In this post, I am answering several questions about my proposal for “Familiar Strangers,” a website about U.S. and Mexican visitors to each others’ countries between 1776 and 1846. Thanks to my lovely wife Laura, Sharon (the professor), Andrea, and my other classmates for their feedback on the proposal draft [PDF] and the presentation.

What is your inquiry question?

How did visitors between the United States and Mexico view each others’ countries as the two countries moved toward war?

What do you want your users to learn?

I want my users to understand the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Mexico as it played out “on the ground.” Particularly, I want them to learn how people from the United States and Mexico interacted, particularly in the “cores” of each country, in the decades before the two countries went to war with each other. As a corollary to that, I’d like my users to make comparisons to today, to understand the origins of mutual perceptions that people from the United States and Mexico have of each other.

What is your methodological stance?

For this project, I plan to present both primary sources and interpretation. The interpretation will help users place the primary sources in context and gain a greater understanding of the period.

This site approaches this history on a transnational basis, seeking to understand the leadup to the U.S.-Mexican War from both sides of the border through the interactions between the peoples of each country. It offers five means of accessing the primary sources and interpretation, allowing users to learn about different facets of this period (see below).

How does your design work to support these goals?

The site’s design allows users to retrieve primary sources and interpretations through five means: by visit (in my final draft, I’ve decided to use that term instead of “journey”), by person, by place, by a time period search, or by a keyword search.

For example, one can see how the people of a particular locality, such as Lexington, Kentucky, or the port of Tampico, Tamaulipas, interacted with visitors from the other country.

One could learn about a particular visit–whether it was a journey, as Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte undertook to Washington from Texas in 1836-37, or a case of immigration, such as occurred with Spaniards who settled in New Orleans after Mexico expelled them.

One could also learn about a particular visitor and his or her interactions with the other country through time. For example, Juan Almonte, who accompanied Santa Anna to Washington in 1836-37, had been educated in the United States (even working in a store in New Orleans after the 1815 execution of his presumed father, the rebel leader José María Morelos, during Mexico’s War of Independence) and later served as Mexico’s minister in Washington. Another example is the Kentuckian John Davis Bradburn, who joined a Mexican rebel group during the 1810-21 War of Independence and later served in Mexico’s army.

The search by time period option, meanwhile, offers users the ability to see raw numbers of visits during a particular time period, and learn more about that time through visits. A keyword search allows for the finding of particular terms, such as “gringo,” in the primary sources.

What new things do you need to learn?

Many things. First and foremost, I will need to learn Omeka. I’ve had very cursory experience with it before, playing around a bit on and attending a couple of sessions at THATCamp Prime this summer. Indeed, the other day I had trouble with the one-click installation of Omeka on Dreamhost, and was thankful to be at CHNM when Sharon was around!

I also need to learn more principles of web design.

Also, I need to learn more about the sources that exist for this project. I have done some research on Santa Anna and Almonte’s journey to Washington in 1836-37, and through that have picked up some sources for other visits. But I need to learn more of what is out there.

How will you go about learning these things?

Just through my presentation and feedback I learned some more about what Omeka can and cannot do. The prototype that we are building for the second project will help me learn Omeka. As I work on the prototype, I will use Omeka’s extensive documentation to learn more how to use the software.

Meanwhile I will go back to Teach Yourself HTML and CSS in 24 Hours and some of our other readings to learn more about web design.

Learning more about where primary sources are will largely come with my dissertation research, but in the meanwhile I will plan to bring in more sample sources for the prototype.

What is the rationale for the decisions you’re making about source choices (by type, collection, time period, etc.)?

Time period: The ending date I chose for the site was easy: The outbreak of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846.

The beginning date I chose was more arbitrary. Initially when conceiving of this project/my dissertation, I had thought about beginning at 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain. But that would leave out influential interactions before that time period. After Spain declared war on the United Kingdom in 1779 in support of U.S. independence, some aid came to the United States from New Spain. Spanish agents then operated in what was the Western United States to gain settlers’ loyalty–and split that region from the United States. Even in a recent conversation with the curator of the Alamo, who has been a mentor through the years, I learned of many visits pre-dating Mexican independence. Meanwhile, between 1800 and 1820, adventurers from the United States–filibusters–formed private armies to invade portions of northern New Spain, particularly Texas. Others, like John/Juan Davis Bradburn, joined Mexican rebel groups. These stories influenced the trajectory toward war in 1846 and deserve to be included. As such, I chose the date of 1776 as the beginning of the archive.

Types of sources: The sources for this project are spread in archives throughout the United States and Mexico. Part of the project’s rationale is uniting these sources. The sources are diverse, and I would use any from the period that cover visits between the United States and Mexico. Newspapers on both sides of the border reported on visits between the countries–whether it was covering (or publishing letters from) visitors, or covering travelers passing through a locality. Some travelers, such as Almonte, left diaries of their travels. Meanwhile, through the magic of ArchiveGrid I found Calista Long’s published diary of a trip through Kentucky in 1836, when she and her family stayed at the same inn as Santa Anna and Almonte. She reported a near-riot.

Others have left family papers. Other sources are more surprising; for example, at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., I found a ship captain’s log that would be relevant to the project. This U.S. Navy captain, connected to a Washington family, escorted U.S. merchant vessels from New Orleans to Mexican ports in 1836-37, around the Texas Navy’s blockade. In several of those ports, the captain reported picking up merchants from the United States who, essentially, needed a ride home.

All of these sources would be included in the archive.

What questions remain for you to provide a convincing grant application?

The class presentation, the comments I’ve received, and this exercise have helped me answer some of my questions, particularly about what to include in the application. Besides the parts that Andrea and Sharon pointed out, I especially need to work on my work plan and my project team. I will look at other similar projects to gain a better idea of the timeframe and the people involved in making the project happen.