Sean Fraga stands on a bulkhead, looking out to sea on an overcast day, with a rainbow in the background.

Welcome!

I’m Sean Fraga. I’m an interdisciplinary historian of the North American West and Pacific Ocean. I study links between coastal environments, U.S. territorial expansion, Native sovereignty, and technology, primarily during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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. My award-winning research has been published in Western Historical Quarterly, Current Research in Digital History, and a special issue of Mobilities on settler colonialism. My writing has also appeared in The Washington Post and The Panorama.

I’m presently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow with the Humanities in a Digital World program at the University of Southern California. In August 2022, I’ll begin as an assistant professor (teaching) in USC’s Environmental Studies Program, part of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I hold a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University and received my B.A. in American Studies, with distinction, from Yale University. You can view my full C.V. here.

My digital humanities projects draw on digital mapping, augmented reality, 3D modeling, data visualization, and text mining. I’m the project director for Booksnake, a new scholarly iPhone and iPad app for viewing digitized archival materials in augmented reality—making it feel as if a scanned map or newspaper is really sitting on your real-world desk.


Research

An image of research materials on a desk. An early twentieth century illustrated pamphlet, titled "A Visit to China," sits on top of a brown paper sleeve, which has a library call slip attached. The edge of a laptop is visible at left.
A snapshot of my recent research at the Huntington Library.

My scholarly research critically examines human relationships with space, place, and the more-than-human world. My work aims to unsettle dominant narratives in order to show how U.S. history is both and global and Indigenous. My current research focuses on how steam power catalyzed and structured U.S. expansion across North America and the Pacific Ocean.

In my book project, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound, I argue that that American settlers used steam-powered ships and railroads to claim the Pacific Northwest and reshape it as a maritime commercial center in pursuit of trade with Asia. But in the process, American settlers dramatically altered coastal environments and repeatedly displaced Native peoples. Today, Coast Salish Tribal nations around Puget Sound are leveraging their marine sovereignty to shape the region’s future. Ocean Fever explains how steam technology enabled the spatial practices of American empire, changing how we understand larger stories in American history, from westward expansion to urban development to global engagement. Hear me discuss this research with Bill Deverell, Director of the USC–Huntington Institute on California and the West.

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.


Writing

An issue of the Western Historical Quarterly, open to the title page of an article by Sean Fraga. The article title is "'An Outlet to the Western Sea': Puget Sound, Terraqueous Mobility, and Northern Pacific Railroad's Pursuit of Trade with Asia, 1864–1892"

Books

  • Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound. Under contract with Yale University Press for publication in the Lamar Series in Western History.

Articles

Invited contributions

Book reviews

Other writing


Teaching

A blackboard covered with hashtags written in chalk. Each hashtag summarizes part of Woodrow Wilson's 1912 presidential campaign platform. Hashtags read, for example, "What About the Women," "Unregulated Competition," "Break Up the Trusts," "Distribution of Prosperity."
#BreakUpTheTrusts! My students and I used hashtags to summarize the campaign platforms of the four U.S. presidential candidates in the 1912 election. Hashtags for Woodrow Wilson are shown above. Note especially “#WhatAboutTheWomen,” reflecting Wilson’s opposition to female suffrage at that point in his career.

My teaching investigates how power works. My students learn to interrogate political, economic, social, and cultural power dynamics, and to understand themselves as actors within those structures. My background as a queer scholar has acquainted me with the challenges faced by students who feel they don’t belong in academic settings. I am committed to welcoming all students, emphasizing their ability to learn and grow, and supporting their success in the classroom and beyond.

At U.S.C., I developed the seminar “Pacific Beaches in the American Imagination.” Students often imagine beaches as places for play and relaxation. But in this course, we learn to critically investigate beaches as places shaped by race, gender, class, colonialism, and human interactions with the environment. Students assemble a Pacific Playlist of songs that sound like the Pacific Ocean and contribute essays to Pacific Postcards, a collection of primary sources related to Pacific Worlds.

My teaching areas include U.S. history, the North American West, environmental history, borders and borderlands, oceanic history, digital humanities, the history of technology, infrastructure studies, urban and suburban history, spatial history, and historical research methods. With Andy Rutkowski, I teach a summer workshop in spatial humanities and digital mapping.


Speaking

Sean Fraga speaks at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City in October 2019. He is gesturing to an image of the golden spike ceremony in 1869, marking the completion of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad.
In October 2019, I gave a talk entitled “The Forgotten History of the Transcontinental Railroads,” at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.

I’ve been invited to discuss my research at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, the American Philosophical Society, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, among others.

I’m always interested in collaborating with other scholars on conference proposals. If you’re interested in having me join a panel, visit your class, or speak at your institution, please get in touch: sfraga@usc.edu.

Follow me on Twitter for periodic updates about future engagements, or see my C.V. for the full list of past events.

Upcoming events

  • “Whistling in the Dark: Steamboat Pilots and Navigational Labor in Puget Sound, 1870–1920,” European Society for Environmental History conference, Bristol, United Kingdom, July 2022.
  • “Booksnake: An Augmented Reality Interface for Embodied Interaction with Digitized Archival Materials,” Critical Data Practices Symposium, Stanford Humanities Center and Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), Stanford University, October 2022.
  • “Dispossession at an Edge of Empire: Puget Sound Wharves as Imperial and Settler Colonial Infrastructure,” Organization of American Historians conference (virtual session), Los Angeles, Spring 2023.

Digital Humanities

A hand holds an iPhone above a desk. Nothing is on the desk surface. The phone screen displays an archival map superimposed on the desk surface.
Booksnake is a new scholarly iPhone and iPad app that lets you bring digitized archival materials into the real world, and interact with them as if they’re physically present.

Along with traditional archival research, I use digital mapping and data visualization to unlock the stories in non-narrative sources. My Princeton dissertation was awarded the Center for Digital Humanities 2019 Dissertation Prize for “exceptional doctoral work with a digital humanities component.” My current digital humanities research focuses on geographical text analysis and augmented reality.

I’m the principal designer and project director for Booksnake, a scholarly iPhone and iPad app for viewing digitized archival materials in augmented reality. Learn more here.

I’m the primary investigator for They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61. As a postgraduate research associate with Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, I led undergraduate research assistants in transcribing a handwritten ledger of U.S. Customs data covering the Puget Sound Customs District’s first decade. I’m now using maps and data visualizations to analyze these data and explore the stories contained within. Datasets related to this project are available in my GitHub repository.

I’m a member of the Western History Association’s Technology Committee. We work to advance digital scholarship through research lightning rounds, digital drop-in sessions, and databases of digital humanities work. I’ve also served as a digital mapping project consultant for projects in preparation at Princeton, U.S.C., the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, and the Autry Museum of the American West.


Contact

Get in touch by emailing me at sfraga@usc.edu, connecting with me on academia.edu, or browsing my repositories on GitHub

You can follow me on Twitter: @seanfraga.

My pronouns are he/him. My last name is pronounced “FROG-uh.”