Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Northwest History in Unusual Places

There is nothing I like better than finding a new archive of local history--particularly when it isn't local.

Last week I tweeted a question about European museums with collections of North American Indian cultural objects. (For a possible grant proposal, I am looking for items from Plateau tribes that were collected and taken to Europe--but that is another blog post.)  Matt Shaw suggested I look at Europeana.eu, a portal to multiple European archives.

I have not found many native objects yet, but a search for Spokane turns up over 60 records!

Ole S. Weiberg, 1910
This should not surprise us. Spokane was founded as a frontier town in an era of high European immigration to the United States. The early census records for Spokane show scores of Germans, Finns, Danes, Balkans, and other Europeans. Of course they sent letters and photographs and postcards home, and of course some of these ended up in archives. Europeana.eu makes it possible to find some of these objects. Here are a few of my favorites:

This photograph is not that evocative, but the description is full of local information. From the Norwegian via Google Translate:

Description: From the USA. Letter to Severinbrauta: "Spokane, 24.07.1910. A passion greeting from Spokane, is fresh, everything well. Has amenable their letters, is very easily discovered, to write letters when it gets a bit colder, osb Warmly greeted everyone. My Address is: 1007 West 5th Av .. From Ole S. Weiberg.

The translation could be better, but this is still a rare glimpse into the life of early Spokane immigrant. A quick Google reveals that Weiberg died in 1944 and is buried in Greenwood Memorial Terrace.

This postcard is captioned "North Channel, Upper Falls, Spokane, Washington." I have not seen this image before.

The provenance and Spokane connection to this one is a little tenuous. The translated caption idetifies this woman as Marie Lyche Halseth, "mistress of Knut Halseth (f.1860)... who was called "Gold Knut" when he did so well during the gold rush there, moreover he was a trapper."

This guy was pretty well-known in his day. Google Translate: "1898 was Olaus Jeldness winner in the "Canadian Chapionship" to jump and "The Ski Race." Note the skis that are made of oak and ganasjane ... He died in Spokane, WA... Olaus was the largest ski pioneer in Canada and North America. Much discussed in the book "The Ski Race" by Sam Wormington." Here is his biography at the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame.

This makes a point that I have made before: The digital turn is having a far greater effect on the writing of local history than of any other field of historical endeavor. Digitizing records may not teach us anything new about George Washington and his Farewell Address. The relevant documents are well-known and well-analyzed and have been so for generations. But for a relatively under-researched place like Spokane, with historic records scattered across the land, this is a revolution in our understanding.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Now THIS Guy has a Secret!

I am not sure that I buy this, but here you go:

Here is a newspaper article from the time period (of the TV show, not the assassination) "I Saw Lincoln Shot." Seymour died in 1956.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

National Preservation Conference Almost Here!

Beyond Boundaries: The National Preservation Conference is coming to Spokane in just a few weeks. The event takes place October 31st to November 3rd. This is a big conference--as the program will attest--and includes everything from education sessions and workshops to field trips and a powwow.

Of course, the must-see session of the conference is the following Power Session which will take place Thursday, November 1 from 12:30-1:00pm at the Spokane Convention Center Ballroom Exhibit Hall:

Using Mobile Interpretation to Strengthen Preservation Communities This session will highlight the way two communities, Cleveland and Spokane, are using smart phone mobile tours to promote historic preservation. Includes a demonstration of the Spokane Historical app. Presenter: Larry Cebula,Washington State Archives and Eastern Washington University.

I want to point out one conference innovation that could be copied elsewhere. Priya Chhaya, the Online Content Coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has created pre-confernce reading lists for some of the sessions, to give newcomers to a particular topic a grounding in the literature and issues. Click through and check these out:
 I particularly like the reading list for historic preservation and public lands, which begins with a Wallace Stegner letter and includes case law and some articles on specific conflicts. And the Stories of Place reading list also includes a comments section where the public can leave questions for the panelists. More conferences should do this.

If you cannot come to Spokane--well, why can't you?! I guess you will have to follow the conference at home. The Twitter hashtag is #PRESCONF and the the National Trusts tweets as PresNation. There is also the excellent National Trust blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

WHA Conference Wrap Up

I did not get a lot better in Denver, so the last day-and-a-half of the conference featured a few sessions, some sniffly sightseeing, and Pay-Per-View and room service. Cowboys and Aliens is better than you think--or maybe that was the NyQuil?

We got your New Western History right here.

A few highlights, as best as I can recall them:
  • The session Public History, Western Spaces was quite good. Melissa Bingmann did a terrific paper on Pipe Spring National Monument and the Beehive House, both of which have often featured interpretations that scrubbed any mentions of polygamy from the histories of the sites. Zac Robinson demonstrated that that Botanist-Explorer David Douglas almost certainly fabricated his storied 1827 ascent of mounts Brown and Hooker in the Canadian Rockies.
  • The Frontier Goes Global: the Wild West in Europe was a terrific session that compared the legacy of William F. Cody in Italy, Germany and England. There were all sorts of wonderful nuggets, such as that the Italians focused on the clothing of the performance, while the Germans were fascinated by the Indians.
  • I spent a lot of time in the exhibit hall. At history conferences the exhibit hall is devoted largely to book publishers, and my God there are a lot of good books coming out. I bought Laurie Arnold's Bartering With the Bones of Their Dead
  • I made a visit to the Molly Brown house--a museum that used to be the home of the "unsinkable" Titanic survivor and noted philanthropist. Public History has ruined me for such simple pleasures as visiting a house museum, I am forever grading the presentation. My tour guide was very good--quite animated and a natural storyteller. The tour however focused on biography and wallpaper, and did not connect Brown's fascinating life to the big historic themes of her times.
  • Finally, I squeezed in a quick visit to the wonderful Denver Art Museum. I could spend a week there. 
Now I am back in Spokane, suddenly well and playing the usual post-conference catch up of emails and teaching and etc. Regular blogging will resume shortly.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

WHA Conference Day 2, Generic NyQuil Edition

A quick report on a few cool things I saw yesterday. I am quickly coming down with a bad cold so everything is reported through a bit of a generic NyQuil haze::

I went to one traditional academic session, Epidemic!: Disease Across time in Western spaces. A note for readers who may be innocent of the wonders of the academic history conference. By "traditional" I mean a session where historians read their papers out loud to you while you sit and listen. Really, they read their papers out loud. I am not sure why--maybe they think the audience cannot read? Anyway, then a commentator, typically a big shot in the particular subfield, provides a reaction. Then there are questions from the audience--unless the presenters went over their time, which they nearly always do, in which case there are no questions.

Given the format, Disease Across Time was an excellent panel:
  • Adam Hodge, a grad student at the University of Nebraska, explained how horses served as a vector for the spread of smallpox in the 1790s. His work helps to fill in some of the gaps in Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, a great book but with some weak spots involving smallpox in the far west.
  •  Mark Allan Goldberg gave an a good is somewhat jargony paper, "Pushing Peyote: Healing, Nation, and the 1833 Cholera Epidemic in Mexican Texas" on efforts to combat the spread of cholera in northern Mexico. Desperate official authorities sometimes adopted an opium cure from native healers.
  • The best paper was Liza Piper's "The Great Flu of 1928: Creating a Geography of Isolation in Canada’s Northwest." She surveyed a series of Spanish flu and other epidemics in the Canadian north in the first half of the twentieth century. The 1918 Spanish flu in particular was a virgin soil epidemic that left a wealth of compelling primary sources, and Piper did a wonderful job of incorporating these and allowing the victims and survivors of the epidemics to narrate the story.
At noon I went to the lunch for the editorial board of Montana, the Magazine of Western History. The magazine treads that middle ground between scholarly and popular, a tough act to pull off but one that Montana does very well. Montana used to have a relationship with the Western Historical Association whereby WHA members received Montana and the magazine got some money. That arrangement has ended and Montana is looking for new readers, new sources of revenue, and how to make the transition to the digital age. I don't know that the editors figured everything out at lunch, but we made some progress.

Reading room of the DPL
After lunch some of us grabbed a cab to the Digital frontiers: A Digital History Workshop session at the fabulous Denver Public Library. I am on the WHA Digital Task Force, a committee that is attempting to promote digital scholarship and sessions within the organization, and we have sponsored a Digital Frontiers session at each of the last three WHA meetings. This year J. Wendell Cox of the DPL organized a session showing off some of their digital projects.

Though I missed the first presenter, I enjoyed the tour through the DPLs vast photographic archives of the American West, only a small fraction of which are online. Particularly interesting was the presentation on the DPL's Creating Communities, an effort to leverage technology to expand DPL's collection of more recent photographs of Denver and "to embrace participatory culture to create social archives which include anyone with an interest in helping to collect and preserve history." The tech end of the project is powered by a Drupal module that connects to the DPL's ContentDM database of digital collection. This enables the public to add their own photographs to the DPL site, to organize online communities to represent neighborhoods or interests, and to add metadata to existing photographs ("That is my uncle John Garcia," or whatever). It was a really innovative project, but what struck me most is how much time and institutional resources it took on the part of the DPL to enable community involvement.

Then, Dear Reader, I went back to the hotel and attempted to treat this cold with generic NyQuil, room service, and MSNBC. I am off to a slow start this morning, we will see how Day 3 goes. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

At the Western History Association

Today is the first day of the annual Conference of the Western History Association. This year we are in Denver. This is one of two conference I try to attend every year (the other is the National Council on Public History).

The WHA is an organization in transition. When I first attended it was a mix of academics and history buffs. Professors would present their research papers to an audience that was a mix of fellow professors and guys in cowboy hats or women in sun bonnets. The two worlds came together with the Green River Knife Ceremony--an awful, cringe-inducing production at the lunch banquet where some guy dressed up as a mountain man would talk in fake "Old Westy" dialect and even recite a fake historical poem while he handed over a ceremonial mountain man's knife ("thus h'yar knife") to the new WHA President. It was enough to hide under the table.

The Green River Knife is gone now, and the buffs have mostly left as well. So have many of the National Park Service folks who used to be here. And I think there used to be more American Indians. There are more public historians now than there used to be, and that is good, and more school teachers. But for all of the great digital history work being done in the American West, there is almost nothing of the digital turn here. The WHA headquarters are moving from University of Missouri-Saint Louis to Nome Fairbanks, Alaska. Transition.

I am on the Digital Task Force of the WHA and the Editorial Board of Montana Magazine, so I will have a few meetings but should be able to attend quite a few sessions. For the next few days I will try to find time to blog a bit of what I learn here.