The Transcription Project: Adventures in Western Americana

Last summer, Princeton University researchers set out to transcribe and explore some of the Princeton Collections of the American West’s under-catalogued nineteenth-century manuscripts.

Professor of History Martha A. Sandweiss and Curator of Western Americana Gabriel Swift were awarded a 2020 Rapid Response Grant from the Princeton University Humanities Council to transcribe these manuscripts for better access and research potential. Three graduate students from the Princeton History Department—Poorvi BellurKate Carpenter, and Brian Wright—transcribed, annotated, and researched the manuscripts.

A pencil sketch from the 1854 journals of Thomas Adams, surveyor, explorer, and U.S. Indian Agent in the Pacific Northwest during the mid-nineteenth century. Journal; Thomas Adams Papers, C1452, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Their work culminated in a Princeton University Library exhibition, Rose Early, Grass Scarce: Writing the Journey into the Nineteenth Century American West, which highlighted the collection’s most noteworthy content and explored how the team brought these stories to life. Within the exhibition, you can access digitized files of the manuscript material and read annotated transcriptions of the journals and correspondence.

A hand-colored lithograph pasted into Daniel Gano’s scrapbook illustrating the ethnic and racial diversity of the “49ers” of California. Lithograph produced by Kelloggs & Comstock, 1849-1852. Daniel Gano Gold Rush Scrapbook, C1398, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

These little-read items, ranging from overland diaries to California Gold Rush letters to Native American treaty minutes, offer glimpses of the nineteenth century’s charged encounters between white settlers and the many peoples they encountered out West. A young man from Cincinnati describes a nightmarish race war amidst the diggings of the Sierra Nevada; a U.S. Indian Agent navigates the complexities of language, culture, and politics at the heart of Indian treaty negotiations; and a clerk stationed in Civil War-era New Mexico wonders if his country can solve chattel slavery and its “Indian problem” all at once.

A page from the diary of William Need, a clerk stationed at Fort Wingate, New Mexico during the Civil War. The author of this diary was unknown when Princeton acquired it; the Transcription Project team was able to triangulate the author’s biography, location, and handwriting with other manuscript sources to confirm Need’s identity. New Mexico Civil War Journal, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

We hope that the annotated transcriptions will help scholars of the region explore both classic and new themes, from cartography and military conflict to racialization and Native American politics.