Professor Barbara L. Voss Discusses Life at the Presidio of San Francisco

By Anne Petersen

Archaeology of Ethnogenesis copyOn June 9, 2015, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, along with partners the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library, UCSB Departments of History and Anthropology and the UCSB Public History Program, invited Professor Barbara Voss from Stanford University to visit Santa Barbara for two whirlwind days of teaching, a public lecture, and some brainstorm-filled meals with a variety of colleagues, including several Santa Barbara historians and archaeologists.

Professors Barbara Voss and James Brooks in the graduate seminar. Photo by Anne Petersen.
Professors Barbara Voss and James Brooks with students  in the graduate seminar. Photo by Anne Petersen.

Upon arriving in Santa Barbara, Professor Voss, a historical archaeologist, presented her Market Street Chinatown Project in a graduate seminar at UCSB. The course, designed and taught by Professor James Brooks, offers students an engaging and challenging interdisciplinary approach, using methodologies from both history and anthropology to help inform their dissertation projects.  In the Market Street Chinatown Project, Professor Voss and colleagues are analyzing an existing archaeological collection excavated in 1985-86 for a development project in downtown San Jose.  The Chinatown on Market Street was destroyed in a fire in 1887.  Voss’s own research in the project focuses on a close analysis of the collection to determine what can be learned about the fire, while pulling in documentary evidence including newspapers, and oral testimony from descendants, to assist her analysis. During her presentation, the students peppered Professor Voss with questions about using material evidence in research, framing research questions, and engaging community partners.

Photo by Anne Petersen,
Photo by Anne Petersen,

That evening, Professor Voss gave a public lecture at the Chapel at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park on her 2008 publication, The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco.  An interested audience of SBTHP members, some of them Presidio family descendants, and others intrigued by the topic, turned out on the blustery evening to hear this engaging presentation.  Professor Voss argued, contrary to some historians of early California, that a distinctly Californio identify emerged among the Spanish citizens of Alta California not during the Mexican period, but during the Spanish Colonial period, and that this transformation can be seen in the material culture of the residents at the Presidio of San Francisco.  Professor Voss demonstrated with excavation and artifact photos that a unifying style of dress, standard imported goods, ceramic styles and the architecture of the Presidio itself informed Presidio residents’ evolving sense of identity as a group with distinct characteristics.

The lecture was followed by a reception in the adjacent candlelit Comandante’s quarters, where guests had the opportunity to chat with Professor Voss in more depth about her work.  The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis recently came out in a new trade paperback edition.  you can find it at our online shop here.

The following day, Director Monica Orozco treated Professor Voss to a guided your of the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library before helping her to her flight home.  All of Professor Voss’s hosts were brimming with ideas and excitement as a result of her visit, and we hope Professor Voss will be able to visit her Santa Barbara friends again soon.

Anne Petersen is the Associate Director for Historical Resources at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

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