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USC institute opens a window to the Old West

The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West celebrates its 10th anniversary

The grave marker of emigrant Lucinda Duncan on the Overland Trail just outside Beowawe, Nevada.
The grave marker of emigrant Lucinda Duncan on the Overland Trail just outside a town in Nevada (Photo/Sara Keyes)

Tinkling cowbells. A kettle singing on a campfire. The howl of a wolf. The deafening boom of an approaching thunderstorm.

Sounds such as these became harbingers for migrants on the mid-19th century Overland Trail. As a graduate student of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Sarah Keyes learned this while researching diaries and manuscripts at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

“In order to understand the experience of these Euro-American migrants in a strange and foreign space — which at that time was Indian country — it’s important to understand how much human and environmental sounds caused people to be either fearful or comforted,” Keyes said.

“Stories of people being able to make their way back to their campsites because they listened for the familiar sounds of campfire chatter and the tinkling of cowbells show us how sound helped people orient themselves. This was true in terms of space, as well as culturally, as sound helped travelers differentiate a migrant camp from a potentially dangerous indigenous one.”

Keyes’ interest in the aural experiences of pioneers migrating across the continent to Oregon and California had been piqued by a seminar on environmental history at The Huntington taught by William Deverell, professor and chair of the history department at USC Dornsife and director of The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW).

Happy anniversary

Founded by Deverell in 2004, ICW is celebrating 10 years of promoting scholarly research, sponsoring writing and publications, fostering inspired teaching and executing public outreach programs focused on the history and culture of the American West.

ICW offers USC graduate students a unique partnership with The Huntington and its unparalleled resources, giving them access to an impressive range of original collections and the opportunity to join a broad community of dedicated scholars.

One of our great and unique privileges is that ICW weaves together the scholarly strengths of USC with the research library power of The Huntington.

William Deverell

“One of our great and unique privileges is that ICW weaves together the scholarly strengths of USC with the research library power of The Huntington,” Deverell said. “This makes the institute rare among centers of humanities research, and we are constantly looking for ways to enhance synergies and collaborations.”

Go West, researchers

On Oct. 28, Deverell joined University Professor Kevin Starr, professor of history and California State Librarian Emeritus, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of ICW with a discussion held at The Huntington. “Why the West Matters?” was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison.

Keyes wrote her dissertation on the cultural history of the Overland Trail, including an exploration of the pioneers’ aural experiences, under Deverell’s supervision. Keyes, who earned her Ph.D. in 2012, is completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. In fall 2015, she will begin an assistant professorship at Texas Tech University. She is currently revising her dissertation into a book.

“My dissertation topic is something I couldn’t have pursued without ICW,” Keyes said, noting that The Huntington Library has one of the best published and manuscript collections related to the Overland Trail.

“One of the great things about ICW,” she explained, “is the way it not only connects the resources of USC with The Huntington, but is also a touchstone for a broader intellectual community around the history of the American West within Los Angeles and California.”

A ‘wheel with many spokes’

Deverell called ICW “a wheel with many spokes with the American West at its center.”

“Those spokes act as different genres of activity in pushing forward knowledge,” he said.

Among the thematic projects that epitomize ICW’s vision and impact is The Aerospace History Project, which explores how Southern California became the aerospace capital of the world.

Academic conferences organized by ICW examine a broad range of themes. Those have included “The Fate and Future of the Colorado River,” “Moguls, Millionaires & Movie Stars: Hollywood Between the Wars, 1920-1940” and “Tales From Two Cities: Writing From California.”

Deverell said he’s also proud of ICW’s outreach and publishing projects.

“In terms of public outreach to non-collegiate populations, we are proudest of our Los Angeles Service Academy that teaches high school students about Los Angeles,” he said. “In the publishing realm, we’re very pleased with our Western History series. We’ve published seven books so far, with more to come.”

Academic and physical growth

Building on the success of its first decade, ICW continues to grow, not only academically, but physically. A new building currently under construction at The Huntington will enable ICW to expand its activities by providing a new library, additional classrooms and greater storage capacity for archives.

“We try to be strategic about collections of importance and collections in peril and that’s a dialogue we have with curatorial staff at The Huntington and at USC,” Deverell said. “We’re trying to make our influence larger than our footprint.”

Among The Huntington’s magnificent collections of historical manuscripts is a private cache of legal and business records about early 20th-century Los Angeles, which Deverell helped discover.

“It’s a wonderful collection that reveals the sheer ambition of metropolitan dreams in the Los Angeles basin around 1910,” he said.

Among more recent acquisitions, Deverell is particularly excited about the papers of General William J. Fox, a retired U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general and war hero who was Los Angeles County’s first engineer and director of aviation and a pioneering urban planner.

“Bringing this tantalizing collection to ICW was an effort that was many years in the making,” Deverell said. “These documents tell us about planning during a moment of great importance before and after World War II. They allow us to see what roads were not taken and what we can learn from that. We know what roads were taken, how the freeways were built and the region turned its embrace to the automobile, but how might things have been done differently?”


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