Research

My research focuses on places where culture, technology, and movement meet.

Current research

My future book, Ocean Fever: Steam, Trade, and the American Creation of the Terraqueous Northwest, under contract with Yale University Press for publication in the Lamar Series in Western History, argues 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.

In the nineteenth century, Pacific Coast harbors motivated American westward expansion. When Americans began settling the Northwest in the 1850s, they used legal instruments to define otherwise invisible maritime boundaries. Between 1880 and 1910, four transcontinental railroads, part of an emergent global steam-powered transportation network, built to Northwest harbors to access Pacific Ocean commerce. This trade powered urban growth, but also brought problems like congested waterfronts and unsafe watercraft, inspiring a local strand of Progressivism to manage watery spaces for public benefit. Water also sustained Seattle’s suburban growth, as developers leveraged local marine connections to build housing—steamboat suburbs—on waterfront land in nearby rural areas.

By revealing the maritime dimensions of larger stories in U.S. history, I expect this research to contribute to debates about U.S. national incorporation, borders and borderlands, U.S. engagement with the Pacific World, and urban and suburban development. As part of this research, I co-organized the 2016 Princeton American Studies graduate student conference with Julia Grummitt and Kimia Shahi, “Water and the Making of Place in North America.”

As a postgraduate research associate with Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, I’m the primary investigator for They Came on Waves of Ink: Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61. This project transcribed 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 explore the stories contained within. More information is available on the project page.


Ongoing research

I’m continuing to study maritime borders and port cities along the Pacific Coast, from Anchorage to San Diego. Port cities have served as key nodes for concentrating and mediating the movement of people, goods, ideas, and diseases across borders, and between the Pacific Ocean and the North American interior.

I’m also continuing to study the overwater West, focusing on historical connections between watercourses, technology, and American westward expansion. During the long nineteenth century, American migrants used technology to move west across North America over water, from early-national canal construction projects, to shallow-draft steamboats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, to Oregon Trail migrants fording streams.


Future research

My next project, tentatively titled The Indian Agent, is a study of settler colonialism, indigenous sovereignty, and historical memory in the Pacific Northwest. It follows Michael Simmons, an early American settler in Washington Territory and its first Indian Agent, through his work organizing the 1854–55 treaty councils at which tribal nations ceded their territory to the United States. The narrative interweaves Simmons’s work with a contemporary portrait of Pacific Northwest indigenous sovereignty, including interviews with tribal leaders, discussion of government-to-government relations, and analysis of monuments and memorials, to show the long legacy of initial acts of settler dispossession—and how contemporary tribal nations are using treaty-reserved rights to protect and advance their sovereignty.

I’m also developing Pacific Airways, a transnational, multi-ethnic history of early aviation in the Pacific World. In contrast to scholarship that places aviation development in western Europe and the eastern U.S., I’ll use aviators’ personal papers, government documents,  and historical aviation journals to show how people across the Pacific World—including the North American West, Pacific islands, and East Asia—advanced aviation technology in support of their own goals. I’m starting by researching the trans-Pacific career of Tom Gunn, an early Chinese-American aviator. Gunn was born in San Francisco, learned to fly in San Diego, spent nearly two years demonstrating aircraft in Hawai’i and the Philippines, and flew for the Republic of China after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. I’ve presented parts of this research at Temple University and Columbia University.

And I’m developing Going Up?, a cultural and labor history of elevators in cities. Elevators physically altered cities by enabling high-density construction and reshaped urban culture by imbuing elevation with new meaning. The transition from manually-operated elevators to automatic ones was fraught for elevator operators and passengers alike. My initial research will focus on how the 1945 New York City elevator operators’ strike changed public attitudes toward “driverless elevators.” The second half of the study will shift from the labor of elevation to the consumption of height. Elevators made skyscrapers possible, spurring a “race to the top” as architects and engineers competed to build taller and taller structures. Global cities saw super-skyscrapers as status architecture that could create a distinctive skyline and attract international attention and investment. This research will contribute to historical debates about connections between technology and urban development, and to contemporary debates about the impacts of technological automation on labor and on urban space.


Past research

As a graduate student at Princeton, my article, “Native Americans, Military Science, and Ambivalence on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1853–1855,” won the Friends of the Princeton University Library Prize for Outstanding Scholarship by a Graduate Student and was published in the Princeton University Library Chronicle.

As an undergraduate at Yale, my award-winning senior thesis, “‘Two Days By Plane’: America’s First Transcontinental Passenger Airline and the Selling of the Skies,” reconstructed the brief life and early death of Transcontinental Air Transport, an early passenger airline. The airline built extensive physical infrastructure, in the form of a string of airports and weather stations across the U.S. Simultaneously, it built cultural infrastructure, using iconography and practices from railroads and ocean liners to encourage the American public to see aviation as a safe, reliable method of transportation. Jean-Christophe Agnew served as the advisor for this project, and John Mack Faragher as second reader.