The Best of the West

A one-of-a-kind resource for scholarly research on history and culture, The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Susan Bell

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 important harbingers for migrants on the mid-19th century Overland Trail. As a graduate student of history at USC Dornsife, Sarah Keyes learned this 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).

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’s graduate students a unique partnership with The Huntington and its unparalleled resources, giving them access to a magnificent 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,” Deverell said.  “This makes the institute rare among centers of humanities research, and we are constantly looking for ways to enhance synergies and collaborations.”

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. After earning her Ph.D. in 2012, she 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 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.”

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. They 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.”

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 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?”

Another USC Dornsife scholar who benefited from ICW is Rosina Lozano, who earned her doctorate in history from USC Dornsife in 2011.  ICW “was a huge part of my experience” at USC, said Lozano, who is now an assistant professor in Latino history at Princeton University. ICW funded her research on the politics of Spanish language during the summer of 2010, enabling her to travel to libraries at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University to compare California and New Mexico’s approaches to language use. 

Lozano was inspired by opportunities to share her research with other scholars.

“ICW sponsored brown bag lunches that allowed a larger community of scholars with interests in California and the West to hear and discuss in-progress research projects,” Lozano said.

She also enjoyed ICW-sponsored weekend conferences held at the Huntington Library.

“The panels included senior scholars in the field and provided an opportunity for me to interact with senior scholars in a smaller setting than a more national conference,” Lozano said.

Through ICW, Lozano worked in the community, where she helped pilot a K-12 outreach program in Pasadena public schools. “I created lesson plans that went beyond the textbook and incorporated Huntington sources as well as extensive readings that I completed on the West,” Lozano said. The experience allowed her to teach lessons to fourth-grade students, work one-on-one with teachers and take students on a field trip to California missions.

Deverell noted California’s complexity.

“California is remarkably powerful in the national and international imagination and in its sheer economic muscle and cultural diversity,” Deverell said.

“Studying it can tell us a great deal not only about the nation, but about points of origin in the world. California is a magnet for curiosity and ICW is designed precisely around putting inquisitive scholarly efforts atop the sources by which we ask and answer questions about our collective past. 

“It’s exciting all by itself, and we’d like to think that we can offer historical lessons by way of guidance into the future.”