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Review: They Came on Waves of Ink

A review of They Came on Waves of Ink, a digital mapping project of a U.S. Customs ledger for the Puget Sound Customs District, directed by Sean Fraga

Published onJul 25, 2022
Review: They Came on Waves of Ink

They Came on Waves of Ink: Pacific Northwest Maritime Trade at the Dawn of American Settlement, 1851–1861

Project Director
Sean Fraga, Princeton University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Katrina Jagodinsky, University of Nebraska Lincoln

Project Overview

Sean Fraga

This project uses digital mapping and data visualization to interpret a single archival source: a handwritten U.S. Customs ledger for the Puget Sound Customs District. In 1851, the United States created a new customs district covering Puget Sound as part of the nation’s expansion to the Pacific Coast. This ledger covers that district’s first decade, from 1851 to 1861. This is a consequential period, seeing the beginnings of sustained non-Native settlement, the organization of Washington Territory, treaty-making between the United States and Native nations, the Fraser River gold rush, and the start of the San Juan Islands boundary conflict. I use the ledger data to explore these stories, with particular attention to the development of commercial links between Puget Sound’s first U.S. settlers and the wider Pacific Ocean.

I first encountered this ledger while conducting dissertation research at the National Archives in Seattle, Washington, in the summer of 2018. I was already pursuing some larger research questions: Why is the Pacific Northwest part of the U.S., and how did 19th-century U.S. settlers understand the Pacific Ocean in relation to the North American West? The ledger offers an opportunity to focus these questions on a single document. I was particularly intrigued by the ledger’s chronological structure and the limited information that it contained, which I saw as a challenge: how does one productively analyze and interpret a source that consists only of vessel arrivals and departures?

I use the ledger to help demonstrate that U.S. territorial expansion involved more than gaining land; it was also about opening new routes for trade. Like Puget Sound itself, the ledger straddles two regions — the Pacific Ocean and the North American West — that are usually studied separately. The ledger highlights themes common to the 19th-century histories of both regions: the importance of steam power, the extraction of environmental resources, the emergence of international borders, and the ways Native peoples resisted and subverted colonialism. While steam power and transpacific voyages often captured the U.S. imagination, the ledger data show that settlers around Puget Sound relied far more on sailing vessels than on steam, and that the majority of their trips were local or coastal.

This project relies on a suite of common digital tools, most of them free, cheap, or accessible through an institutional software license. I used an iPhone X and a copy stand to create a photographic copy of the ledger at the National Archives, then used DevonThink to compile the roughly 75 resulting images into a PDF, which I shared with my research assistants through Dropbox. To transcribe the ledger data, I created a spreadsheet in Google Sheets, mirroring the archival ledger’s organizational structure as closely as possible. My research assistants and I worked collaboratively in this spreadsheet to transcribe the ledger and cross-check the resulting data. After we finished, I exported the spreadsheet to Excel, where I resolved transcription conflicts and used outside research to verify or disambiguate ledger information.

I used several different applications to visualize and map the transcribed data. I used Excel, Numbers, and Datawrapper to create bar graphs, charts, and scatterplots. With QGIS and Palladio, I mapped the ports listed in the ledger and the networks of routes between them. I saved these maps and visualizations as image files for use in presentations and on websites. I disseminated findings from this research through WordPress, Twitter, and GitHub. The project is hosted as a page on my personal website through WordPress. I posted a thread summarizing the research on Twitter as a way of announcing the project and have shared regular updates through Twitter.

This project’s primary audience is scholars of the North American West, the Pacific Ocean, and the United States in the world. The project may also interest members of the general public curious about Pacific Northwest history. The underlying data is freely available, as photographs of the original ledger, as transcribed datasets, and as a Palladio project. The underlying data is available to other researchers through GitHub — both the original transcriptions and a Palladio project file — so that anyone interested can easily load this data directly into Palladio and explore it themselves.

By tracking individual vessels into and out of Puget Sound, the ledger makes it possible to examine historical vessel traffic at a much finer resolution than is available in published sources — by the day rather than the year. The National Archives holds thousands of similar ledgers from customs districts across the United States, and this project attests to the potential of digitally analyzing raw data from these records to better understand the maritime dimensions of U.S. territorial expansion. This project also demonstrates the potential of using widely accessible digital tools (like Google Sheets and Palladio) to undertake transcription, mapping, and visualization projects, and offers a model for interpreting similar non-narrative archival primary sources.

Project Review

Katrina Jagodinsky

They Came on Waves of Ink is a digital mapping project based on data extracted from a customs ledger that chronicled the arrival and departure of vessels between 1851 and 1861, primarily through Port Townsend, Washington. The project offers a series of visualizations to depict roughly 4500 arrivals and departures in that decade, illuminating both the local maritime traffic linking U.S. and British ports throughout the Puget Sound and the global traffic linking the Pacific Northwest to the Pacific World. Offering a close analysis of the data captured in what the project calls this “nineteenth-century spreadsheet,” Waves of Ink offers historians a new perspective on the maritime traffic that linked Puget Sound to the Salish Sea and the Pacific World and suggests tremendous promise in reconsidering the non-narrative data contained in similar ledgers and log-books maintained in ports throughout the Pacific World.

Project Director Sean Fraga offers historical analysis and visualizations of the ledger data that places vessel traffic in a broader context of Puget Sound events, including the 1858 Fraser River gold rush that drew thousands of miners into First Nations territories in British Columbia and dramatically increased commercial trade and industrial logging ventures in Salish Sea ports. Fraga finds that this early period is dominated by local, rather than global, traffic that primarily consists of smaller sloops and schooners rather than steam ships carrying significant tonnage. The increasingly global character of Puget Sound port traffic by 1861 mirrors the expansion of Pacific World trade and travel linking British colonial outposts in Australia, China, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands, and the growing importance of the Puget Sound linked to U.S. settler colonial and industrial interests in San Francisco and Boston.

Waves of Ink is an excellent model of a relatively low-tech project that yields powerful insights. Fraga relied on tools available to most historians, including a phone camera, PDF converter, and cloud storage to build his digital dataset from the archival ledger; Google sheets and Excel for data entry and cleanup; Excel, Numbers, and Datawrapper to generate quantitative visualizations; and QGIS and Palladio for mapping. Scholars who consider themselves entry-level digital humanists would find Fraga’s model encouraging and enlightening, as his method could be applied to a broad range of data sets with relative ease and likely success. Of course, simplistic design is an artform and not an accident, so this assessment is meant as high praise.

What is most promising about Waves of Ink is the potential it suggests for deeper analysis of ledgers and similar data chronicling Puget Sound ties to the Pacific Rim since it is difficult to draw significant or innovative conclusions from one ledger. For that reason, what Fraga offers us is an opportunity to consider the myriad ways we could extend this approach in new directions. Similar analysis of other forms of non-narrative data, such as that included in the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, would likely be very compelling, for instance. No doubt many scholars will find inspiration from Waves of Ink, and it will be exciting to see what Fraga tackles next.


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