Newcomers in Latah County, Idaho: A Public History Approach on Cultural Adaption in the American West, 1871-1921


As a public history major, initial ideas of possible thesis topics challenged me to find the harmony between the academic and public history world. My thesis must be academically-centered and focused, but I sought a deeper understanding and exploration of the public history sector in a scholarly context. Struggling to decide on a thesis topic, I came to the realization that my internship with Latah County Historical Society presented the perfect opportunity to enrich knowledge of local history while also being able to discuss public history methodology as it relates to exhibit curation. I was present in the archive in Moscow, surrounded by the genealogies of immigrant families and their unique stories. I decided a thesis highlighting the immigrant experience and museology is the best of both worlds.

I began my first internship with the Latah County Historical Society (LCHS) on January 14th during the Spring 2021 semester. Hayley Noble, the acting Museum Curator of LCHS at that time, gave me much flexibility in what I wanted to do during my time with the historical society. Keen on obtaining as much practical hands-on experience as possible in preparation for becoming a desirable job candidate, curating an exhibit was an easy and quick decision for me. Conveniently, the McConnell Mansion, Moscow’s historic house museum, is operated by the Latah County Historical Society and was a viable option to house the exhibit I aspired to create.

The McConnell Mansion is hailed as both an architectural and historical landmark in Latah County. Built in 1886 by Idaho Governor William J. McConnell, who served in office from 1887 to 1893, the mansion is designed to replicate aspects of the historical architecture while also acting as a gathering place for Latah County community members.[1] The Latah County Historical Society hosts events each year in the historic house museum, including various exhibits, Victorian Christmas celebrations, art events, and book readings, among other things. Given the mansion’s significant place both in Latah County’s community and within the Latah County Historical Society, it seemed to be a wonderful fit for my exhibit.

While this internship was beginning, I was also embarking on the most writing-intensive course I had taken yet at Washington State University, during which I set my focus on producing a chapter I could use for my thesis. This course was challenging, to say the least. To make matters more difficult, I had not yet solidified the center focus of my thesis. I was still searching for strong topics, accessible sources for those topics, and, of course, something I would be passionate about. Already focused on the cultural history of Irish immigrants in Butte, Montana, looking at European immigrants in Latah County was a subject I quickly decided on for the topic of my exhibit. Concurrently, I was struggling to decide how to proceed with a topic on Irish immigrants in Butte, and struggling even more so when it came to finding digitized sources I could use for my specific purposes.

My internship with Latah County Historical Society, my challenges in establishing a clear and feasible thesis topic, and the guidance of a few professors led me to deciding a thesis corresponding with both the creation of a physical exhibit in the McConnell Mansion would be the best topic possible for my thesis. Two main factors led me to come to this conclusion: 1) I would have access to an archive on the county I would study, and 2) I could further strengthen my experience writing on local history and making it accessible to residents of Latah County. As a public historian, both local and accessible histories are extremely pertinent. To fulfill my academic standards yet also appeal to my public history career aspirations, this thesis first analyzes the steps in creating a physical history exhibit and pays special attention to the exhibit I curated as my final internship project. Later, this thesis discusses the nature of cultural adaption among four immigrant families to Latah County.  

My exhibit, titled Inland Northwest Immigrants: Newcomers to Latah County, was inspired mainly by the discovery of family genealogies in the Latah County Historical Society archive. I decided to focus on families whose stories I could draw larger conclusions from regarding culture in Latah County. For this thesis, I will discuss four of those families specifically: the Taylors, the Meyers, and Scheyers and Hagedorns, and the Williamsons. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany, these families illustrate a seventy-year span of time from the 1870s to the 1920s. Inland Northwest Immigrants was comprised of artifacts that once belonged to these families. Already interested in cultural and social history, the lives and backgrounds of the people whose possessions I was handling intrigued me. I became invested in discovering more about these families including who they were, their motivations for immigrating, and the ways in which they did or did not maintain their cultures. 

The Role of Museums
Before diving into the specifics of exhibit curation, an introduction to the role and importance of museums in education is necessary. Museums are essential to the identity of a community, and their purpose is to serve the public. The International Council of Museums defines museums as the following:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”[2]

Timothy Ambrose and Crispin Paine’s Museum Basics offers a fantastic outline of the significance of museums in cultural identity: “As keepers of the collective memory…museums can play a valuable role in providing an understanding of identity and in fostering a sense of belonging to a place or community for their users.”[3] History museums aim to educate the public on past problems and the ways in which they impacted people and their communities. Through this shared past, members of the public can find a similarity and a shared identity. Furthermore, museums have the ability to offer new ideas or concepts for changing the future.

Museums are not new phenomenon and have been around in various respects for hundreds of years, though they did not resemble modern museums today. Historically, the origins of the modern museum lie in different societies and people groups preserving objects that were deemed to be of importance. As Ambrose and Paine state in Museum Basics, “Museums are the treasure-houses of the human race.”[4] Modern museums are most closely linked to seventeenth-century Europe, in which the first use of the term “museum” was used in 1682. The term was used to refer to a collection of objects gifted to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole. The private objects of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats evolved to become public displays, leading to the modern museums. Fairs were also a large inspiration for the modern museum, as people have historically flocked to fairgrounds to witness elaborate items, shows, exhibits, etc.[5]

Today, there is no singular model for museums. Museums are drastically different in physical orientation, exhibition techniques, subject matter, and related fields. For example, Moscow, Idaho is home to the Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center, which can be considered a local history museum, as it focuses on the history of the Appaloosa horse and locals are its main audience.[6] My exhibit, Inland Northwest Immigrants, was housed in the McConnell Mansion, a historic house museum. Museums are often categorized by the following: collections, mode of exhibition, type of audience, management, and geographical area.[7] Museums classified by their collections can include art museums, science museums, history museums, military museums, and other subject fields. Likewise, traditional museums, historic house museums, open-air museums, and interactive museums are determined by the manner in which they exhibit their collections.[8]

Harking back to the importance of museums, museums not only serve as a place for a shared memory (and thus a shared identity), but also contribute to the conservation and preservation of this shared identity. Museums aim to protect and maintain their collections, which are comprised of cultural and natural heritage of that museum’s respective community.[9] Of course, the role of museums in education cannot be overstated. Students of all ages—and adults as well—can come to museums and learn through a firsthand look at original artifacts and materials. Museums can bring history, science, art, and other related fields to life.

Aiming to enrich this public understanding and engagement with a collective identity, Inland Northwest Immigrants emphasized the photographs and personal belongings of the immigrants discussed in this thesis. In order to balance a historical narrative that provided an educational look into the history of culture and immigration in Latah County, including artifacts created and owned by immigrants enabled the exhibit’s audiences to experience the history in real time. Housed in the historic McConnell Mansion, visitors were also embraced by a nostalgic and period time-appropriate ambiance, as the majority of the house museum is decorated to resemble its original Victorian-era beginnings. Through displaying the material culture of European immigrants—very much informed by the local history—the exhibit encouraged audiences to consider a shared identity through the objects and their histories. In this sense, the McConnell Mansion also acts as a site of heritage, as it provides visitors with knowledge of the aspects of Moscow’s and Latah County’s heritage during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a temporary exhibit, Inland Northwest Immigrants was also created with the hope it would engage more groups to visit and explore the McConnell Mansion. Temporary exhibitions featuring items from a museum or historical society’s collection is a tool that many historical bodies utilize to create events or programming for the public.[10]

Though museums aim to collect, preserve, and maintain collections, their other largest calling is to serve their communities. Of course, education is at the forefront of this service. In the twenty-first century, museums are being pushed sectors in the humanities to recognize their obligation to their community members. One of the ways in which museums are having to alter their traditional operations and explore new avenues includes accessibility. To best serve every person, museums must recognize effective ways to make themselves more accessible. This ranges from having open hours during times that best convenience potential audiences, catering for children and helping parents feel there is a safe and entertaining place for their children as well, making admission costs affordable, and making sure exhibits are easy to interpret via lighting, text font size, etc.[11]

Perhaps most important for this thesis project is to make history accessible through an online platform. While a traditional paper version of this thesis is accessible, it is intended to be a digital project. The motivation behind this was accessibility for citizens of Latah County to be able to easily and quickly discover a history of their past. In situations where parents may not have the energy to take their children to museums, elderly community members may not have the ability to transport themselves to museums, or money is a inhibiting factor, online museum materials—or digital exhibits—can be extremely important and essential, especially to museums in the twenty-first century.

This thesis was born with accessibility in mind, and it is intended to provide local history at the fingertips of Latah County residents. As Ambrose and Paine write, making museums digitally accessible via websites has “the potential to reach and develop new ‘virtual’ audiences in parallel with the museum’s physical visitors.”[12] An online museum experience is not intended to take away from the physical experience. However, it is the hope that digital accessibility provides more ways to explore history for a larger audience.

The Archive: Collections
My ability to create the physical exhibit and further expand on the history of immigrants to Latah County was guided by the Latah County Historical Society’s archive. Having previous knowledge of the large influx of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants to Latah County, I first began my search in the archives for those stories. While Norwegian and Swedish immigrants represent the largest ethnic background of settlers in the region, the personal family collections I discovered that had the most information belonged to Irish and German families. Ultimately, Irish and German voices were the most prominent, especially in relation to family genealogies. My primary source archival material was predominantly informed by family genealogies, which provided insight into not only family trees but also family stories of immigration and beginning new lives in a new land. From these family genealogies, I was able to find and connect artifacts in the Latah County Historical Society collection that belonged to the same families I was reading about in the archive. Together, these informed and shaped both my exhibit and thesis.

Once a topic or area of research is chosen for an exhibit, the next natural step is object research. Because I first chose an exhibit topic and then searched for corresponding artifacts in the Latah County Historical Society’s archive, I had already developed a decent background for many of the artifacts I used. Some artifacts had more historical information than others—much depended on the depth of information that was provided on the historical society’s CatalogIt database, which is a tool used by many museums for cataloging collections.[13] CatalogIt enables museums and similar institutions to easily and quickly access a cataloged, comprehensive classification of objects that a museum has in its possession. This database prides itself in offering a hassle-free user experience and having collaboration capabilities.[14] Many of the objects I had chosen for my physical exhibit in the McConnell Mansion had virtually no background information available, causing me to reference my knowledge of the immigrant family who owned that specific object.

Inland Northwest Immigrants presented very few thematic objects, which included two black suitcases and a few books in German, Swedish and Norwegian. The major artifacts used were traced directly to an immigrant family who settled in Latah County. Of course, this was pertinent to the aspirations and story my exhibit aimed to tell. Additionally, these objects proved helpful in my thesis research, as they provided a firsthand insight into life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Museums have a responsibility to maintain materials in their collections for research purposes.[15] While exhibits seek to be educational, artifacts alone are also a tool for investigating the past.

Given the important role museums play in collecting objects for research, the handling, packing, and transportation of collections is an incredibly important aspect of exhibit curation. Some of the artifacts I utilized were more fragile than others, such as a ceramic teacup and plate. Objects like these were transported with great anxiety and care from Latah County Historical Society’s main building to the McConnell Mansion, which is located diagonally across the street. Furthermore, each item needed to be transported up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the mansion. Aiming to do this with the utmost care possible, I paid close attention to the most fragile objects first. I packed the items carefully into a box for transportation, walked carefully, and was mindful of paying attention and avoiding outside distractions.

The Museum Space: The McConnell Mansion
Perhaps one of my largest challenges in creating the physical exhibit revolved around the space itself. Instead of starting with a blank slate and having the ability to create a whole new color palette and theme without too much of a concern for space, I had to ensure Inland Northwest Immigrants was going to fit into the pre-existing space in the McConnell Mansion. Being mindful of the mansion’s aesthetic and ambiance, I had to adjust my exhibit to compliment characteristics of the room I had chosen, including existing furniture and color schemes. Choosing flattering colors for the exhibit text panels that would sit well against the blue-green walls in the mansion is one way in which I was mindful of the mansion space. Furthermore, I attempted to incorporate the preexisting furniture in the room, including a bookshelf on which I placed books written in German, Norwegian, and Swedish.

The physical setting of a museum always impacts its design and operation, regardless of the museum’s type.[16] Some museums may be built within a setting that fits best, such as a military museum in a fort, or an agricultural museum on a historic ranch, etc.[17] The McConnell Mansion was built and is mainly decorated in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century aesthetic, so the time period of my exhibit (1870-1920) did fit quite well in the space. Beyond stylistic choices and challenges, accessibility should also be considered when it comes to exhibit curation.

Inland Northwest Immigrants was on the second floor and the McConnell Mansion has no elevator. With this in mind, I wanted to strive to create an exhibit that would be as accessible as possible to those who were able to ascend the flight of stairs. Museum accessibility can range from the size of the text on the panels to the lighting used. The room that housed my exhibit was full of natural light, as there were a group of large windows present. Lighting was not of too much concern given this. Furthermore, though most of my text panels were not very big, I made sure the font I chose was easy to read and bolded. The text panels were strategically positioned so that visitors could lean in and view them closely, without worrying about touching an object pedestal.

The books in German, Swedish and Norwegian were available to be handled by the public, in hopes that it may entertain those who appreciated a more hands-on learning approach (including children). While the exhibit still required parental supervision as some artifacts were still in reach, children also had the option to play in the room directly next to the exhibit, in which there is a play space with vintage toys for younger kids. The physical exhibit was also accompanied by a digital version, which contained a more in-depth historical analysis and engaged in a more scholarly discussion for those who were curious to learn more after visiting.

The Exhibit Materials
The artifacts of material culture that I utilized in my physical exhibit included the personal belongings of the analyzed immigrant families. In order to further educate visitors on European immigration in Latah County through presenting some of these immigrants’ possessions, the material culture was intended to humanize the immigrant experience and bring their stories to life. Interpreting objects is the museum curator’s main responsibility, and perhaps object interpretation is the first thing that comes to ones mind when thinking about museums. The first step in a successful exhibit and artifact interpretation is to identify the audience. Of course, the audience I had in mind for Inland Northwest Immigrants were first and foremost the community members of Latah County, including families who were new to the area and those who may have a longstanding family presence in the region.

In terms of object interpretation, a museum can use several different techniques in the presentation to enhance the effectiveness of the exhibit. These methods are often categorized into two types: static and dynamic. Static techniques include objects, texts and labels, models, drawings, photographs, dioramas, tableaux, information sheets, guidebooks, and worksheets.[18] Dynamic methods include live interpretation, sound-guides, guided talks and walks, lectures, film/video/slide-tape, working models and animatronics, computer-based interactives, mechanical interactives, objects for handling, drama, and websites.[19] The methods for presentation used in Inland Northwest Immigrants consisted of mainly traditional elements. I used text panels and photos as my main means of interpretation. However, I also provided objects for handling (books) and a website URL accessible via a QR code (available throughout the exhibit on text panels as well as object captions.

The physical exhibit’s text panels were written with the intention to provide visitors with a brief overview of each immigrant family and their place in the region. Though it was difficult to keep the text to a minimum, many museum visitors do not want to read a large amount of information. Rather, audiences would usually like to spend more time looking at the artifacts on display. In fact, it is recommended that most text panels have a maximum of approximately fifty words.[20] Much like keeping the text short, written exhibit interpretations should also be simple and not over-complicated. Text should avoid inaccessible language and wording. Keeping this in mind, I sought to create text panels that would provide the audience with some of the most important information regarding an immigrant family, and they could consult the digital exhibit version if they sought more historical information. Below is the text from one of my panels, which details information about Nathaniel Williamson, an immigrant to Moscow from Ireland:

Nathaniel Williamson, also known as “Nat,” was born in 1872 in County Monaghan, Ireland. His ambitious spirit brought him to Moscow in 1903, following his purchase of stock in The Boston Store (eventually named “Williamson’s Store”). Williamson had great success and eventually became known as Moscow’s “Merchant Prince of North Idaho.” He and his wife, Caroline (born in California), had four children: Frank, Mary, Harry, and Jack. Williamson passed away in Spokane, Washington in 1928.[21]

Museum lighting is, of course, an extremely important factor in exhibit interpretation. The McConnell Mansion is considerably well-lit overall, and the room that housed Inland Northwest Immigrants was especially bright thanks to the large windows. While this natural light created a great ambiance and enable visitors to see everything in the exhibit clearly, it also created a new problem: ultra-violet radiation.[22] The sun can be damaging to historical artifacts, causing museum professionals to take extra care in preserving materials that may be in direct sunlight. In an attempt to minimize potential damage to the artifacts I had chosen for the exhibit, I was aware of where in the room I was placing objects. I also utilized the pre-existing window shutters and was careful to avoid placing photographs in particular in the harmful rays.

My biggest struggle in curating Inland Northwest Immigrants was most certainly the process of finding and securing display tables. Museum showcases are incredibly important to security, preventive conservation, and protection in an exhibit setting. Unfortunately, Latah County Historical Society did not have any exhibit case I could use for my purposes. Not having access to cases greatly impacted my exhibit planning, as I was not sure what cases I would be able to use, which determined the objects I would be able to display. An exhibit needs good display cases not only for the aesthetic appeal of the presentation, but also for the longevity and physical condition of the objects used. There are many factors that a museum professional should consider when choosing a display case to use, including its security capabilities, its height for object visualization, its ability to regulate humidity, and other factors.[23] However, I was not in a position to be picky with the display cases I used.

Because the Latah County Historical Society did not have direct access to display cases, I was in a position that caused me to do some networking (perhaps this was a blessing in disguise). Networking and building relationships is essential to the wellbeing of a museum, as it can create a stronger community foundation and also provided museums with further support. After reaching out to several different institutions in the Palouse area, Moscow Contemporary graciously allowed me to borrow a few of the gallery’s pedestal cases. Furthermore, Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections at Washington State University also provided me with some cases. Without this networking and these two collaborators, Inland Northwest Immigrants would certainly not have looked the same.

Because my exhibit was accompanying another larger research project for a history seminar, I had begun the exhibit creation process with some background knowledge of the subject. In other words, I had a great starting point for exhibit research. Exhibit research is essential to the curating process, as one must have a great deal of information on a subject to present a thorough view and interpretation of the topic’s history.

In order to make the project more accessible for community members, I believed focusing on individual immigrant families would create a narrative that would be engaging and offer a realistic interpretation of the immigrant experience. To some degree, I had also hoped that learning more about immigration through families might inspire more feelings of relatability between visitors and the stories I was telling, as many people may be able to relate to stories of families.

Material Culture in Latah County and the Power of Place
Beyond the artifacts utilized in Inland Northwest Immigrants, there are evidences of immigrant families throughout Latah County in the form of material culture, including buildings and graves. Moscow, Genesee, Troy, and surrounding areas include historic buildings that are remnants of the county’s humble beginnings. Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History provides readers with a deeper understanding of the role physical locations play in inspiring memory and identity: “Identity is intimately tied to memory: both our personal memories (where we come from and where we have dwelt), and the collective or social memories interconnected with the histories of our families, neighbors, fellow workers, and ethnic communities.”[24] Hayden argues that cultural identity, social history, and urban design are intertwined.[25]
Hayden analyzes the ways in which people are attached to their surroundings, and what impacts a person’s subconscious attachment to a physical place. Studying the landscape culturally can enrich the historian’s perspective on lived memory and the human experience. For the Taylor family from Ireland, creating a home on the outskirts of Moscow as one of the first white groups to relocate to the area was presumably challenging and daunting. One of the ways in which this family retains a physical presence in the county is through two street names located by the University of Idaho. These streets—Taylor Avenue and Lauder Avenue—act as an ingrained aspect of Moscow society. It is unlikely that the average community member driving or walking through the area would know the origins of these street names. Nevertheless, Taylor and Lauder Avenues are remnants of the Taylor family’s shaping of the cultural landscape of Latah County.

The Power of Place explores how social history is embedded in urban landscapes.[26] Furthermore, it details how space is “‘permeated with social relations; it is not only supported by social relations but it is also producing and produced by social relations.”[27] The physical evidences of immigrants in Latah County can act as networks for connecting members of the community to their past and can trigger potential memories for those who have been living in the area for quite some time.

The next two chapters will guide readers through a narrative approach to European immigrant histories so audiences may better understand the history of these immigrant families and their broader historical context. The following chapter will lead readers through the story of each of the four families examined in the physical exhibit. Next, a deeper analysis on the larger place of these immigrants in Latah County will be explored using secondary literature in hopes readers may better understand larger immigrant trends in the American West.
[1] “Hours & Address,” Latah County Historical Society, accessed 14 February 2023,
[2] “Museum Definition,” International Council of Museums, accessed 20 February 2023,
[3] Timothy Ambrose and Crispin Paine, Museum Basics (London: Routledge, 2012), 7.
[4] Ibid., 8.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] “Home,” Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center Foundation Inc., accessed 20 February 2023,
[7] Ambrose and Paine, Museum Basics, 9.
[8] Ibid., 10.
[9] Ibid., 12.
[10] Ibid., 72.
[11] Ibid., 29-30.
[12] Ibid., 104.
[13] “About Us,” CatalogIt, accessed 1 March 2023,
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ambrose and Paine, Museum Basics, 204.
[16] Ibid., 296.
[17] Ibid., 297.
[18] Ibid., 122.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 150.
[21] Inland Northwest Immigrants: Newcomers to Latah County, Moscow, Idaho, Summer 2022.
[22] Ambrose and Paine, Museum Basics, 136.
[23] Ibid., 140.
[24] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 9.
[25] Ibid., 15.
[26] Ibid., 43.
[27] Ibid., 41.

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