Final Public Oral Exam: Sean Patrick Fraga

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
January 28, 2019 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Ocean Fever: Water, Trade, and the Terraqueous Pacific Northwest


Martha Sandweiss, adviser
Beth Lew-Williams
Emily Thompson
Andrew Needham, New York University


American interest in Asian trade propelled westward expansion and shaped the Pacific Northwest. In the early nineteenth century, Americans saw the Pacific Coast’s few harbors as portals between the continental interior and the Pacific Ocean, motivating westward expansion and structuring the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which divided the Northwest between the United States and Britain. In the 1850s and 1860s, Euro-American settlers used steam-powered vessels to police indigenous people and enforce the region’s marine border—even as cross-border trade drove support for American annexation of British Columbia. Between 1880 and 1910, four transcontinental railroads, part of an emergent global steam-powered transportation network, were built to Northwest harbors to access Pacific trade. Boosters celebrated new connections to Asia, promoting the Northwest as the “gateway to the Orient,” even as other white Americans violently opposed the presence of Asian people. Maritime trade powered port cities’ growth, but brought problems like congested waterfronts and unsafe watercraft, inspiring a local strand of Progressivism to manage marine spaces for public benefit. In the twentieth century, water sustained Seattle’s suburban growth, as developers built housing—steamboat suburbs—on nearby rural waterfront land.

Scholars generally describe American westward expansion in terrestrial terms, as a series of land acquisitions. This dissertation demonstrates that Americans also understood it as a terraqueous process, involving both terrestrial and aquatic areas. A terraqueous perspective on American history reveals that terrestrial stories are frequently entangled with aquatic spaces, “ungrounding” familiar narratives. This approach recovers the role of maritime workers in American territorial acquisition and settlement. It emphasizes the use of technology in bordermaking, demonstrating how Anglo-Americans used steamboats to counter indigenous maritime societies. It stresses the continuity between nineteenth-century American continental expansion and twentieth-century U.S. Pacific imperialism. And it models terraqueous possibilities for historical geography, showing how local maritime connections sustained urban and suburban growth. By revealing the terraqueous dimensions of American history, this research expands and challenges our understandings of American national incorporation, borders and borderlands, American engagement with the Pacific World, and urban and suburban development. American history looks different from the water’s edge.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest: 
Cultural History
Environmental History
History of Technology
Material Culture
Native American
Race & Ethnicity
Rural History
Urban History
American West
North America
United States
19th Century
20th Century
21st Century