Sean Fraga USC Humanities Digital World

Welcome! I’m Sean Fraga. I’m an interdisciplinary historian of the North American West, studying links between technology, mobility, settler colonialism, and the environment, primarily during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’m currently researching the interplay between steam power and American territorial expansion. I’m broadly interested in borders and borderlands, oceanic history, infrastructure, cultural landscapes, place, and the built environment.

Starting in August 2020, I’ll begin a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship with the Humanities in a Digital World program at the University of Southern California. I hold a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, where I worked with Marni Sandweiss, Emily Thompson, and Beth Lew-Williams. 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.

My book project, Ocean Fever: Steam, Trade, and the American Creation of the Terraqueous Pacific Northwest, 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. Read more here.

I combine traditional archival research with digital mapping and data visualization to understand old stories in new ways. As a postgraduate research associate with Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, I used archival U.S. Customs materials to digitally map historical maritime trade networks in the Pacific Northwest and northern Pacific Ocean. See more here: They Came on Waves of Ink: Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61.

My research has taken me to more than a dozen archives across the United States and Canada. My work has been financially supported by numerous Princeton departments and programs, including the Department of History, Program in American Studies, Program in Canadian Studies, Center for Digital Humanities, and the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, which awarded me a Dean’s Completion Fellowship. Beyond Princeton, my work has been supported by the Newberry Library, the Western History Association, and the North American Society for Oceanic History, among others.

I am currently a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, teaching Zoom!, an interdisciplinary first-year writing seminar about speed, technology, and social change. I also teach about the history of the U.S. West and North American Wests, environmental history, the history of technology, borders and borderlands, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, oceanic history, and American cultural landscapes, among other subjects. Learn more here.

I regularly discuss my research at academic conferences, scholarly workshops, and museum lectures. I’ve discussed my research 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:

  • I’ll present an invited paper, “They Came on Waves of Ink: Digitally Mapping Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade Networks During American Settlement, 1851–1861,” at the American Philosophical Society’s (virtual!) Brown Bag lunch series in Philadelphia, Pa. over Zoom on May 19, 2020. For Zoom meeting information, please contact Adrianna Link at
  • I’ll present an invited paper, “Settler Steamboats: Mobility, Settler Colonialism, and Steam Power in the Terraqueous Pacific Northwest, 1846–1872,” at the History of Ocean Science, Technology and Medicine working group, a part of the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, over Zoom on September 15, 2020.
  • I’ll present a paper, “Settler Steamboats: Mobility, Settler Colonialism, and Steam Power in the Terraqueous Pacific Northwest, 1846–1872,” at the Western History Association 2020 annual meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., during October 14–17, 2020, as part of a conference panel, “Mobility, Settler Colonialism, and Place in the North American West,” that I organized.
  • I’ll present on the roundtable table session, “New Directions in the Study of the Pacific West,” at the Western History Association 2020 annual meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., during October 14–17, 2020.
  • I’ll present an invited paper, “The Pacific Railroads and the Pacific Ocean: American Expansion, Asian Trade, and Terraqueous Mobility, 1869–1914,” at the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture, hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, in Boston, Mass., on a TBD date during AY2020-2021. (This event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

See my full list of speaking engagements here.

At Princeton, I’ve served as the Graduate History Association’s professional development officer, as coordinator for 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.