Dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America, the Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The American West, Through Many Lenses

Photo: Yosemite Valley circa 1865, by Carleton Watkins (Stanford Libraries)

This past spring, the Center's first formal term-time course offering drew 109 undergraduate students to an interdisciplinary survey of the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West: its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and particular public policy issues. The course was taught by five professors drawn from the departments of history, literature, art history and engineering, all of whom were present at most of the sessions.

The Stanford Humanities website has published an article describing the course and the experience it gave its students:

Hearing an art historian and a hydrologist’s different perspectives on the photographs in the “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums” exhibition was typical fare for students enrolled in The American West. The ambitious 10-week interdisciplinary course was taught by senior faculty from five departments and two schools. 

Using the framework of five major western themes—borders; space; boom and bust; Native Americans; and water—the course aimed to introduce students to the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West: its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and particular public policy issues. 

The course was developed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, which was founded in 2002 by the Stanford historians David M. Kennedy and Richard White to promote interdisciplinary teaching, research, and public awareness about the region. 

"The cultivation of future regional leaders, well-informed and engaged early in their lives with the region’s history, health, and prospects," says Kennedy, "is among our cardinal aims."

Learning to Jump First in Yellowstone

Image: Dre (left) and me with my exhibit on Mission 66 in the Heritage and Research Center.

By Fiona Noonan
B.S. Earth Systems and French Minor, 2017
Summer Intern at the Yellowstone's Heritage and Research Center

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

I had a roommate this year who liked to say "jump first, fear later." I always thought it was a cute saying, but I'm not sure I ever appreciated it beyond its cliché veneer until I came to Yellowstone. This summer has been entirely an experiment in jumping first, and I've loved every minute.

In the weeks following my last post I became significantly more comfortable and independent in my work at Yellowstone's Heritage and Research Center (HRC). In addition to finishing our inventory of the museum collection, Dre and I cataloged a never-ending stream of postcards, led two or three tours a week (I handled the cultural history portion of the tours), and we each created an exhibit case on different Yellowstone topics as a final project. My case focused on Mission 66, which was a National Park Service effort to modernize and reinvigorate the parks between 1956 and 1966. It was great to use the museum collection to make a coherent and educational final product, and we finished just as Dre finished her internship. After Dre left, the curator's office became lonely, but I still had the good company of Deb (the museum tech), Colleen (the head curator), and Brandon (the museum registrar).

Uncovering My Place at Yellowstone

Image: The Roosevelt Arch, dedicated in 1903 by then President Theodore Roosevelt, marks the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The inscription on the front of the arch reads "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

By Melanie Langa
B.A. History, 2016
Summer Intern at the Yellowstone National Park

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Yellowstone is often cited as the country's oldest national park (its 1872 dedication is commemorated with the arch I drive through every day to get to the archaeology lab in Gardiner, Montana). The park is famous for its size, abundant and rare wildlife. and extraordinary variety of landscapes. Yellowstone has been steadily attracting more and more visitors since 1872 (the numbers are up to over three million in the last several seasons), but the history of human interaction with this amazing place does not begin with the arch that Teddy Roosevelt dedicated in 1903, or even the early written accounts by travelers like Thomas Moran, John Colter and Jim Bridger. Humans have been present in Yellowstone for at least 12,000 years, and that is what my summer is all about.

As the archaeology intern I help the park archaeologist with field tasks and the careful documentation, cataloguing and writing that goes along with fieldwork. In my first few weeks I've gotten to participate in a number of different projects, giving me different windows into the particulars of the purpose and practice of archaeology in a national park. Much of the archaeology at Yellowstone is for the purpose of what you might call "compliance." Any time an entity within the park service (a campground, a trail crew, the fire-safety team etc.) plans a project that disturbs the ground, they call my boss. It's his job to make sure the plans won't adversely affect a site that has the potential to yield valuable archaeological information or to minimize any possibly harmful effects. My fieldwork experience has been in preparation for these kind of ground-disturbing projects. We examine the area using shovel test probes to look for evidence of artifacts and make determinations from there.

40 Years of Delusion

Image: The Heyday offices at 1633 University Avenue.

By Kristine Chen
B.S. Product Design, 2016
Summer Intern at the Heyday

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Standing two stories tall and coated in textured wood shingles, the Heyday office building presents a façade utterly incongruous with its crouching neighbors sporting storefront windows. Yet despite its rather conspicuous appearance along University Avenue, it provides little to no indication of what the organization actually does. Based in Berkeley, Heyday is a non-profit, independent book publisher with a primarily regional focus. It aims to promote local stories, particularly those underrepresented in the mainstream. Topics that have traditionally been featured include indigenous peoples, Californian history, and the natural environment. In line with these values, Heyday also publishes a magazine called, News from Native California. When asked how one manages to sustain such an operation, proprietor Malcolm Margolin offers "a bottomless pit of delusion." One can only imagine what an interminable wellspring that must be, as Heyday stands poised to celebrate its 40th birthday this fall.

I work alongside a roughly ten person staff, a dynamic group of people with a vast reserve of literary, design, sales, and editorial experience, who have welcomed me with open arms. My daily activities consist mostly of event coordination and marketing. I conduct market research for various upcoming titles, all the while gaining an intimate knowledge of California's landscapes and political boundaries (you really wouldn't believe the proliferation of counties in North California alone). Sprinkle in database updates, a quest for search engine optimization on the interwebs, the acquisition of staff opinions on how to makeover the current website and you have the makings of a marketing and events coordination intern.

Maps of Future Past: Understanding California’s Historical Ecology

Image: A historical map (cropped), drawn in 1901, of the Tijuana Estuary between the border of California and Mexico.

By Alexandra Peers
M.S. in Earth Systems, 2015
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Whenever I tell people I'm interning at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, they usually ask, "What does SFEI do?" When I tell them that I'm working at SFEI researching the historical ecology of California, they always ask, "Wait, what's historical ecology?" Before starting my internship, I had a theoretical idea of what historical ecology meant - looking at the ecological patterns of a historical environment and seeing how landscapes functioned in the past - but as to what actually went into researching historical ecology, I wasn't so sure. Finishing up my 4th week at SFEI, I'm now starting to have more of a concrete answer to that inevitable "historical ecology?" question.

SFEI's work is split up into three major programs: Clean Water, Environmental Informatics, and Resilient Landscapes. I'm the intern specifically for Resilient Landscapes, and most of my work falls within the research area of "historical ecology" within the department. The Resilient Landscapes team researches a variety of past environments, from the San Joaquin River to the San Francisco Delta region, to understand the environmental history of these places. They then shares that research with policy makers and environmental managers, to help them create better future environmental policies.

US-Mexico Water Conference Finds Opportunities for Cross-Border Collaboration

Water in the West is a crucial issue to not only western U.S. states, but across international borders as well. The Center’s legal scholar Vanessa Casado-Pérez is involved in expanding the program’s communication and collaboration with Mexican water managers, researchers, and policymakers. Here is a recap of Water in the West’s recent cross-border conference at Stanford Law School.

The Center’s Water in the West Program hosted a three-day Uncommon Dialogue on US-Mexico trans-boundary water issues at Stanford Law School. It deserves the adjective “uncommon” because the workshop brought together professionals from different disciplines and sectors on both sides of the border. Lawyers, engineers, political scientists, Environmental Protection Agency staff, and officials from CONAGUA, the Mexican water agency, were among those who participated. The goal of the workshop was to identify areas of research that might foster integrated trans-boundary management of water resources.

The workshop took off with an evening keynote by Rick Van Schoik of the North American Research Partnership, who offered an overview of water challenges along the 1,954-mile border. The next day, two panels covered the state of groundwater aquifers and the water-energy nexus, whereby water use requires large amounts of energy, and vice-versa.

San Francisco's Animal Past

"Deer and Kangaroo at Woodward's Gardens," stereoscopic image by Eadweard Muybridge, 1869 (Eastman House)

A doctoral candidate in the Stanford Department of History, Andrew Robichaud was the Center's Thomas D. Dee II Graduate Fellow during the 2013-2014 academic year. Working with the Spatial History Project, Andrew explored the role of animals in 19th-century cities, with a particular focus on San Francisco.

In the summer of 1866, Robert Woodward opened the doors of his San Francisco estate to the public. For a small admission fee, visitors could explore the gardens and museum, which were perched on a hillside near the old Mission Dolores. The crown jewel of Woodward’s Gardens was its extensive zoological park—the first of its kind in San Francisco, and one of a growing number of zoos in American cities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Public and private zoos like Woodward’s brought animal life and entertainment into American cities in new ways, offering urban residents up-close interactions with creatures from around the world. For the next three decades, Woodward’s Gardens would remain a centerpiece attraction in the city for residents and tourists alike—what Woodward called a “Resort for the People!” Woodward himself became known popularly as “P.T. Barnum of the West.”


At the exact moment Woodward was bringing lions, bears, exotic birds, and sea lions into the city, new municipal ordinances were pushing other animals farther from downtown.

I became interested in Woodward’s Gardens as an important institution in the transformation in urban animal life in late-nineteenth century San Francisco. At the exact moment Woodward was bringing lions, bears, exotic birds, and sea lions into the city, new municipal ordinances were pushing other animals farther from downtown. When the Gardens first opened in 1866, the small creek that carved through the hillside of Woodward’s Gardens emptied into Mission Creek, and, less than a mile downstream, trickled past a collection of slaughterhouses and hog ranches known later as “Old Butchertown.” In those few years in the late 1860s—if the winds were blowing right—the stench of offal and the squeals of hogs might have mixed with the smell of popcorn and the laughter of children. By the 1870s, those spaces were separated through new laws that effectively zoned slaughterhouses, hog ranches, and other “noxious trades” many miles to the south. Woodward’s Gardens flourished as these other animal businesses disappeared. This changing landscape of urban animal life is the central focus of my dissertation.


Earlier this year, I discovered an archival collection of letters received by Robert Woodward, which are housed in the California State Library in Sacramento. These letters not only speak to the cultural centrality of Woodward’s Gardens across California and the American West, but also offer an unusual glimpse into animal geography and intricacies of the live animal trade in late-nineteenth century America. Woodward received hundreds of letters each year offering animals for sale: mule deer from Modoc County, a cinnamon bear and foxes from Red Bluff, reindeer and caribou from British Columbia, wild cats from the Sierra Mountains, prairie dogs from Wyoming Territory, seals from Santa Barbara, and bears from the Central Valley and Mendocino. As part of a larger network of zookeepers, Woodward traded or sold some of these animals internationally—to P.T. Barnum in New York, and to dealers and zookeepers as far as London and Germany.

The Dee Fellowship at the Bill Lane Center offered an opportunity to explore this distinctive collection more thoroughly as I worked through the final stages of my dissertation. Through my affiliation with the Stanford Spatial History Project—with the help of undergraduate Mark Sanchez—we have begun mapping the geographic origins of these letters and the species offered for sale. In these maps we can begin to see both the real and imagined expanse of the San Francisco market. The letters also provide a rare glimpse into the vast, variegated, and rapidly changing animal landscape of California and the American West.

Water in the West Weighs Future of California's Groundwater

California's largest source of water, groundwater is is of particular importance in the third year of an ongoing drought. Yet heavy use has led to steeply declining aquifer levels and rising pumping costs. As the state faces growing challenges to this lightly regulated but critical resource, the new website "Understanding California's Groundwater" takes a look at the future.

Our series explores groundwater management in California through new research into key groundwater issues, interactive graphics and a synthesis of existing knowledge on groundwater in California, all designed to advance public understanding of this critical issue.

Understanding California's Groundwater

Created by Water in the West, the Center's joint program with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the site combines an overview of groundwater issues – economic, technical and legal – with new research by students and scholars affiliated with Water in the West. The site also offers extensive information graphics explaining concepts like groundwater recharge, the relationship of groundwater to other sources, and the state of California's data on groundwater.

Geoff McGhee, the Center's creative director for media and communications, worked with Water in the West researchers and staff and the San Francisco-based interactive design firm Halftone to develop the site. Understanding California's Groundwater has been cited by KQED Public Media and The New York Times's Dot Earth blog, which calls it "an invaluable package of analysis, graphics and recommendations on groundwater management."

Life on the River

Image: The three girl HFF interns in front of Millionaires View on the Henry’s Fork.

By Taylor Burdge
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the Henry's Fork Foundation

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Determined to live out west, I interned last summer in Bozeman, MT and (as expected) fell in love with the Northern Rockies. Now, a year later, my internship with the Henry’s Fork Foundation (HFF) has taken me back to the area I love so much.

Although I gained an appreciation for the fly fishing culture last summer, nothing prepared me for the fly fishing scene at the Henry’s Fork. This 127 mile long tributary of the Snake River is prized for its superb fishing, especially dry fly fishing. Anglers are drawn here from around the world with the goal of hooking and landing one of the Henry’s Fork prized trout.

As the only organization solely devoted to preserving the Henry’s Fork, HFF interns are always busy. There are two main projects going on: a habitat study and an angler satisfaction study. A grad student from Grand Valley State, Zack Kuzniar, is researching which habitat rainbow trout prefer, and all six interns are helping him out. Prior to the start of my internship, over 40 fish were tagged with radio trackers. We then spend the rest of the summer tracking this fish to see which habitat they prefer to live in. Zach walks around the riverbank with a radiotelemetry reader to try and pick up the signals from the tagged fish. Two interns follow him carrying all of the supplies needed to survey the habitat. Once Zach locates a fish, we examine what the habitat is like by looking at factors such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, depth, water velocity, substrate size, and macrophyte growth. By the end of this summer, Zach will know what factors these rainbow trout favor.

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