Sean Fraga USC Humanities Digital World

Welcome! I’m Sean Fraga. I’m an interdisciplinary historian of the North American West, studying links between U.S. territorial expansion, the environment, Indigenous sovereignty, technology, and mobility, primarily during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My current research focuses on steam power and U.S. expansion in North America and the Pacific Ocean. I’m a Mellon postdoctoral fellow with the Humanities in a Digital World program at the University of Southern California, with particular interests in digital mapping, data visualization, text mining, and augmented reality. (Not all at the same time.) My award-winning research has been published in Current Research in Digital History and in Western Historical Quarterly, and my writing has also appeared in The Washington Post.

My book project, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound, is under contract with Yale University Press for publication in the Lamar Series in Western History. In Ocean Fever, I argue that Americans acquired and developed the Pacific Northwest in order to participate in Pacific Ocean commerce. Americans interested in trade with East Asia saw Puget Sound’s deep harbors as valuable portals to the Pacific Ocean and used railroad and shipping connections to build Northwest seaport towns into global commercial hubs. But in the process, American settlers dramatically altered coastal environments and repeatedly displaced indigenous peoples. Today, Tribal nations around Puget Sound are leveraging their marine sovereignty to shape the region’s future. Read more about my research here. Or, hear me discuss this research in conversation with Bill Deverell of the USC–Huntington Institute on California and the West.

I hold a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, where I worked with Marni Sandweiss, Emily Thompson, and Beth Lew-Williams. My dissertation was awarded the Center for Digital Humanities 2019 Dissertation Prize for “exceptional doctoral work with a digital humanities component.” I also received my M.A. in history from Princeton. I recieved my B.A. in American Studies, with distinction in the major, from Yale University, where my senior thesis was awarded the Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize.

I combine traditional archival research with digital mapping and data visualization to understand old stories in new ways. While a postgraduate research associate with Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, I developed my first major digital humanities project, “They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61,” which uses archival U.S. Customs materials to digitally map historical maritime trade networks in the Pacific Northwest and northern Pacific Ocean at an unprecedented level of detail. This project received the 2020 Mary L. Dudziak Digital Legal History Prize from the American Society for Legal History, and research drawn from this project has been published in Current Research in Digital History.

My research has taken me to more than a dozen archives across the United States and Canada. My work has been financially supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Newberry Library, the Western History Association, and the North American Society for Oceanic History, among others. At U.S.C., my research has been  supported by the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, the Levan Institute for the Humanities, and the Humanities in a Digital World program. My research has also been financially supported by numerous Princeton departments and programs, including the Department of History; Program in American Studies; Program in Canadian Studies; Princeton–Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities; Center for Digital Humanities; and the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, which awarded me a Dean’s Completion Fellowship.

teach about the history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, the North American West, Native history, environmental history, the U.S. in the world, colonialism and imperialism, borders and borderlands, oceanic history, the history of technology, digital history, and American cultural landscapes, among other subjects. At U.S.C., I’m teaching a new seminar, Pacific Beaches and the American Imagination. With Andy Rutkowski, I’m co-teaching Spatial Humanities and Digital Mappingone of USC’s week-long summer boot camps in the digital humanities. As a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, I taught Zoom!, an interdisciplinary first-year writing seminar about speed, technology, and social change. Learn more about my teaching here.

I regularly discuss my research at academic conferences, scholarly workshops, and museum lectures. I’ve been invited to share my work at Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, and at the American Philosophical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Museum of Chinese in America, among others. My next few upcoming speaking engagements are:

  • I’ll present a paper, “Pacific Points: Steam Sovereignty and U.S. Territorial Expansion by Land and Sea,” as part of the panel “Commercial Diplomacy, Railroad Expansion, and International Activism Across the Nineteenth-and-Twentieth-Century Pacific World” at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 2021 annual meeting, via Zoom, on Saturday, June 19, 2021.
  • I’ll present a paper, “Whistling in the Dark: Steamboat Pilots and Navigational Labor in the Pacific Northwest, 1870–1920,” at the North American Society for Oceanic History 2021 annual meeting in Pensacola, Florida, via Zoom, on Saturday, July 10, 2021.
  • I’ll present a paper, “Routes to the Pacific: Terraqueous Mobility, Geographic Imagination, and American Westward Expansion, 1776–1846,” as part of the panel “Geography Lessons: Spatial Thinking Beyond the Map” at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic 2021 annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, via Zoom, in July 2021. [This paper was first accepted for SHEAR’s 2020 annual meeting, which was rescheduled to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.]
  • I’ll present a paper, “Steam Technology, Native Labor, and Maritime Mobility in the Pacific Northwest, 1846–1860,” as part of the panel “Technology Transfers in the Early American West” at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic 2021 annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, via Zoom, in July 2021.

See my full list of speaking engagements here.

At U.S.C., I launched the Mapping Mobilities workshop series and co-launched the interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities working group. At Princeton, I served as the Graduate History Association’s professional development officer, as co-chair of the Modern America Workshop, as co-chair of the Colonialism and Imperialism Workshop, and as a mentor to incoming graduate students. Along with Julia Grummitt and Kimia Shahi, I co-organized the 2016 Princeton American Studies graduate student conference “Water and the Making of Place in North America.”

My hometown is Bainbridge Island, Washington, in traditional dxʷsəqʷəb (Suquamish) territory.