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.

Lost In Translation: Glass Plate Negatives by Charles F. Lummis

Lummis-3   Lummis-2

Photographs of the American West and its inhabitants are a particular strength of the Western Americana Collection, and nearly 7,000 images have been digitized for inclusion in the Princeton University Digital Library. Recently, a box containing twenty 8 x 10 and 5 x 8 glass plate negatives by Charles F. Lummis were digitized for preservation purposes. The library holds over 100 prints by Lummis (available here), and a few of the glass plate negatives are represented in the print collection. The level of detail revealed in the negatives versus the prints is striking. Above are two similar images from a sitting in 1896 (notice the basket in the lower left corner is from a slightly different perspective). In the albumen print, the magazine cover is illegible, while the glass plate negative clearly reveals the title and date: Land of Sunshine: A Southern California Magazine. November, 1895.


The Land of Sunshine: A Southern California Magazine. November, 1895.

The magazine choice was far from arbitrary: Lummis began serving as editor of Land of Sunshine in 1895 (a position he would hold until 1909). While the publication began in 1894 as a promotional magazine for southern California commerce, Lummis quickly expanded the scope to include ethnographic studies of Native Americans. Lummis also refashioned Land of Sunshine after eastern literary magazines, publishing works by Mary Hunter Austin, Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and John Muir, and he expanded the geographic scope of the publication to include the entire West (the magazine was later titled Out West).

A profile view from the same photo session, titled “A Tigua Maiden,” provides an opportunity for a direct comparison between plate number 691 and a corresponding print.

Lummis-4  Lummis-1

A second direct comparison can be made from plate number 661, titled “Desiderio, The Tigua War-Captain,”  taken in 1895.

Lummis-15  Lummis-War

All of the recently scanned Lummis glass plate negatives are scheduled for inclusion in the digital library after the metadata is compiled. In the meantime, below is a set of select images.

Select Bibliography:

Gale, Robert L. “Lummis, Charles Fletcher.” American National Biography Online, 2000.

Watts, Jennifer A. “Photography in the Land of Sunshine: Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Regional Ideal.” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Winter 2005-2006) , pp. 339-376.

Walt Whitman’s Railroad Journey West Goes Online

Manuscript notes made by Walt Whitman during a four-month railway journey through the West have been digitized and are now available online in the Princeton University Digital Library:


—plains—plains—plains / the dug-outs / antelope / the Prairie-Dog / emigrant wagons camped for the night / The vast stretching plains hundreds of miles area / the buffalo grass / the yellow wild flowers / the clear, pure, cool, rarified air (over 3000 ft above / sea level) / the dry rivers.

According to his notes, Whitman began his journey on 10 September 1879 and arrived back on the East Coast on 5 January 1880.  The fragments record his first impressions from the “vast stretching plains” of Kansas to the “wooded & rocky land” of Pennsylvania. The journey filled him with “exhaustless recollections,” as he describes in the final leaves. Yet Whitman was unable to extend his trip beyond Colorado, and he noted plans for additional travel to the West Coast:


“I did not go through to San Francisco, though I hope to do so one of these days.  Indeed I have a good deal of travel laid out; (among the rest Tennessee and Alabama).”

The notes were donated to the Princeton University Library by Philip Ashton Rollins, Class of 1889 and founder of the Western Americana Collection.  The donation was noted in the first issue of the library newsletter, Biblia, which included a full transcription of the fragments:

Rollins collected a wide range of materials relating to the development of the American West, and two of his principal collecting passions were overland narratives and cowboys.  Whitman’s poetic fragments beautifully capture both:


“The cowboys (‘cow / punchers’) to me / a wonderfully interesting class—clear & swarthy complexion—with / broad brimmed hats—their / loose arms always slightly / raised & swinging as they ride—their / splendid eyes—(Fra Diavolo  / and his men in the opera) / –a herd of horses / numbering 200.”

The Wild West Comes to Princeton

Printed on verso: "Pawnee Bill in Princeton. May 15th 1899.  The Indians."

Printed on Verso: “Pawnee Bill in Princeton. May 15th 1899. The Indians.”

Gordon William Lillie, better known as Pawnee Bill, began his entertainment career in “Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show” serving as the interpreter and coordinator for the Pawnee Indians.  While on tour in Philadelphia, Gordon met May Manning, whom he married two years later, and May’s parents convinced Gordon to venture out with his own western show.  His first attempt in 1888, “Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show,” proved to be a financial failure. His second attempt in 1899, however, “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West, Indian Museum, and Encampment,” found greater success.

The Historic Wild West Comes to Town

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 10.42.21 AMOn May 15, 1899, Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West was set to perform in Princeton.  Leading up to the event, the Daily Princetonian ran several advertisements highlighting the coming extravaganza.  An illustrated advertisement on May 6 mentions a reorganized, rearranged, improved, and augmented show presenting  1,000 men, women, horses, Indians, and soldiers with performances to be held at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., as well as a Grand Street Display (a parade on Nassau Street) at 10:00 a.m.  A May 9 advertisement describing an earlier performance in Charleston, South Carolina, provides a glimpse of the action to come (including a mention of May’s shooting):

The combined shows of Pawnee Bill which exhibited here [Charleston] yesterday is first-class in every respect: as a life-like portrayal of savage modes, it has no equals …. The performances of the trained animals were excellent, and equal to any every exhibited in this city.  May Lillie’s shooting is wonderful, and the riding and driving of 35 wild mustangs are all grand features.  The wild buffaloes and long-horned Texas steers, the grand Mexican Hippodrome races, by senors and senoritas, are most wonderful and exciting.

A Bloody Riot on Nassau Street

While various newspaper accounts of the activities on May 15 differ slightly, all report that the Grand Street Display did not go well.  According to an article that ran the following day in the New York Times, “Princeton Students Riot, Attack Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Combination,” the town had an unwritten law which forbid touring parades from proceeding on the streets of Princeton, and “it had been a matter of common knowledge in the [touring] profession that the students would enforce the unwritten law.”  With the Grand Street Display set to go forward as advertised, a large group of students, reported as 600-700, had gathered on Nassau Street that morning to meet the parade, and several of the students welcomed the performers by slinging mud, eggs, potatoes, and firecrackers.  The firecrackers startled the horses which caused a brief run-away wagon until one of the lead horses fell.  The procession continued down Nassau Street, but unfortunately, the parade route was a loop, and on the second trip through the gauntlet of flying produce, the cowboys and Indians began to “use their whips freely” and the stung students replaced their harmless projectiles with stones.  The scene soon escalated into a full and deadly skirmish:

Then the cowboys and Indians retaliated.  Some of them drew their revolvers and began to fire, but they either used blank cartridges or fired over the heads of the crowd.  Others, however, unslung their lassoes and used them as whips. Some of the Mexican or South American cowboys unslung their bolas and used these with great effect, the leaden-covered ends being exceeding effective.  The cowboys charged the crowd several times and rode down those who could not get out of the way.  In this manner Elwood Dillon, a colored man, was knocked down, kicked in the head by a pony and his skull fractured.

As the fighting continued, the wagons were driven rapidly down Nassau Street to safety. The horses of a speeding stage-coach, “Fort Sill,” can be seen entering the frame of the following photograph, appropriately titled “Fort Sill Stage-Coach Runs Away.”

Printed on Verso: "Pawnee Bill in Princeton. May 15th 1899. The Fort Sill stage-coach runs away."

Printed on Verso: “Pawnee Bill in Princeton. May 15th 1899. The Fort Sill stage-coach runs away.”

Along with Elwood Dillon, several students and performers were injured and bruised in the pitched battle on Nassau Street, and the unfortunate seriousness of the event required action from the university:

The students were preparing for a lively time to-night when this afternoon President Patton summoned every member of the university to attend a mass meeting.  He forbade them to go to the circus to-night, and said that if any student disobeyed him it would be at the student’s peril.  Major Lilli [sic], owner of the show, was present and made a speech, which aided in pouring oil on troubled waters.

Pawnee Bills Wild West Show lives on today in annual reenactments on the last three Saturdays of June at the historic Pawnee Bill Ranch in Oklahoma: Pawnee Bill Ranch.

The photographs of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show on Nassau Street are part of the Western Americana Photography Collection, which houses more than 10,000 photographs pertaining to the American West.  Nearly 7,000 images in the collection are available online in the Princeton University Digital Library.  Below is a gallery of related Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill photographs from the collection.


Brown, Erin Glanville. “Pawnee Bill (Gordon William Lillie, 1860-1942).” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. (accessed June 27, 2013).

“Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West.” Daily Princetonian. May 6 and May 9, 1899. (accessed June 27, 2013).

“Princeton Students Riot. They Attack Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Combination.” New York Times. May 16, 1899. (accessed June 27, 2013).

The Early Press in New Mexico

Lista de los Ciudadanos que Deberan Componer los Jurados de Imprenta, Formada por el Ayuntamiento de esta Capital, Santa Fe, 1834. Gift of J. M. Thorington, Class of 1915.

The earliest surviving imprint of the press in what is now New Mexico is this broadside: “List of the Citizens Who May Serve As Jurors on Trials on the Press, Made for the Council of the Capital.”  It was printed on the “Press of Roman Abreu in Charge of Jesus Maria Baca” and is dated August 14, 1834.  The document reflects the 1828 Mexican law passed to protect the freedom of the press and citizens against libel.  Lawsuits concerning the press were to be heard by jurors chosen by the municipal councils of every town that supported a newspaper.  New Mexico, since its first European settlements in 1598, had seen little need for a press; but the changes wrought by Mexican independence in 1821 and the opening of the Santa Fe Trail to the Anglo-American settlements in the United States quickly made a press and its attendant dangers a necessity.

For a detailed account of the Lista de los Ciu­dadanos… broadside, see:

Boyd, E. “The First New Mexico Imprint.” Princeton University Library Chronicle Volume XXXIII, No. 1 (Autumn 1971): 30-40.