My scholarly research critically examines human relationships with space and place, unsettling dominant narratives to show U.S. history as as global, indigenous, and contingent.
My book project, 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, 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.
Early-nineteenth-century Americans regarded the Northwest as impossibly remote, locked behind impenetrable mountains and thousands of miles by sea from East Coast ports. But less than a hundred years later, Americans celebrated the Northwest as the nation’s “gateway to the Orient,” where port cities like Seattle and Tacoma linked continental and oceanic trade networks, opening the United States to the Pacific World. Steam technology enabled Americans to conjure—and then to realize—this vision. But to do so, American settlers repeatedly displaced indigenous peoples, pushing them away from the region’s best harbors, and dramatically remodeled coastal areas, transforming gentle shorelines into working waterfronts. Ocean Fever is a cultural, technological, and environmental history that details how an enduring American obsession with Asian trade fueled westward expansion and shaped the Pacific Northwest as a maritime commercial center across more than two hundred years. In doing so, it presents a novel explanation for why the United States became a continental nation.
Americans believed the Pacific Northwest would serve as an entrepôt for Asian trade. Western visions of lucrative trade with Asia are older than the United States itself—indeed, these expectations defined European engagement with the so-called New World from its very beginnings. Christopher Columbus sailed west believing he would reach Asia, and his was the first of dozens of European expeditions that sought the mythic Northwest Passage, a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For centuries, the Pacific Northwest occupied a prominent place in European imaginations as a possible location for the Northwest Passage. Americans were intellectual heirs to this belief and the search for a shorter, faster path to Asia inspired Americans from Lewis and Clark to the builders of the transcontinental railroads. While Americans saw potential in many Pacific Coast harbors, the Pacific Northwest is where their interest in trade with Asia has its longest history and took its most complete form.
As a coastal region, the Pacific Northwest balances between the Pacific Ocean and the North American continent. Ocean Fever uses a terraqueous perspective, emphasizing the ways that terrestrial and aqueous spaces intertwine. Instead of seeing the coastline as marginal, a terraqueous view emphasizes connections between land and water—both the physical connections that manifest in harbors, ships, and wharves, and larger narrative connections between continental and oceanic histories. Scholars generally describe American westward expansion in terrestrial terms—as a series of land acquisitions—but Ocean Fever demonstrates that American settlers also understood westward expansion as a terraqueous process, in which western lands enabled Americans to access the Pacific Ocean.
Steam technology gave Americans a way to imagine the Pacific Northwest as ripe with commercial potential. Americans believed that transcontinental railroads would link the Atlantic World with the Pacific Ocean, and that transpacific steamships would bring valuable Asian commodities to American shores, together forming a technological Northwest Passage. Puget Sound, the inland sea at the heart of the Pacific Northwest, was the key to this vision. Its port cities would become nodes in a new global trade network, where ships and trains would exchange passengers, mail, and freight. Unlike European colonization in the Atlantic World, which occurred during the age of sail and an era of merchant capitalism, steam power and industrial capitalism shaped American interaction with the Pacific World. Ocean Fever is partly the story of how a technology central to the nineteenth century shaped a particular region.
But building these connections meant radically altering the Pacific Northwest. American settlers saw the Northwest’s geography as a resource that could be improved to maximize its profitability. European and American explorers had praised the Northwest’s naturally deep harbors, but American settlers dramatically transformed coastal environments to accommodate the commercial infrastructure of industrialized shipping, by filling tidelands, dredging channels, and building wharves. At the same time, they blasted tunnels and erected trestles to bring rail lines through nearby mountain passes and down to tidewater. By physically reshaping the Pacific Northwest, American settlers both adapted the terraqueous environment to serve their commercial goals and imposed a new geography that privileged steam-powered mobility over other means of connection.
American engagement with Asia rested on repeated displacement of indigenous peoples. Native people in the Pacific Northwest had long used canoes, which were faster and more maneuverable than the first settlers’ sailing vessels, to sustain regional connections. Americans used steamboats to gain control over indigenous territory and local trade, even as canoe technology helped native peoples to delay American consolidation. The first treaties transferred indigenous territory—both land and water—to the United States, and American officials grouped native peoples onto reservations to open corridors for global trade. By the late nineteenth century, steam connections increasingly altered the Northwest’s population, with railroads carrying immigrants from the East Coast and Europe and steamships landing immigrants from Asia. Amidst these demographic changes, expanding port cities continued to eat into indigenous territory, while settlers co-opted indigenous imagery to define themselves and the region, obscuring real native people in the process.
Ultimately, Ocean Fever explains how steam technology enabled the spatial practices of American empire, shaping the Pacific Northwest’s regional development and cultural geography, while the book’s terraqueous perspective changes how we understand larger stories in American history, from westward expansion to urban development to global engagement.
By revealing the terraqueous 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 was 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 continuing to use maps and data visualizations to explore the stories contained within. The American Society for Legal History awarded this project the 2020 Mary L. Dudziak Digital Legal History Prize. More information is available on the project page.
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.
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. (This project is very much on the back burner, at least right now.) 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.
As a graduate student at Princeton, my article, “Native Americans, Military Science, and Ambivalence on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1853–1855,” was awarded 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.