Gossamer Network: The U.S. Post and State Power in the American West

My current project is a spatial history of two of the defining projects of the late nineteenth-century United States: state formation and western expansion. Between the 1860s and the 1890s, the western United States underwent one of the most dramatic reorganizations of people, land, capital, and resources in American history. How did this happen so quickly, and across such a large and inhospitable area? Why were so many people willing and able to move to such shockingly remote places? How did the American state consolidate its control over this vast territory? I argue that the sprawling infrastructure of the U.S. Post holds the key to understanding the speed and scale of western expansion. Gossamer Network uses a database of more than 100,000 post offices to map the spread of the postal network in the western United States. This presents one of the most comprehensive and detailed spatial renderings of the nineteenth-century state that has ever been assembled.

This analysis leads to a series of new interpretations about the American state and the West. The U.S. Post was the era’s most spatially expansive institution. No other network, public or private, connected so many different people in so many different places across such a large area. It did so by operating what I’ve termed a “gossamer network.” The U.S. Post expanded across space by grafting the public functions of mail service onto the existing operations of private businesses: contracting with a stagecoach company to transport bags of mail, or paying a local businessman to periodically distribute letters from his general store. This flexible, ethereal structure allowed the U.S. Post to expand and contract across remote areas with a stunning speed. Its ability to move in lockstep with Anglo-Americans had enormous consequences for the West, accelerating a pattern of imperial conquest and settler colonialism while serving as the underlying machinery of governance in the region. Gossamer Network sheds new light on the familiar subject of western expansion and forces us to reconsider the very nature of state power during this era.


Algorithmic Gender Detection

In collaboration with Lincoln Mullen and Bridget Baird, I helped develop a computational method to infer the gender of names by using historical data. This approach offers a higher degree of accuracy and nuance by incorporating the changing nature of naming practices over time – “Leslie,” for instance, went from being a predominantly male name in the early twentieth century to a predominantly female name by the end of the century. Gender package for R builds on an earlier prototype written in Python. I’ve applied this method to study the persistent gender gap in the American Historical Review.

The Production of Space in Historical Newspapers

Through a broader collaborative partnership with the University of North Texas, I’ve been examining a large corpus of digitized historical newspapers from Texas. My project uses text processing to recreate and analyze the imaginative geography of various times and locales in Texas history. The results of my research were published in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of American History, along with an accompanying online component at the Stanford Spatial History Project. The majority of the research took place through a research grant from the Stanford Presidential Fund for Innovation in the Humanities, as part of the Tooling Up for Digital Histories project at the Bill Lane Center and the Spatial History Lab.

The Geography of the Nineteenth-Century Novel

At Stanford’s Literary Lab we worked on a project to mine and map a corpus of several thousand nineteenth-century British and American novels in order to uncover macro patterns of how different places appeared over the course of the century. How did American space appear in British novels? What was the prominence of overseas colonies in literature and how did this change over the century? What were the different senses of place for the same location (ex. London)?

Mobility and Gender on the Overland Trail

My research examines Overland Trail diaries from 1851-1853 in order to evaluate issues of personal mobility and gender on the trail. Despite its conflation with the ideal of western mobility, I argue that personal movement along and off of the Overland Trail was instead marked by rigidity and restraint. These restrictions culminated in the trail experience of female emigrants, whose movements were restricted as a way of reifying traditional gender hierarchies.

Tooling Up for Digital Humanities

Tooling Up provides a gentle introduction to essential topics, skills, and issues related to digital humanities for scholars and researchers without a strong background in the digital world. In addition to producing online essays (co-authored with Andrew Robichaud), we held a series of workshops in the spring of 2011 aimed at introductory-level students and faculty. Our work is under the Tooling Up for Digital Histories project through the Bill Lane Center.


ImageGrid is an open-source Processing program developed with Bridget Baird for visually analyzing images using a grid interface. An introduction to ImageGrid can be found here.

Text Mining the Diary of Martha Ballard

Since the spring of 2009 I have been working sporadically on text mining the diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife from Maine who kept a daily record of her life between 1785 and 1812. A series of blog posts outlines some of the process and findings.

Land and Liberty in the Life of Venture Smith

As an undergraduate at Pomona College, I began researching Venture Smith in the summer of 2006. A resident of 18th-century Connecticut, Venture Smith dictated a famous narrative that detailed his life as a former slave in New England. My project focused on the role of land during his time as a free man by charting and mapping his real estate purchases over the final three decades of his life. My research can be found in an essay “‘Owned by Negro Venture’: Land and Liberty in the Life of Venture Smith” that appears in the edited volume Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom.