Dissertation Prize Winner Sean Fraga Shares Advice, Experiences

UPDATE: Since this interview was published, Fraga's project, "They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61," was awarded the 2020 Mary L. Dudziak Digital Legal History Prize by the American Society for Legal History. Congratulations, Sean!

As students approach the final weeks of the semester, we are happy to introduce the second of this year’s student prize winners (here is the first). Their projects, which combine humanistic inquiry and digital tools in intriguing ways, are sure to provide inspiration to anyone curious about the digital humanities. This week, meet 2019 dissertation prize winner Sean Fraga *19, whose work shows how historians can use DH to gain big-picture insights from archival materials.

[This interview has been edited for space.]

Tell me about your project:

My book project, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound, presents a new take on why the United States acquired and settled the North American West. I argue that the United States went west to open new trade routes into and across the Pacific Ocean.

I use Puget Sound to tell this story. I grew up on an island outside of Seattle, a port city organized around maritime trade, and my relationship with the city has always been mediated by water. Historians usually describe American expansion during the nineteenth century in terms of land—think of miners rushing for gold, or of farming families on the Oregon Trail. But these narratives underplay the importance of the Pacific Ocean.

Americans had long coveted trade with China, and steam technology gave nineteenth-century Americans a way of seeing Pacific Coast harbors as valuable places for commerce. But these new trade routes ran through Native lands and waters, and as American settlers remodeled Puget Sound around steam-powered transpacific trade, they repeatedly displaced Native peoples. Today, Coast Salish tribal nations are using treaty-reserved rights to shape the region’s commercial future.

Can you describe the DH aspect of your project? 

I started using digital methods to answer weird little research questions that I couldn’t answer any other way. But it was only as I was finishing up the dissertation that I realized I’d used digital methods in every chapter. 

When the Graduate School awarded me a Dean’s Completion Fellowship, I wanted to continue exploring DH. So I came up with a new project: I would digitize, transcribe, and map the data contained within the first U.S. Customs ledger for the Puget Sound Customs District.

This ledger is a goldmine—it offers a detailed record of the people, ships, and commodities moving through the region as American settlers began flooding in. The Center for Digital Humanities was enthusiastic about the project and awarded me a seed grant to hire two research assistants. Together, we transcribed, cross-checked, and encoded each hand-written entry—over 4,500 entries, spanning nearly a decade.

The resulting (and ongoing) project, "They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–61," reconstructs American trade networks in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean at a fine-grained level of detail. I’ve just published the first article to use this dataset: "Digitally Mapping Commercial Currents: Maritime Mobility, Vessel Technology, and U.S. Colonization of Puget Sound, 1851–1861." 

scatterplot from "Waves of Ink"
The scatterplot pictured here as part of the "Waves of Ink" project shows almost every vessel arrival or departure recorded in the ledger. You can explore an interactive version, as well.

What surprised you about doing a Digital Humanities project? 

Data is a pain! The "digital" part of "digital humanities" doesn’t just mean that you use a computer, it also means that you think like a computer. With the "Waves of Ink" project, this meant that we created two electronic documents from the ledger—a transcription that recorded each entry as accurately as possible, and a version that structured the data in a computer-readable way, so that we could map and visualize it.

DH projects also tend to be collaborative, in contrast to most traditional (analog?) humanities research. The "Waves of Ink" project wouldn’t have been possible without undergraduates Charlotte Champ and Tammy Tseng, who transcribed the data. At the CDH, Rebecca Munson and Nora Benedict offered guidance as I started this project. And Wangyal Shawa in the Lewis Science Library taught me the foundations of GIS.

This project changed how I look at sources and evaluate their potential. Before I worked with the CDH, I might have found a source like this customs ledger to be useful only for narrow, targeted research questions—the date that one particular vessel arrived in Seattle, for example. Learning DH methods has helped me see the value of sources like this for big-picture questions, ones that reach toward the aggregate rather than the specific.

What advice would you give to a graduate student interested in Digital Humanities? 

First, start small. Really small—like with a single source. It’s way easier to map 10 or even 100 points than it is to map 1,000. As with any new skill, learning to use DH software involves trial and error. Working with a single source and a smaller dataset makes the learning curve manageable, and can help you figure out whether it’s worth investing the time, energy, sweat, and tears in a project that could take months or years.

Second, experiment. I recommend Richard White’s short essay on spatial history to almost everyone who asks me about how they can get started with DH. His essay gave me the freedom to dive into DH work without knowing what I’d find or why it might be valuable. It’s always helpful to have a research question, but approaching your data with an experimentation mindset can lower the barriers to getting started.

What are you doing now? 

I’m starting a two-year Mellon postdoc with the Humanities in a Digital World Program at the University of Southern California. One of my next projects involves data-mining a large collection of texts for place names, then mapping these recorded geographies. I’m inspired by past work in this vein on government documents and historic newspapers, and I’m curious how these methods can illuminate the geographic thinking latent in other collections.

I’m also leading a new DH project at USC involving augmented reality, or AR. I can’t say much about it yet, but I’m really excited by AR’s potential for scholarly research, teaching, and publishing. This next project will open up existing digital collections—including Princeton’s—in a whole new way.

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