Environmental Change from Baja California to Alaska, 1768-1820s

By Anna J. Cook

Welcome to another installment of our Readers Relate series, in which we ask researchers to share a little bit about the work that brought them to the MHS and what they found when they got here.

Today’s interviewee is Jen Staver, candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. Ms. Staver’s research looks at the natural and social environment along North America’s Pacific coastline, exploring “the development of new geographies of power and labor in the wake of European and American incursion from the Pacific.”

In her work, Ms. Staver highlights the ways in which MHS collections can support research on topics that seem fairly distant from New England geography and politics!

 1. Can you briefly describe the research project that brought you to the Massachusetts Historical Society?

I am working on a doctoral dissertation in American history. My project interrogates the relationship of the ocean to the social and environmental changes that look place along the North American Pacific Coast (from Baja California to southern Alaska) from about 1768 through the 1820s. My project explores the connections between what happened in, on, and abutting the ocean to the changing demographic, economic, and social relationships amongst the indigenous and foreign peoples in the region. By focusing on who moved through and labored in the waters of the North American Pacific Coast, how and why they did so, and the ways those people interacted with one another and the coastal environment, it explores the development of new geographies of power and labor in the wake of European and American incursion from the Pacific.

2. What specific material in our collections made coming to the MHS important to your research? Was there a specific collection or type of material  that you consulted?

Given that my research is focused on the Pacific coast, many of my family and friends were confused about why I needed to spend time in the archives in Massachusetts. Over the time period I’m studying, a good number of Americans began coming to the Northwest Coast and, later, to California, on merchant ships partaking in the China trade. These American ships were overwhelmingly owned by northeastern merchants and most often sailed out of Boston or other Massachusetts ports. As a result, the logbooks and journals from these voyages, the letters from sailors on them, and the papers of those who financed the trips and owned the boats are largely in New England archives. There are two types of materials at MHS that are quite important to my research. The first are the logbooks, journals, and other writings and drawings of people who actually visited the Pacific Coast. Such records are amongst the only written evidence that exists describing the Pacific Coast in the 1700s (especially the northwestern part, beyond the sustained presence of the Spanish in Alta California), the indigenous people living there, and the type and character of the interactions that took place between foreign sailors and indigenous residents. The second set of materials of interest for my project are the letters, account books, and other papers of merchants who perhaps never themselves sailed to the eastern Pacific but who financed voyages or who were involved in broader trade networks that the region was a part of. Their letters, for example, help me to understand both New England merchants’ perceptions and knowledge of the Pacific Coast as well as how that knowledge was situated within and influenced by the myriad global connections these merchants maintained.

3. While you were working here, was there something you examined that surprised you? What was it, and why was it surprising?

In the papers of Thomas Lamb, a prominent Boston merchant, I found an insurance policy for a ship involved in the China trade (Thomas Lamb Papers, Box 1, Folder: 1802-1816). The existence of the policy itself didn’t surprise me, but an addendum to the standard text of the policy did.

On August 30, 1815, Benjamin Waldo Lamb (brother of Thomas) insured the ship Sultan and its cargo for $3,000. The policy would remain in effect for up to four years or until the ship returned from the Pacific to Boston or another port of discharge in the United States. The standard policy covers dangers encountered at sea, pirates, enemies, and several other potential hazards at sea. However, added into the typed boilerplate policy was the following handwriting:

“The Insurers are liable for seizure for illicit trade on the Coast of California. In case of loss before the arrival of this ship at Canton no proof of property is to be required.”

In 1815, what is now California was still under nominal Spanish control, and Spain generally banned residents of the missions and pueblos of Alta California from partaking in trade with non-Spanish ships. However, the practice was common, despite ongoing if undermanned efforts by the provincial government and military in California to thwart it. Nonetheless, the brazen acknowledgment of American intentions to partake in such trade struck me in this case. That the ship owners felt it needed to be added to the policy indicates the tangible risks that a ship engaging in such “illicit” trade may actually face; on the other hand, that the insurers were liable for risks associated with such “illicit” activity seems to imply it was considered by these Atlantic businessmen to be an acceptable and even normal part of doing business in the Pacific.

4. Is there a particular quote (or visual image) from the material that you consulted that stands out for you? What is the quote (or image) and why is it important?

I am still going through what I was able to gather during my visit to MHS, but there was a passage from the logbook of a merchant ship that particularly caught my eye, even from the microfilm machine (William Sturgis Papers, Reel 4). On July 4, 1814, the Boston-based ship Atahualpa was docked at “Whymea Bay” in “Atooi” (on the island of Kauai in what is now Hawai’i). The sailors celebrated the anniversary of American independence, fortified by Madera wine that was “bountyfully  supply’d” by another American captain. According to the logbook, the men proceeded to partake in more than a dozen “patriotic Toasts” to a variety of honorees – the memory of George Washington, the American Navy, and the King of Atooi, to name a few. But it was the final four that stood out to me:

10th Commerce – while we view with indignation the Injuries done by Britain, may peace never be concluded but by Free Trade + sailors Rights.

11th The Union. May the first wretch who advocates a separation of the States be Tared [sic] + Feathered + banished the country.

12th. The enemies of our country, the enemies of Mankind, may they all be bound up the river Styx, + consigned to Hell.

13th. The Ladies of the Sandwich Islands, while embracing their charms, let us not forget the Yankee fair ones at home.

I find this excerpt important for the ways it elucidates the various worlds the sailors of the Atahualpa inhabited in 1814. On the one hand they felt themselves to very much be Americans, even Unionists – yet their toasts simultaneously reveal the supranational networks and interests (economic and sexual) that they were a part of by virtue of their activity in the Pacific.

5. If you brought a visitor to the MHS and you had a chance to show them ONE item from our collections, what item would it be?

If I were to pick from the materials I viewed on my trip, I would choose the late-eighteenth-century letterbook of the Boston merchants James and Thomas Lamb – a leather-bound, several hundred page book that contains handwritten transcripts of most of the business letters (and a few personal ones) the brothers wrote between 1797 and 1799 (Lamb Family Papers, Box 13). My specific interest in this letterbook was in any notes addressed to captains sailing along the Northwest Coast. But in looking for letters with this particular destination, I came across dozens of others addressed to correspondents located in Havana, St. Croix, Canton, Rotterdam, and London, as well as letters referencing trade, prices, and events in western Africa, Chile, Batavia, and other locales in Asia, South America, and Europe. Historians are increasingly studying and emphasizing the international nature of early America and the early republic, but looking at a letterbook like this one really makes tangible the astoundingly global nature of the business interests and social and political world of this Boston family. In doing so I think it would challenge any viewer to rethink their assumptions about life and knowledge in early national Massachusetts.                       

Asked to provide a few lines about her professional background and current research interests, Jen Staver writes:

I am a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. My research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of early American, world, and environmental history. Before beginning my PhD, I got a BA in history and a MS in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and worked at an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco.