Month: January 2017

Pacific Views: Early California Population Project

I think about #VastEarlyAmerica a lot, and I’ve returned many times to Steve Hackel’s work on early California.  When Steve’s book, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis:  Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 was published in 2004, among Omohundro Institute books only James Brooks’s 2002 Captives and Cousins:  Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands had ventured west of the Mississippi.  Of course the scholarship of Juliana Bar, Ned Blackhawk, Elizabeth Fenn, Pakka Häcmäläinen, Paul Mapp and many others, as well as James and Steve’s ongoing work and recent books, means that the geographical myopia of east coast-ism is pretty indefensible.  My own work focuses on British America, and I wouldn’t ever say that British America is unimportant–it’s quite important.  It’s just that it exists –must self-consciously exist–within a much broader early American framework.

Steve was also been long involved in developing an important digital project with the Huntington Library (with support from the NEH, EMSI and others), the Early California Population Project.  The ECPP “provides public access to all the information contained in California’s historic mission registers, records that are of unique and vital importance to the study of California, the American Southwest, and colonial America.”   The search protocols are complex and the interface reflects the early design of this digital project, but the material is incredibly rich.  The project database has records for  “more than 101,000 baptisms, 27,000 marriages, and 71,000 burials performed in California between 1769 and 1850. No other region of colonial America that became part of the United States has a database of such an extensive set of vital records.”

It was great to see the project as a key evidentiary base for a recent essay by Erika Pérez on “Family, Spiritual Kinship, and Social Hierarchy in Early California” (in a great new issue of Early American Studies edited by Brian Connolly and Dawn Peterson that I recommend highly and will muse about in another post).

Here’s the abstract for Pérez’s article:

The study of kinship offers a rich opportunity for historians of early America to examine impositions of colonial power, subtle acts of resistance, and cultural adaptations evident in quotidian encounters between indigenous peoples and European American colonists. In Spanish and Mexican Alta California, colonial implementation of compadrazgo (Catholic godparentage) and the use of family metaphors, as well as the presence of Christian Indian auxiliaries from previously colonized regions, reveal colonial social hierarchies and evolving constructions of race, ethnicity, and class. While colonists and indigenous Californians both invested significant meaning in consanguineal and affective bonds, including spiritual kinship, Native peoples struggled to preserve and express precontact family values that included more fluid practices in marriage. Spanish-Mexican settlers and Franciscan missionaries attempted to impose a kinship system that would further goals of conquest and acculturate indigenous peoples by eradicating such fluidity. Spanish Mexican settlers, however, also exhibited an expansive understanding of kinship and family obligations, invoking them to function as a social safety net, as needed, and incorporating newcomers into existing networks. Thus, kinship is a useful measure of social relations and economic conditions and helpful for unraveling the scope and limitations of colonial rule in Alta California.

Serendipity and Digital Collections


Daniel McCarthy, Petroglyphs fr Riverside County, Agua Client Cultural Museum, via Calisphere.

One of my favorite things to do on a weekend morning is to scan library websites for newly digitized materials, and for digital collections and exhibits.  I keep storing up bits about various sites and what I’ve found compelling, thinking that I’d try to write a post for the Scholarly Kitchen about how these collections can help to inspire scholarly serendipitous browsing.  Lots of folks have written about how discoverability, the golden ticket for access to scholarly content, can in important ways deter and impede serendipitous discovery.  The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media even created a cool tool, the Serendip-o-matic (“let your sources surprise you”)  to try and recreate the analogue experience of browsing the library shelves for related materials.

Anyway, other thoughts about digitized collections include their importance for #VastEarlyAmerica.  Libraries tend to (of course not always) collect locally and are often (again, not always) strongest in local materials.  For early Americanists that means that looking to libraries around the #VastEarlyAmerican geography is important.

My latest digital obsession is Calisphere, with over 650,000 items from California universities and an  incredible number and range of other California libraries and archives.  There are collections and exhibits on Calisphere, as well as an individual item search capability.  The exhibits are also categorized– one group is “California Cultures:  Native Americans.”  It includes an exhibit of photographed Native rock art and “Pre-Columbian California to 18th century.”   Beyond the early period gems I loved perusing including the John Muir correspondence from 1856-1914, over 6700 items from the University of the Pacific.

I use lots of digital collections to enhance the research I’ve done on site in libraries and archives.  Browsing collections that I’m not expecting to speak directly to my research but rather to my broader interests in #VastEarlyAmerica often brings surprises, including material that I end up incorporating in my scholarly writing.  Serendipity!

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