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. I’m currently researching the interplay between 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. My research has been published in Current Research in Digital History and is forthcoming in Western Historical Quarterly. 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.

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 received my M.A. in history, also from Princeton, and 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 in the American ImaginationAs 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 shared my work at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia, and at the Newberry Library, the American Philosophical Society, and the Museum of Chinese in America, among others. My next few upcoming speaking engagements are:

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 both the Modern America Workshop and 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.