Exhibiting the American West

Beaded Otterskin Bag, 19th Century, Gift of Huguette Hoguet. Museum Objects Collection.

Beaded Otterskin Bag, 19th Century, Gift of Huguette Hoguet. Museum Objects Collection.

Several items from Princeton’s collections of Western Americana are currently on display in the Firestone Library Main Gallery exhibition, “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox.”  The exhi­bi­tion begins with early Eng­lish set­tle­ment, including con­tact with the native peo­ples, and then traces the growth of the Amer­i­can nation to the end of the Civil War.  For more about the exhibition and related lectures and events, including an online exhibition, see the Manuscripts Division announcement, A Republic in the Wilderness.

The exhibition includes several works by leading figures of the American West, including artwork by George Catlin, William Henry Jackson photographs of Native Americans, a Brigham Young Letter and the first edition of the Book of Mormon (Palmyra, N.Y., 1830), and multiple manuscripts and other printed works highlighting the Westward expansion.  Below are a handful of items currently on display with labels provided by the exhibition curators, Don Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, and Anna Chen, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts.

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Photographs of North American Indians, 1847–1865. Clockwise from upper left: Op-Po-Noos (photograph by Thomas M. Easterly, 1847); Cut Nose (photograph by Joel E. Whitney, ca. 1862); Unidentified Dakota Man (photograph by James McClees Studio, ca. 1858); Medicine Bottle (photograph by Joel E. Whitney, 1865); Bum-Be-Sun (photograph by Thomas M. Easterly, 1847); Ma-Za-Ka-Te-Mani (photograph by James McClees Studio, 1858). Western Americana Photographs Collection.

These photographs of Sac and Fox and Dakota Indians belong to one of two albums containing more than 1,000 mounted albumen prints, including portraits of delegates to Washington, D.C., expedition photographs, and early Western studio portraits. They were probably compiled by renowned photographer William Henry Jackson (1843–1942), who may also have written the numbers in the corner of each photograph.

The William Henry Jackson Albums are included as part of the nearly 7,000 Western Americana photographs digitized for the Princeton University Digital Library. To view the entire albums, see Photographs of North American Indians.

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Carleton Watkins (1829–1916), Lake Ah-Wi-Yah, Yosemite Valley, California, 1861. Gift of Thomas Lange. Western Americana Photographs Collection.

After emigrating from his hometown of Oneonta, New York, in 1851, Carleton Watkins found work as a photographer’s aide in San Francisco. Once in business for himself, he began photographing the Yosemite Valley and California mining scenes. His stereoviews and mammoth photographs of Yosemite made him famous and helped to influence federal legislation to protect the valley, which President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) signed on June 30, 1864.

Lake Ah-Wi-Yah and seventy other photographs by Carleton Watkins are also available in the Princeton University Digital Library.  See Carleton Watkins

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Brigham Young (1801–1877), Letter to Harriet Cook Young, June 23, 1846. Gift of Edith Young Booth. Brigham Young Collection.

After Joseph Smith (1805–1844), the founder of the Mormon faith, was killed by a mob in 1844, Brigham Young took over the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To escape anti-Mormon persecution, he led a vanguard westward, reaching the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. During the journey, he wrote this letter to his fourth wife, Harriet Cook Young (1824–1898), whom he had secretly married and left in Nauvoo, Illinois, urging her to come west. She arrived in Salt Lake City in September 1848.

In 2012, Princeton’s Brigham Young Collection was digitized for an undergraduate history course on the American West.  See Brigham Young Collection.

Detail of beadwork on Princeton's "Woompa" bag. Beaded Otterskin Bag, 19th Century, Gift of Huguette Hoguet. Museum Objects Collection.

Detail of beadwork on Princeton’s “Woompa” bag. Beaded Otterskin Bag, 19th Century, Gift of Huguette Hoguet. Museum Objects Collection.

Beaded otterskin bags like this one were made by Great Lakes Indian groups to hold medicine and ritual objects. This bag belonged to Ramsay Crooks (1787–1859), a fur trader, explorer, and eventual president of the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), which became one of the largest businesses in the United States in the 1830s and opened the way for the settlement and economic development of the American West.

For more on the history of otterskin bags in tribal culture, see Anton Treuer’s “Full Cir­cle: From Dis­in­te­gra­tion to Revi­tal­iza­tion of Otter­skin Bag Use in Great Lakes Tribal Cul­ture,” Princeton University Library Chronicle (67:2, 2006): 359-365.

To view these and other Western Americana highlights currently on display, visit the Main Gallery of the Firestone Library now through August 4, 2013. For hours and information, see Information for Visitors.  The Firestone Library is located on the corner of Nassau Street and Washington Road (#5 on the campus map) and the address for GPS directions is One Washington Road, Princeton, NJ, 08544.

Western Americana in the Classroom and Beyond

 During the fall term of 2011, Professor Martha Sandweiss, History Department, and Brian Just, Art Museum Curator of the Art of the Ancient Americas, co-taught a course entitled “Artifacts, Images, and History: The American Southwest.” The course explored Native arts of the American Southwest by analyzing Princeton’s own collections in the holdings of the Art Museum, the Department of Geosciences, and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The Princeton University Art Museum magazine highlighted the course in its Winter 2012 issue, also available on the museum’s news page: The Museum in the Classroom.

Professor Sandwiess’s spring course, “History of the American West,” will make use of the department’s strong holdings of gold rush and overland journey material.  Sixteen manuscript overland narrative collections consisting of letters, journals, diaries, and scrapbooks were recently digitized and placed in the Princeton University Digital Library, allowing students (and scholars worldwide) online access to primary documents from the period.

While many of the collections are recent additions to the department, such as the Daniel Gano Gold Rush Scrapbook (C1398) and the David Starr Hoyt Manuscripts (C1407) that were acquired by the Manuscripts Division in 2011, overland narratives were a particular interest to Philip Ashton Rollins, Class of 1889. While Rollins focused more on printed works, manuscripts were often selected as well, such as a forty-miner’s journal written by M. A. Violette, “Manuscript Journal of Overland Journey to Sleepy Hollow,” 1849 (C0199, no. 1092).

Thornton, Oregon and California in 1848 … (Harper & Brothers, 1849). Philip Ashton Rollins Collection

Rollins early col­lect­ing of printed works was guided by Henry R. Wagner’s  bib­li­og­ra­phy of over­land jour­neys, The Plains and the Rock­ies: A Bib­li­og­ra­phy of Orig­i­nal Nar­ra­tives of Travel and Adven­ture, 1808–1865 (first pub­lished in the 1920s and revised and expanded many times since).  Rollins’ col­lec­tion of over­land nar­ra­tives nat­u­rally cap­tured the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush era (1848–53) and marks the beginning of the depart­ment’s gold rush col­lec­tions. Many of the printed works collected by Rollins can be found online via Google Books or the Hathi Trust Digital Library, such as J. Quinn Thornton’s Oregon and California in 1848: With an Appendix, Including Recent and Authentic Information on the Subject of the Gold Mines of California, and Other Valuable Matter of Interest to the Emigrant, Etc. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1849). Rollins, how­ever, soon ven­tured well beyond Wagner’s cut-off point, the close of the Civil War in 1865, which allowed him to con­tinue col­lect­ing overland narratives through­out the rail­road years.