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From Home Territory of Lewis and Clark, University of Virginia Students and Faculty Focus Closely on the West

September 17, 2002-- A group of University of Virginia professors from fields as various as history, architecture, education and anthropology peers intently as a 19th century photo of Chief Sitting Bull in full ceremonial headdress flashes on the lecture-hall screen. Taking notes among them are some 90 students learning how Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West Show helped create many of our mythic images of the West.

The class, a team-taught multi-disciplinary one called American Wests, is among an array of innovative new courses, research projects, lectures and other educational events about the West that the approaching 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition has spawned at U.Va. A thousand miles east of the Mississippi River, the University has a special interest in the region. Both leaders of the transcontinental expedition were Virginians and Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned the westward exploration, also founded U.Va.

Through this intensive focus on the West, “we’re hoping to leave a legacy that will last longer than the bicentennial itself,” said Douglas Seefeldt, a western studies scholar and director of U.Va.’s Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Project. “Many students I’ve talked to haven’t ever visited the West, but now some are hoping to go.”

The project, supported by U.Va.’s President’s Office, aims to make a major contribution to student, faculty and public understanding of the region, in conjunction with the national Lewis and Clark bicentennial that begins next January with an official launch at Monticello in Charlottesville.

In addition to the American Wests course, designed to examine the West from numerous perspectives and developed out of a special year-long faculty seminar, a sampling of the University’s new westward-looking projects includes:

  • “The Literary Legacy of Lewis and Clark,” a photo-and-text Web archive and course being created by Arts and Sciences assistant dean Frank Papovich, a western literature scholar. It’s one of six new upper-division courses U.Va. is planning on the West for the Spring semester, with more to follow in the next academic year. Papovich, with his son Nat, motorcycled along the entire Lewis and Clark route, from Virginia to Oregon, this year taking hundreds of pictures with a digital camera. They also documented numerous sites associated with later writers about the West. “It’s truly amazing how many Virginians have only an imaginary picture of the West,” he said.
  • “The Louisiana Purchase in French-American Perspective,” an international conference being planned to mark next year’s bicentennial of America’s purchase of vast western territory from France. The conference, co-organized by history professors Olivier Zunz and Peter Onuf, is scheduled to convene in Paris in June and in Charlottesville in October 2003. It will showcase important new scholarship from both countries on the history of France in America and on the expansion of the new nation into formerly French territory.
  • “The American West Information Community,” an effort spearheaded by the University Library to link many electronic resources on the Web and digitize hard-to-find texts and documents about the West.
  • “Encountering the West: the Changing Vision of Lewis, Clark and Jefferson,” a digital history project devoted to understanding the Virginia landscape that Lewis, Clark and Jefferson knew, and to shed light on how their views of nature and geography were severely challenged by what they encountered in the West. It’s a collaborative effort of the Virginia Center for Digital History, School of Architecture and Geostat Center in the library.
  • “Lewis and Clark: the Maps of Exploration, 1507-1814,” an exhibit of rare maps from the library’s permanent collection focusing on the chronological progression of the earliest mapping of the West. The exhibit in Alderman Library will run from Nov. 11 through May 16.

A comprehensive listing of dozens of U.Va. special lectures, new courses and other programs about the West, as well as national bicentennial events, is on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Project Web site at

Last year’s faculty seminar brought together some 20 specialists from a wide range of seemingly unrelated disciplines to discuss the exploration, settlement and development of the West. It provided an unusual opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas, where an art history scholar, for example, could learn about landscape from a biologist, and vice versa. Most will bring their expertise to the 200-level American Wests course as guest lecturers. Others are creating new courses on the West in their departments.

“All of us had questions about how well the different disciplines would mesh,” said Onuf, a Jefferson historian who co-leads the Wests course with anthropologist Jeffrey Hantman and Seefeldt, a postdoctoral fellow in media studies. “It’s been wonderful for me to move beyond my usual narrow specialization. I’ve learned a great deal from my colleagues. It’s been extraordinarily enjoyable and productive.”

Third-year student Katherine Anne Cowsert of Fredericksburg said the course’s small-group discussions, attended by faculty from many fields, add to her understanding. And, “I do plan on traveling to the West in the future.”

The course is called “Wests” because of the myriad perspectives –- of race, class, myth, environment, politics and countless others –- from which the region must be viewed to be fully understood, said Seefeldt, himself a westerner raised in Colorado.

“One of the things we hope students will come away with is a picture of a complex West, not just stereotypical images. To Hispanics it’s North, to Asians who came there it’s East, and to many different Indian peoples it’s simply home.”

Seefeldt is also working with U.Va. students on West-related research closer at hand. In collaboration with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Visitor’s Bureau and local governments, they are creating bicentennial video and digital-media projects on the many Lewis and Clark historic sites in this area of Virginia –- where their momentous journey westward had its origins.

For interviews or further information, Douglas Seefeldt may be reached at (434) 243-7707

Media contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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