Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade

This project uses digital mapping and network analysis to explore the role of maritime commerce in American settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest was born from the sea. Euro-Americans first became interested in the region as the likely location of the Northwest Passage, a mythic all-water route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, which would have carried sailing ships between Europe and Asia. This dream succumbed to geographic reality in the early nineteenth century, but was soon reincarnated in the 1840s by railroad promoters, who argued that a rail line across North America could act as a technological substitute for the Northwest Passage. The United States quickly worked to acquire and survey Pacific Coast harbors, where transcontinental steam-powered trains could connect with transpacific steam-powered ships.

"They Came on Waves of Ink: Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement" uses digital mapping and network analysis to explore the role of maritime commerce in American settlement of the Pacific Northwest. This project centers on a handwritten ledger kept by U.S. Customs officials. In 1851, the United States created a new customs district covering Puget Sound, the inland sea at the heart of the Pacific Northwest, as part of the nation’s territorial expansion to the Pacific Coast. The ledger’s 150 pages cover the district’s first decade and are rich with data: Officials recorded the dates a vessel arrived and departed Puget Sound, along with its name, nationality, tonnage, type, place built, registration, inbound and outbound ports, captain, crew, cargo, and passengers. This project pairs network analysis visualizations with regional and hemispheric maps to chart how maritime trade networks, passenger flows, and cargo volumes changed over this decade. In doing so, "They Came on Waves of Ink" shows how maritime connections supported American settlement of indigenous territory, shaped the Pacific Northwest’s emerging borders, and enabled American engagement with the Pacific World.