[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jason Castillo, who volunteered at the Sutro Library in Spring 2020 before he graduated. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]
The idea of interfacing with an archive like the Sutro Library is likely to come with a bit of apprehension. Professors, students, or even the general public might not be entirely sure of the enrichment a public resource like the Sutro Library can provide. A professor might not have a clear understanding of exactly how an archive can be utilized to supplement topics they have covered in lecture. A student writing a paper might not have a clear understanding of how to navigate the California State Library’s (CSL) database to see exactly what is available. The public might not be aware that they too are able to request viewing of items of interest.
What follows is an account of a project that I finished at the Sutro Library for a History Department professor who incorporates a class trip to the Sutro into her courses. Her utilization of the library as a classroom fosters an environment for her students that includes hands-on experience with historic materials such as maps, books, and newspapers that both reinforces the topics covered in lecture as well as develops her students’ ability to apply critical thinking to complex historical topics. She recently asked the Sutro Library director to develop a hands-on primary source analysis that can expand upon an assigned class reading by author Jason W. Smith that equates the United States’ pacific exploration of the mid 1800s as a nautical continuation of Manifest Destiny. In his 2018 book, To Master the Boundless Sea, Jason W. Smith approaches the United States’ scientific exploration of the Pacific in the 19th century as a means to expand its political, economic, and cultural influence beyond its national borders. The book focuses heavily on the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (frequently abbreviated as U.S. Ex. Ex. and also known as “The Wilkes Expedition”) in which a U.S. Naval Lieutenant, Charles Wilkes, was tasked by Congress with commanding a fleet of vessels to explore and survey all regions of the Pacific Ocean. This was not a typical naval mission, as it included a comprehensive group of scientists along with the normal crew of sailors. This group included a pair of naturalists, a botanist, mineralogist, conchologist, and philologist among several others; an outfit well equipped to “extend the bounds of science” all while “promoting…the great interests of commerce.”
These topics: Manifest Destiny, the Wilkes Expedition, and the Pacific Ocean—enable us to focus on the history of Hawaii as a place where all three of these vast ideas converge.
When I searched the State Library’s catalog for materials about Hawaii, I received over 200 results. That seemed to be quite a bit to wade through, but I quickly connected the dots that they were all written by non-indigenous peoples with differing experiences with the islands: missionaries, tourists, wealthy people with homes on the islands, government officials, etc. Approaching the islands in this manner allowed me to further break down the results–“let’s try to get representation from each of these categories of authors.” Not only would it allow me to see the diversity of experience in the travelers to this portion of the Pacific, but perhaps it would add some variation to how the natives and their culture were represented. As a History Major, I would be remiss if I didn’t illustrate the all too frequent lack of voices that would allow us to glean a more mutual understanding of the world’s past. For example, I was fairly certain that I would not find any first-person accounts from the island’s indigenous peoples; if that was what I was searching for, I would have to try to find their voices via indirect sources.
Choosing a few books from American missionaries, wealthy tourists, and government officials provided insight into not only the islands of Hawaii, but also the motives and opinions of the authors who documented their travels. I found that despite their backgrounds, two common threads seemingly ran through all of their works. The first one was that they all took the stance that the indigenous population would be “better off” if they submitted and assimilated to the ways of European and American people. An example of this comes from William Bliss, a wealthy American, who sailed to the islands in the 1870s to escape from a “northern winter” and took the stance that despite some general cultural improvements via missionaries, there was “great room” to improve upon the natives’ “moral and physical condition.”
The second thread among writers at this time was the constant consideration each author gave to potential crops which always included insight into the labor required to harvest those crops, as well as the economic benefit of doing so. An example of this can be seen in table of contents of the writing of James Jarves’, a New Englander who spent five years living on the islands, and devoted almost an entire chapter in his book to agricultural pursuits.
In addition to books written from the vantage point of wealthy, non-native male tourists, the Sutro Vault contains several books that reflect the work and voices of non-native female missionaries and tourists. For example, one can find an illustration of a female missionary attempting to convert the island’s natives and another female author who offers her insight after spending six months on the main island “for health reasons.”
As the 19th century came closer to its end, we see works in the Sutro Vault that convey America’s a more direct, calculated, and forceful stance in its relationship with Hawaii. Not unlike the ways in which Manifest Destiny drove settlement in the western part of the continental United States, we can find publications that portray an extremely pointed attitude towards Hawaiian settlement, policy, and even resource extraction. Notable examples of this can be seen in the 1894 writings of U.S. Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John L. Stevens (also in the Sutro Vault) noted below.
This source is notable because in 1894, Hawaii had yet to be annexed by the U.S.
In regards to the original argument by Jason Smith, one could argue that the culmination of all these efforts concerning Pacific exploration, from the U.S. Ex. Ex to the work of the missionaries, can be seen in a book published by the Department of Foreign Affairs immediately after the islands’ annexation, The Hawaiian Islands: A Handbook of Information (1899)–also part of the Sutro collection. This book was published after the federal government was inundated with requests from the public about settling and establishing businesses in the newly acquired territory. It reads very much like a “how-to” guide to help Americans settle, form businesses, attract labor and otherwise thrive. It was mailed back in lieu of answering each individual inquiry.
Although I have learned a lot through this process of curating a collection of materials for a SFSU professor and her class, I am still left with many questions. Will the professor’s students feel that Jason Smith’s argument is appropriate? Will they be inspired by portions of Smith’s work and be able to expand upon his argument? Will they dismiss his argument and advance one of their own?
There is a reasonable likelihood that any of these could come to fruition. That is the beauty and importance of an institution like the Sutro Library: it provides the opportunity for all people to explore, embrace, and challenge historical developments of the past. I truly hope this article encourages you to think about the ways in which you could engage with the sources of Sutro Library.