Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest

Washington State Historical Society and Lorraine McConaghy
Tacoma, WA

In 2014, the Washington State Historical Society debuted Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest, a major exhibition and accompanying online feature, based on the Civil War Read-In, a statewide crowd-sourced research project. These programs comprised an integrated experiment in public history, contextualized by the commemoration of the Civil War, that explored the Pacific Northwest from 1857 through 1871.

The Civil War era was a formative one for the Pacific Northwest. During this period, Oregon gained statehood and Idaho separated from Washington Territory. Civil War Pathways engages with what audiences already know to present a different perspective: that the Civil War was not just a regional war but a national war of ideas, and that it mattered in Washington Territory. Although the Washington Territory saw no battles during the war, the whole Northwest was awash in political intrigue, desertion, and divided loyalties. Yet there is little in the way of published research examining this tumultuous period.

Volunteer researchers in this crowd-sourced project scoured the archives for evidence of the war to help piece together this forgotten story. Newspapers, letters, and memoirs were just some of the types of documents investigated. Washington was well-placed for this type of task, having both a huge community of history buffs and an impressive amount of historical information available online through digitization. Throughout 2013, the Washington State Historical Society organized the Civil War Read-In. A series of training sessions were held across the state, leveraging the networks that WSHS has built up over the years. Volunteers learned how to look for evidence, how to add it to the online database created for the project, and how to recruit other researchers. The results were incredible: over two hundred volunteers combed through thousands of pages of nineteenth and early twentieth-century records looking for echoes of the Civil War. And they found them. Over two thousand documents related to the War in Washington Territory were identified (many of which can be browsed at http://pathways.omeka.net/).

The Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest project represents a new model for public history. The identification of a unique and hard to research topic, combined with the use of crowd-sourcing and the leveraging of digital databases and regional archives, is unprecedented and can serve as a model for other organizations wanting to engage the public with forgotten local history.