Archiving the American West

Archiving the American West (HIS 431), is an experimental course first offered at Princeton in Spring 2021 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.

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 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.