November 7, 2011

Religion in the 19th-Century West: Primary Sources Online

by Joshua Paddison

With the proliferation of digital collections and archived newspapers in recent years, it can be difficult to keep track of the online databases of historical primary source materials now available. An added complication is that some offer completely free and open access, while others (noted below) are subscription-based, locking researchers out unless they or their institutions pay the often hefty fee. This is a round-up of online databases I'm familiar with that offer primary sources useful for the study of religion in the nineteenth-century American West. Across them, you'll find a wide and sometimes frustrating array of software systems, visual designs, retrieval capabilities, output options, and search sensitivities.


Nineteenth-century newspapers are treasure troves of information on religion, revealing not only media portrayals of various religious groups but also the practices, beliefs, and rhetoric of the groups themselves via transcriptions of sermons and speeches. With the exception of the Mormons, few if any church-affiliated newspapers in the West (such as the Methodists' California Christian Advocate) are currently available online, however.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: the gold-standard in terms of ease of use and, in my experience, sophistication of keyword searching, but subscriptions are pricey.

19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Gale Digital Collections): also subscription-based.

America's Historical Newspapers (Readex): subscription-based; notable in that it includes numerous African American and Spanish-language newspapers.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (Library of Congress): free access but awkward to use in that its output is page- rather than article-based.

Making of America (Cornell University): contains long runs of American Missionary, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, North American Review, and other journals.

California Digital Newspaper Collection (UC Riverside): almost 500,000 pages from California newspapers both urban and rural.

Historic Oregon Newspapers (University of Oregon): almost 20,000 pages from Oregon newspapers, but its lack of an advanced search option makes it difficult to search effectively.

Utah Digital Newspapers (University of Utah): more than 50 Utah newspapers.

Deseret News Collection (BYU): full run of Utah's first newspaper, a weekly until 1898.

19th Century Mormon Article Newspaper Index (BYU): almost 5,800 articles by Mormon and non-Mormon authors about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

19th-Century Publications about the Book of Mormon, 1829-1844 (BYU): fascinating collection of early responses to the Book of Mormon specifically.


The amount of western-related content in these databases vary, but together they offer a staggering amount of material on nineteenth-century American religions, from sermons and tracts to prescriptive literature and hymnals. The challenge is finding what you're looking for among the millions of pages now available.

Google Books:  phenomenally useful and growing daily, with everything from James Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion to W. J. Colville's The Problem of Life: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Spiritual Science and Philosophy.

Making of America (University of Michigan): counterpart to the Cornell site, this contains 10,000 digitized books.

The Nineteenth Century in Print (Library of Congress): 1,500 more books.

Sunday School Books: Shaping the Values of Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Library of Congress): 163 Sunday school books published during the antebellum era, including such gems as The Indian Chief and the Little White Boy from 1857.

Mormon Publications (BYU): 150 books, tracts, hymnals, and other writings by Mormons in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Making use of unpublished manuscript collections in digital form brings different challenges than books and periodicals. Few manuscripts are keyword-searchable at the full text level, forcing researchers to rely on cataloguers' subject terms. Reading nineteenth-century handwriting  can be difficult in the best of conditions, and digital scans are often especially difficult to decipher. It remains to be seen to what extent digitalization can (or should) replace in-person archival work.

Mountain West Digital Library: a digital portal for digital collections related to Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and the Rocky Mountain West.

The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 (Library of Congress): few of the materials here were created by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans themselves, making this collection mostly useful in understanding how white Americans viewed Chinese "heathenism," especially its materiality (to which Laurie Maffly-Kipp has called scholars to pay more attention).

Oroville Chinese Temple (Bancroft Library): photographs of artifacts from a Chinese Temple in Oroville, California, built in 1863.

Documents Relating to Indian Affairs (University of Wisconsin): contains a run of the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1826 to 1932 as well as ratified treaties the U.S. government made with the Cherokee, Seneca, Delaware, and other Indian groups.

American Indians of the Pacific Northwest (Library of Congress): photographs and textual depictions of Pacific Northwestern Indians, including religious practices.

Utah American Indian Digital Archive (University of Utah): gateway to government and tribal documents, oral histories, photographs, and maps related to the Northwestern Shoshone, Goshute, Paiute, Utah Navajo, White Mesa, and Ute Indians.

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Bancroft Library): online collections related to Jewish life in the West.

California Cultures (University of California): pictorial and manuscript materials related to racial groups in California; most of the material is from the twentieth century.

Western History Collections (University of Oklahoma): portal to western history-related digital collections at UO, featuring material on the Cherokee, Cheyenne-Arapaho, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations.

Mormon Migration (BYU): geared towards genealogical research, this database pulls together  information related to Mormon migration and immigration from letters, newspaper articles, ship logs, and customs reports.

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869 (BYU): transcriptions and scans of 49 migrants' accounts of the overland journey.

American Westward Migration (University of Utah): 6 diaries and 32 maps documenting Mormons' travel westward in the 1850s.


These collections offer much for the study of religion in the West. Photographs of western churches, synagogues, temples, and religious artifacts provide evidence for scholars of religious material culture, while paintings, drawings, cartoons, and other pictorial representations shed light on religious iconography and popular attitudes.

History of the American West (Library of Congress)

Calisphere (University of California)

Jewish Archives Collection (University of Washington)

These lists are far from comprehensive, I'm sure. Please report online resources I've missed!

1 comment:

Quincy D. Newell said...

This is an incredibly useful post, Josh -- thanks! I would add one resource: the Early California Population Project, which has a searchable database constructed out of all the mission registers. The data is iffy in places, because the folks who put the database together did not check the priests' entries -- so there are people with multiple death entries, for example. Still, it's a great entry point to that set of information. The url is