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.

New Acquisitions, Summer 2021

By: Brian Wright, with Benjamin Bollinger ’21, Katie Bushman ’22, Jacquelyn Davila ’22, Noa Greenspan ’23, Connor McGoldrick ’21, and Joe Ort ’21

The Princeton Collections of the American West continue to expand––the materials below, all purchased in 2021 and digitized for viewing anywhere in the world, complement Princeton’s strengths in Native American material and nineteenth century photography. Princeton undergraduates investigated each acquisition’s background and subjects to improve the Princeton University Library’s catalog records and suggest potential research avenues. The Spring 2021 seminar, “Archiving the American West,” taught by Professor of History Martha Sandweiss, in collaboration with Curator of Western Americana Gabriel Swift and Ph.D. Candidate Brian Wright, culminated in an online library exhibition showcasing the students’ work on other under-researched material in the collections.

Click the title of each item/collection to view finding aids and the digitized material.

Nellie Martin Wade, “Through Interior Alaska on Horseback and the Scenic Coast Route,” Manuscript Book Draft (1907)

“This territory, much of which is practically unknown, is too vast to be described in one small volume … There is something in Alaska for every one and it is big enough for all.” So writes Nellie Martin Wade, who claimed to be the “first woman to explore the Great Shushitna Valley and the Mt. McKinley Range” in the early twentieth century. Wade’s manuscript account, intended for publication but never published, provides a detailed glimpse of the Alaskan interior in the years after the Klondike Gold Rush. Tucked in the back of the book is a photograph of the author mounted on a fold-out paper stand, inscribed “To My dear Girl, from Aunt Nell.” While Princeton University librarians date the manuscript to 1907, this portrait is dated June 1928, suggesting that Wade gifted the book draft to a relative or friend much later in life.

A semi-wealthy tourist from Seattle, Wade describes in the manuscript’s 200-plus pages her journey through the extreme environments, abandoned mining villages, and indigenous settlements of the Manatuska-Susitna Valley. For example, she writes in detail about the boomtown of Eyake, which was nonexistent six weeks before her arrival in summer, reportedly contained fourteen saloons and a secondhand store at the time Wade visited, and had completely vanished again when she returned on her way back to Seattle in October.

The lengthy book draft would be of significant interest to scholars researching both the natural and human history of Alaska during a transition period, between the rapid changes of the Klondike Gold Rush and the coming of large-scale oil extraction in the 1920s. The work is also notable because so few white women were traveling through this country at the time; her perspective in that time and place were truly unique. While Wade exhibits surprising scientific literacy on Alaska’s glaciation and an eye for detailed landscapes, her romantic depictions of Alaska as a “new frontier” also strike the reader:

Alaska scenes do not fade when one has left its shores … oftimes there drifts into the mind a dream of beauty that seems almost heavenly and we awake from a reverie with a yearning desire to again linger on Alaska’s peaceful shores …

William Ridings, Diary of Military Service in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory (1867-1870)

This nearly 200-page pocket diary, kept by U.S. Army Sergeant William Ridings during his time in Minnesota and Dakota Territory in the late 1860s, offers a portrait of military life in the West at a time of major change: from the mass conscription of the Civil War to a leaner, more professionalized force for territorial conquest out West; and from a U.S. government policy of relative autonomy for equestrian Plains tribes to an all-out war for their ancestral homelands. Like most soldiers, Ridings mostly concerned himself—and his diary—with what was right in front of him: the daily drills, periodic inspections, guard duty, cleaning tasks, and frequent dress parades of regimental life. Ridings is unafraid to critique aspects of military life that he found distasteful: ill-disciplined soldiers, widespread drunkenness, and some of his peers’ decisions to desert entirely.

From constructing and supplying forts to repairing public bridges, Riding demonstrates that U.S. Army grunts were more than just soldiers; they built much of the infrastructure that facilitated westward expansion. Not only did the soldiers repair bridges as they traveled through the landscape and patched the roofs in Fort Abercrombie; they also took on more traditionally gendered tasks like cooking and cleaning.

Historians of the American military, especially out West, will find this diary a decidedly un-romantic record of everyday soldier life in a turbulent region undergoing rapid transformations.

John P. Soule, Photograph Album of the Aftermath of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889

The Occidental Hotel along 1st Avenue in downtown Seattle, destroyed by the fire of June 6, 1889. From the Soule album. Courtesy Princeton University Library.

A photograph album containing twenty-eight photographs by John P. Soule, illustrating the destruction of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and its aftermath. The first seventeen photographs capture the fresh ruins of Seattle’s business district that June, showing the immediate damage to specific buildings. By contrast, the last eleven photographs focus on the recovery efforts of July, portraying tents full of businesses and restaurants (over 100 within one month of the fire) that remained up and running as the city was being rebuilt. Soule may have arranged this album to tell a chronological story of urban renewal, taking the viewer from the destruction of June to the resilience of July.

Tent structures along the docks of Puget Sound illustrate the city’s initial efforts to rebuild downtown. July, 1889. Courtesy Princeton University Library.

This album would be of great value to historians researching Soule’s career as a regional photographer and to explore the history of urban growth, destruction, and renewal in the West. As an obscure piece of Soule’s work, it fits into his and the American public’s lasting taste for disaster imagery––Soule also photographed Portland, Maine’s Great Fire of 1866 and Boston’s Great Fire of 1872, in addition to publishing 1866 photographs from war-torn Charleston, South Carolina. By the summer of 1889 Soule was already well-established as a photographer and publisher, known for his stereographic views and photographs of famous paintings (many examples of these formats are available in the Library of Congress’s Soule holdings). Initial research suggests that some of the images in this album were used in other formats, sold by Soule and others, in the decades to come. Researchers might consult a similar album held by the University of Washington that points to

Some affiliations for scholars to investigate might be Soule’s early partnership with sculptor John Rogers; his relationship to photographers George Curtiss, George Barnard, Martin Mason Hazeltine, and James W. Campbell; and that to his own brother William Stinson Soule, a photographer of the West (especially Oklahoma and Kansas) who also took over Soule Photograph Company in 1882.

Researchers might also complement Soule’s album with Princeton’s collection of Seattle photographs from the period: one 1898 stereograph from the Keystone Views Company depicts the steamer Rosalie departing for the Klondike Gold Rush, another 1900 stereograph from Underwood & Underwood Publishers depicts the rebuilt and busy docks of Seattle, and a third album of images collected by Norman Selfe shows the Washington-area from roughly 1880 to 1884.

Sarah Goodspeed Papers, 1913-1915

The Sarah Goodspeed papers present a substantial personal archive of a white female missionary who spent time on the Crow Reservation in Pryor, Montana in the 1910s. The Goodspeed papers will allow researchers to explore Indigenous resistance to government-mandated cultural destruction, the emergence of religious syncretism on Indian reservations, and the changing status of (white) women in the early twentieth century. Hired in 1912 as a teacher for the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, Sarah Asenath Goodspeed lived and worked among the Crow nation in Pryor and, over the years, developed an ambivalent perspective on the plight of her Indian students.

Goodspeed’s collection includes a Phrase Book, letters and postcards addressed to family and colleagues, personal notes, poems, and checks, newspaper articles and essays, photographs, and notecards describing Crow cultural objects. Goodspeed’s documents date from a Phrase Book entry in February 1913, her second year on the Crow reservation, to a newspaper article from May 1944, long after she had left Montana for the American South.

A missionary and interpreter baptizing “The Old Corn Woman,” according to Goodspeed’s caption on the reverse. Courtesy Princeton University Library.

Goodspeed’s correspondence, photographs, and collected ephemera reveal the moral conflicts at the heart of missionary work in the West. She was capable of great sympathy for the plight of the Crows, and counseled her colleagues in more gentle techniques of conversion and education; and yet she could also use degrading and stereotypical language to describe Crow children and their parents. She witnessed time and again how Crow families adapted to their new reality on the reservation, blending traditional beliefs and practices with the mandates of the missionaries. Through Goodspeed’s personal journal entries, letters, and collection of newspaper articles and photographs, scholars can explore a critical transition period for both an Indigenous tribe adapting to life on a reservation and for women like Goodspeed who gained social autonomy through mission work.

John Frippo Brown Papers, 1873-1875

A page from the notebook of the John Frippo Brown papers, showing the typically haphazard note-taking style. Courtesy Princeton University Library.

The papers of John Frippo Brown, the last chief of the Seminole nation before Oklahoma statehood in 1907, present a collection of ledgers and inventories in addition to scraps of poetry, tintype photographs, instructions for remedies and brews, and Mvskoke translations. As such, the papers contain valuable cultural information about Seminole politics, medicinal practices, and Mvskoke linguistics. As a prominent politician, Brown negotiated with other leaders of the Seminole community for decades. As a successful businessperson, he involved himself in sales of all kinds. As the father of twelve and a minister, he reckoned with family and faith. And as a leader of a Native American tribe with past ties to slavery, Brown ushered the nation through a difficult reckoning of its racial past and future. Elements of all of these roles appear in the papers.

One of the four tintype photographs in the John Frippo Brown papers. The man on the left appears to be John Frippo Brown, and initial research suggests the man on the right is Cesar Bruner, a Seminole Freedman who crossed paths with Brown in business and politics. Courtesy Princeton University Library.

One research lead that may prove most interesting to scholars of Seminole freedmen is a tintype photograph apparently showing Brown standing next to a Black man, almost certainly a Seminole freedman. Initial research suggests the man may be Cesar Bruner, a prominent freedman interpreter for the Seminoles who may have crossed paths with Brown in business and in dealings with the federal government. The two men in the tintype stand with dignity, equals for at least a moment––what kinds of stories might emerge from these men and their relationship?

Other entries translate traditional Mvskoke medicines and healing rituals, and note Mvskoke phrases and their apparent pronunciation. In contrast to the subsistence farming practiced by many Seminoles, Brown and his brother Andrew amassed what one historian has called a “financial empire” built on “commerce, industry, and agriculture.” The Brown papers seem to provide an accountant’s perspective into the complex workings of this unique outfit. Apparently, John and Andrew Brown would issue scrip for annuity payments awarded to each Seminole citizen, which was only redeemable at stores they owned. Numerous scribbles and scratch-outs attest to somewhat haphazard bookkeeping.

An undated postcard depicting a group of men in front of the Wewoka Trading Company, the first store in Wewoka, Indian Territory. John F. Brown and his brother Jackson purchased the store in 1880. Courtesy Gilcrease Museum.

The John Brown papers suggest some of the ways that personal and family archives help explain or obscure the lives of their keepers.