Sean Fraga


I am a historian of the North American West, studying connections between the environment, technology, mobility, and social change, primarily during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’m currently researching the interplay between steam power and American expansion. I’m broadly interested in empire, settler colonialism, borders and borderlands, and urbanism.

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 B.A. in American Studies, with distinction in the major, from Yale University. My book, 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 went west in order to participate in Pacific Ocean commerce. Americans interested in trade with 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 geospatial analysis 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 have shared my work at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Temple, and the Newberry Library, among others. My next few upcoming speaking engagements are:

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 graduate student mentor. Along with Julia Grummitt and Kimia Shahi, I co-organized “Water and the Making of Place in North America,” the 2016 Princeton American Studies graduate student conference.

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