Robert L. Anderson ’23 pages through another anonymous photo album, this time showing the rhythms of life in Nome, Alaska in the late 1920s and early 1930s, years after the Nome Gold Rush had subsided. And Juliet Sturge ’23 explores how and why two albums of photographs by photographer Ben Wittick were compiled—as travelogues through the desert Southwest, as studies of Native Americans, or as some kind of personal record?

Finally, two essays delve into the professional and personal entanglements of their subjects. Kate Semmens ’22 investigates a collection of material recorded by Ernest Moore Foster of surveying trips in his youth and, later, family vacations taken on the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington state. Claire Schmeller ’23 tells the story of Warren Alfred Stark, a homesick “broomstick scientist” working on V-2 rockets at the White Sands Proving Grounds in 1950s New Mexico—a man caught between his top-secret engineering work and his fiancé back home at Long Island.

In addition to the student essays, readers can browse the fully digitized collections explored here and dive into other online exhibitions at Princeton’s Digital Repository.