History and Its Limits Under Trump

The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have made my day-to-day work as a historian feel pretty inconsequential. Diving back into the past can feel a lot like sticking your head in the sand while the world around you goes up in flames. There is, of course, an urgent place for history and historians under this particular administration, in part to meet a wider hunger to understand just what the hell is going on in our country. A lot of historians have stepped up and offered their perspective and expertise (just glance through this list). This is useful and necessary work. At the same time, there are limits to how history can and should be used.

I’m not going to venture into the dark, twisted swamp of how Donald Trump and his supporters abuse history. I doubt any of them will read this and I doubt even more that anything I write would change their minds. Instead, I’m writing this for those on the left who are marshaling “history” as a tool of resistance. Two core ideas have been articulated again and again in the last two weeks: “we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past” and “history will judge you.” Broadly speaking, I share these sentiments. And to the degree that they help spur action, let’s continue to use them. But we also need to understand their limitations and the ways in which they can actually be counter-productive.

The first idea is a variation on classic “those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.” You can see this, for instance, in the parallels being drawn between Trump’s immigration ban and when the United States turned away Jewish refugees in the 1930s, hundreds of whom later died in the Holocaust. There are some surface similarities between the two episodes, which is part of what makes it an effective rhetorical tool. This parallel nevertheless implies that these sorts of historical episodes were “mistakes” – momentary, if calamitous, fuck-ups from an otherwise virtuous norm. In the case of immigration, it assumes that closing off our borders is a deviation from our true historical identity as a melting-pot of immigrants. The history of the United States is, indeed, a history of immigrants, but it is also a history of immigrant-haters.

The Jewish refugee episode, as reprehensible as it was, did not represent some momentary lapse. It was firmly anchored in the xenophobia, isolationism, and anti-semitism of the era. Prejudice, fear-mongering, and the exclusion of particular religious or racial groups from entering the United States have been part of national politics for a long, long time. Just because a Muslim ban fits within the longer tapestry of American history, however, doesn’t make it justified – any more than a history of denying women a political voice justifies repealing the nineteenth amendment. A ban on Muslims is wrong because it violates the moral and legal standards of the United States today. We shouldn’t have to turn to history to make that case.

Perhaps most broadly, the “doomed to repeat history” line can also lead to false equivalencies between the present and the past. I’m currently living in Munich, Germany. As I walk past the very same plazas where Hitler held rallies and gave speeches, it’s hard not to hear those echoes in today’s political climate. Listening too closely to them, however, is often counter-productive. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, as much as they might share disturbingly similar political tactics. If you start to seriously compare the two, Trump – for all of his terribleness – is always going to fall short of the man who engineered the most destructive global war in history and the calculated genocide of millions of people. In my mind, this lets Donald Trump off the hook. We shouldn’t be evaluating his actions primarily in terms of their similarities to past fascist regimes. That’s an incredibly low bar.

The problem with historical parallels is that they can also blind us to actions that don’t have easy historical precedents. If we’re only on the lookout for the symptoms of Hitler-esque fascism, we’re going to miss all the other danger signs of, say, a more modern autocracy. In fact, given the sheer intensity and speed with which this administration has assaulted so many things I care about, I think that constantly trying to draw lessons from the past can actually serve as a distraction. It’s well worth debating which of the Andrews (Jackson or Johnson) serves as a better parallel for Donald Trump; in the meantime, he’s installing a climate-change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency or making a racist ethno-nationalist one of the most powerful people in the world.

The second line that I’ve heard again and again is that “history will judge you.” This is most often aimed at Republicans in an attempt to force them to weigh long-term legacies against short-term agendas. Yes, Trump might help you repeal Obamacare. But do you want to be the next George Wallace? Are future generations going to laud you for standing up for basic decency or deride you as someone who helped pave the way for hatred and bigotry? I happen to firmly believe our grandchildren will look back on Donald Trump in horror, but predicting the future is a slippery business. There is no archive that I can draw from to “prove” where our country will end up and how future Americans will think about the Trump presidency. Someone on the other side of the political spectrum can just as easily believe that history will look back on Donald Trump as a savior, and that anyone who supported him will have helped steer the United States off the dangerous path it had been hurtling down. When we say to Paul Ryan, “history will judge you,” it’s pretty easy to meet that accusation with “not-uh.” Ultimately, the only way to tell who’s right is to wait and see.

“History will judge you” rests on the assumption that a) our country inherently follows a particular kind of trajectory, and that b) it will continue to do so. The “arc of history” is one of Barack Obama’s favorite lines, itself an adaptation from (most famously) Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This might be comforting for those of us hoping that our progressive values are destined to win out in the end, but it also offers false comfort. Historical trajectories look very different depending on whose trajectory you consider and what you decide to use as a end point.


The Reconstruction Era is a useful example. For many, many years the dominant understanding was that the North’s attempt to “reconstruct” the former Confederate states was needlessly punitive and a tyrannical overreach of federal power. Violent efforts by paramilitary groups to suppress freed slaves were, in fact, honorable attempts to restore the proper, natural social order of the South. If you were to look backward from, say, the 1940s, “history” had indeed judged these groups and found them not only innocent, but heroic. For African-Americans, meanwhile, the moral arc of history had in many ways bent backwards – from the dramatic gains made during Reconstruction to the crushing boot-heel retrenchment of the Jim Crow era. History does not follow one single trajectory that moves inexorably upwards.

If history is an arc, then it is an immensely pliable one that can be bent in any direction. Over the next four years, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are going to bend that arc in disturbing ways. There is no way around it. Whatever built-in resistance that arc might have – institutions, political norms, democratic checks and balances – have proven much weaker than we originally thought. It’s going to bend, and it’s going to bend badly. History is not self-correcting. There’s no guarantee that it will magically straighten itself out somewhere down the road. The thing we need to do is grab on as tight as we possibly can and keep it from bending in ways that prove permanent. I do not want to leave it in the hands of “history” to judge Donald Trump. We – the American public – need to judge him right the fuck now.

American Panorama: Part II

This is the second half of a review of American Panorama (you can read Part I here). Together, the two posts are a follow-up to my earlier call for digital historians to more actively engage with the historical contributions of each other’s projects.

Part II. The Overland Trails, 1840-1860

Between 1840 and 1860 several hundred thousand people traveled westward across the United States, most of them ending up in California, Oregon, and Utah. Their migration has become a foundational element of American history, conjuring up visions of covered wagons and hardy pioneers. Or, if you grew up playing the educational computer game The Oregon Trail: floppy disks, pixelated oxen, and exciting new words like “dysentery.” The topic has been exhaustively studied by genealogists, historians, and millions of schoolchildren over the years. American Panorama attempts to break new ground on what is, like the trail itself, well-trodden soil.

The Overland Trails follows a similar visual layout as The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, with multiple panes showing a map, a timeline, aggregated data, and the expandable text from twenty-two trail diaries. Far more so than The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, however, it puts these written narratives into the spotlight. The visualization includes the full text of each diary rather than brief excerpts. Clicking on a specific diarist allows you to read all of their entries, with a linked footnote to the original source. As you scroll through the entries, clusters of dots track the progress of the emigrant’s journey on the map as they pass between landmarks like Courthouse Rock or Fort Laramie.

OverlandTrailAnimation

Two other panes provide context for that particular year: a short summary of trail activity and a small map breaking down the estimated annual migration to California, Oregon, and Utah. The timeline uses small multiples for each year that plot the seasonal progression of emigrant journeys on its x-axis and, somewhat confusingly, the (horizontal) longitude coordinates of these journeys on its vertical axis. Timeline aside, the overall reading experience is both intuitive and seamless. More importantly, the visualization strikes a balance between detail and context, weaving the full text of individual sources within a larger spatial and historical tapestry. In many ways, this is digital design at its best. But why does this elegant design matter? What is the historical payoff? The Overland Trails makes two contributions to the topic of westward migration – one archival and the other interpretive.

First, The Overland Trails gives us not just a new, but a better platform for reading and understanding the topic’s source base. The trail diary was a genre unto itself during the mid-nineteenth century. They were often written to serve as a kind of guide to help family or friends follow them westward, recording daily mileage, landmarks, trail quality, and the availability of water and grass. These details made the diaries immensely helpful for future emigrants, but immensely boring for future historians. Take an entry written by James Bennett on July 12th, 1850:

Friday 12th-After ten miles travel this day over a heavy, sandy and barren road, we reached Sweet Water river, where we took dinner. Here we found the grass very short and as our cattle were nearly exhausted by hard work and scant feed, we drove off the road five miles to the right, where we found excellent grass and a good spring.

Now imagine reading thousands of entries exactly like this one. You start to get hungry for anything that breaks the monotony of the trail: white-knuckled river crossings, exchanges with passing Indians, or fiery arguments about whether or not to travel on the Sabbath. Moreover, as a reader we often don’t care all that much about where these juicy episodes took place – does it really matter if they occurred in western Nebraska, northern Utah, or eastern Oregon? The nebulous space of “The Trail Experience” serves as a stand-in for specific geography of where things happened. But the loss of geographic context risks distorting the lived reality of nineteenth-century emigrants. For them, trail life was overwhelmingly defined by geography: boring, repetitive, grinding travel along an established trail itinerary, with mileage tallies or landmark notations acting as a means of marking their progress through that geography. American Panorama captures the experience of overland travel far more effectively than simply reading trail diaries on their own. As simple as it sounds, linking individual entries to their location on a map illustrates the small-scale, incremental geography that made up this massive, large-scale migration.

The second historical contribution of The Overland Trails involves a broader spatial reinterpretation of westward expansion. The phrase itself – “western expansion” conjures up the image of a wave of Anglo-American settlers washing over the continent. This was the geography embedded in Manifest Destiny iconography and Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis.

Emanuel_Leutze_-_Westward_the_Course_of_Empire_Takes_Its_Way_-_Smithsonian
Source: Wikimedia Commons

American Panorama presents a much different geography. Western migration was not a wave; it was a narrow river. Hundreds of thousands of people may have traveled across the western interior between the 1840 and 1860, but they did so along a severely restricted corridor of travel. This might seem obvious; the Overland Trail was, after all, a trail. But the trail’s meaning has come to embody a certain idea of mobility, not just in terms of traveling westward to Oregon or California, but of experiencing and claiming the vast swath of land that lay in between. When mapped, however, the journeys of twenty-two emigrants resemble tightly braided cords that only gradually fray as they approach the Pacific Coast. Overland travelers operated in a tightly constrained space.

OverlandTrail_1

To take one example: although emigrants technically traversed from one side of Nebraska Territory to the other, most travelers didn’t see very much of it. The grinding necessity of daily travel kept them pinned along the Platte River. American Panorama illustrates just how narrow this pathway was and how infrequently emigrants deviated from it.

OverlandTrail_Zoom1

In the mid-nineteenth century, the interior of the western United States was seen as a region to pass through as quickly as possible, an area that had long been labeled “The Great American Desert,” or in historian Elliott West’s words, “a threatening void.” (The Contested Plains, 122) Much of the western interior was made up of territory that was ostensibly claimed by the United States but that remained largely ungoverned and unsettled by Anglo-Americans. American Panorama effectively recreates this geography through visual design: bright, sharp lines track the emigrants’ journeys along the trail, interspersed with landmarks and forts shown in equally bright colors. This tightly demarcated trail geography pops out from the map as it snakes across a minimalist base layer entirely devoid of the familiar political boundaries of states or territories. Instead, the underlying map consists of terrain, sparse water features, and the locations of Indian groups such as the Cheyenne in the central plains or the Goshute near Great Salt Lake. The Overland Trails manages to capture the experience of traversing a semi-arid, mountainous region still occupied by native people, one that was seen as largely off-limits for Anglo-American settlement.

The project’s cartographic achievement comes with a cost, however. The presence of native groups played a crucial role in shaping mid-century views of the interior. As historian Susan Schulten notes, “erasing Native Americans from both mental and actual maps” (29) was a central process in the eventual shift from seeing the western interior as an inviting area to settle rather than a forbidding area to traverse. To their credit, the designers of The Overland Trails put native people back on the map. The problem comes from the way in which they do so. The mapmakers label Indian groups using a muted gray color that is nearly identical to the map’s base terrain. Moreover, changing the zoom level causes some labels to shift locations or disappear entirely in order to avoid overlapping with the trail and its landmarks. The overall effect is to weave native groups into the natural landscape, making them visually analogous to the map’s rivers or mountains. This cartographic design ends up conflating native people and the environment – a deeply problematic notion that remains stubbornly lodged in the popular imagination. The visualization builds a marvelous stage for overland emigrants, but its set design turns Indians into a backdrop.

OverlandTrail_Zoom.png

I don’t mean to quibble over (literal) shades of gray. After all, the map’s creators made a concerted effort to include Indian groups – the same can’t be said of other many other historical projects, digital or otherwise. But the project’s cartography highlights a common tension between digital design and historiography. From a design standpoint, the creators of The Overland Trails make all the right decisions. Brightly colored overland routes are foregrounded against a muted base map, including unobtrusive gray labels of Indian groups that give readers contextual information while keeping their attention firmly focused on the emigrant journeys themselves. When those same labels disappear or change locations depending on the zoom level, it helps avoid visual clutter. The problem is that effective digital design can run headlong into fraught historiographical issues, including the contentious idea of the “ecological Indian” and a longstanding cartographic tradition of using maps to marginalize and erase native claims to territory in the West.

Visual design is not the only sticking point for The Overland Trails and its place within western historiography. The visualization is, at its core, a digital archive of primary sources. As I’ve already noted, its interface contributes a new and fascinating way of reading and understanding these sources. What troubles me is the privileging of this particular archive. To be blunt: do we really need a new way of reading and understanding the experience of mostly white, mostly male pioneers whose stories already occupy such a central place in American mythology?

The historical commemoration of overland emigrants began almost as soon as their wagons reached the Pacific Coast. Western pioneer associations held annual conventions and published nostalgic reminiscences that romanticized their journeys. Historians, meanwhile, largely followed the blueprint of Frederick Jackson Turner, who immortalized the march of pioneer-farmers carrying the mantle of civilization westward. Nearly a century passed before historians began to reassess this framework, from uncovering the ways that gender shaped life on the trail to, more recently, interpreting overland migration as a “sonic conquest.” (to use Sarah Keyes’s formulation).

More often than not, however, historical treatments of the Overland Trail still tend to resemble book titles like Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails, or quotes like, “An army of nearly half a million ragged, sunburned civilians marched up the Platte in the vanguard of empire…they emerge from their collective obscurity to illuminate a heroic age in American history.” (Merrill Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives, xiv) The Overland Trails doesn’t explicitly advance this viewpoint, but nor does it move away from it in any substantive way. The informational text accompanying the visualization’s timeline can, at times, read like a “greatest hits” of western lore: the Donner Party, the Gold Rush, Indian fighting, and the Pony Express (its freshest material centers on Mormon migration). The visualization’s space constraints leave precious little room for important historical nuance, leading to generalizations such as “White settlement in the West was disastrous for Indians everywhere.”

To reiterate a point I made in the first part of my review of American Panorama: prioritizing user exploration over authorial interpretation comes with risks. I don’t want to minimize the significance of The Overland Trails, because it contributes a truly valuable new interface for conceptualizing nineteenth-century historical geography and the experience of overland travel. But the project uses a novel framework to deliver largely tired content. My guess is that its selection of content was based on the fact that these particular diaries were already digitized. This kind of pragmatism is a necessary part of digital history. But explaining the interpretive implications of these decisions, not just the nitty-gritty methodological details, often requires a more robust and explicit authorial voice than many digital history projects seem willing to provide.

My hope is that The Overland Trails will serve as a prototype for visualizing other movement-driven sources. To that end, American Panorama has given outside researchers the ability to build on this framework by making the project’s source code available on Github.  The Github repository highlights the open-ended nature of the project, as its creators continue to improve its visualizations. In a similar vein, American Panorama‘s team has several new visualizations to come that examine redlining, urban renewal, and presidential voting.  I have high expectations, and I hope that other historians will join me in giving them the substantive engagement they deserve.

 

American Panorama: Part I

I recently wrote about the wave of digital history reviews currently washing over print journals like the American Historical Review, The Western Historical Quarterly, and The Journal of American History. This wave brings into focus the odd reticence of digital historians to substantively review digital history projects in open, online venues. I ended the post with a call for the field to more actively engage with the work of our peers and, in particular, to evaluate the historical contributions of these digital projects if and when they fall within our areas of subject expertise. The following is my attempt to do just that.

AmericanPanorama_Landing

American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History was released in December 2015 by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. It is a collection of four map-based visualizations focusing on different topics in American history: slave migration, immigration to the U.S., canal construction, and the Overland Trails. Each of these visualizations revolve around an interactive map, with surrounding panes of charts, timelines, contextual data, and primary sources related to the topic. If I could summarize the project’s historical contributions in a single sentence, it would be this one: American Panorama incorporates movement into the history of the United States. To be even more specific, the project shines a new light on the historical movement of people. Its three most compelling visualizations (foreign immigration, slave migration, and the Overland Trails) illustrate some of the most monumental shifts of people in American history. There are certainly other episodes of travel and migration worth studying – Indian Removal or the Great Migration immediately jump to mind – but those selected by American Panorama are certainly three of the most consequential.

Like most digital history projects, American Panorama is a collaboration. Unlike most digital history projects, it’s a collaboration between academic historians and a private company. The Digital Scholarship Lab’s Robert Nelson, Ed Ayers, Scott Nesbit (now at the University of Georgia), Justin Madron, and Nathaniel Ayers make up the academic half of the project. The private half of the partnership is Stamen Design, a renowned data visualization and design studio that has worked with clients ranging from Toyota and AirBnB to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Stamen is also, in the words of tech journalist Alexis Madrigal, “perhaps the leading creator of cool-looking maps.” Stamen’s fingerprints are all over American Panorama. The visualizations are beautifully structured, deeply immersive, and packed with information. In fact, data depth and data density are the hallmarks of these visualizations – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much historical content visualized in this many different ways, all within a single browser window. Furthermore, the project’s visual interface presents a new and valuable framework to understand the scale of people movements in a way that written narratives can struggle to convey. Writing about thousands or even millions of people moving around over the course of years and decades can often devolve into an abstract swirl of numbers, states, regions, and dates. American Panorama makes that swirl intelligible.

The project encapsulates many of the current hallmarks of digital history. It is aimed at a broad public audience and was “designed for anyone with an interest in American history or a love of maps.” Relatedly, the project is exploratory and descriptive rather than explicitly interpretive, and offers only hints at how the reader should understand and interpret patterns. Outside of brief and rather modest textual asides, readers are largely left to make their own discoveries, construct their own narratives, and draw their own conclusions. The common justification for creating exploratory visualizations rather than argumentative or narrative-driven ones is that they encourage participatory engagement. Empowering readers to control how they interact with a visualization nudges them to delve deeper into the project and emerge with a richer understanding of the topic. But an exploratory framework hinges on a reader’s abilities and willingness to discover, narrate, and interpret the project for themselves.

To take one example, American Panorama’s Foreign-Born Population, 1850-2010 offers by far the strongest interpretive stance out of the project’s four visualizations: “American history can never be understood by just looking within its borders.” Even so, the creators consign their interpretation to a short, solitary paragraph in the About This Map section, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about the meaning and implications of this message. The tech blog Gizmodo, for instance, covered the project’s release under the headline: “See The US Welcome Millions Of Immigrants Over 150 Years In This Interactive Map.” Internet headlines have never exactly been a bastion of nuance, but to say that the U.S. “welcomed” immigrants is, well, not very accurate. It’s also an example of the kind of historical mischaracterization that can arise when projects push authorial interpretation into the background.

Full disclosure: I know and deeply admire the work of Rob Nelson, Scott Nesbit, and Ed Ayers. They are very, very smart historians, which is why I found myself wanting to hear more of their voices. What new patterns have they discovered? What stories and interpretations have they drawn from these patterns? How has the project changed their understanding of these topics? The creators of American Panorama do not answer these questions explicitly. Instead, they allow patterns, stories, and interpretations to swim just beneath the surface. This was likely a deliberate choice, and I don’t want to critique the project for failing to accomplish something that it never set out to do in the first place. American Panorama is not an academic monograph and it shouldn’t be treated as one. Nevertheless, the project left me hungry for a more explicit discussion of how it interpretation and historical literature.

I’d like to offer my own take on American Panorama using equal parts review and riff, one that combines an evaluation of the project’s strengths and weaknesses with a discussion of how it fits into themes and topics in U.S. history. To do so, I’ve focused on two visualizations: The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860 and The Overland Trails. Fair warning: in true academic fashion, I had far too much to say about the two visualizations, so I split the piece into two separate posts. The first is below, and the second will follow soon. (Update: you can read Part II here.)

Part I. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860

In some ways, Americans remember slavery through the lens of movement. This begins with The Middle Passage, the horrifying transportation of millions of human beings from Africa to the Americas. The focus on movement then shifts to escape, perhaps best embodied in the Underground Railroad and its stirring biblical exodus from bondage to freedom. But there was a much darker, and less familiar, counterweight to the Underground Railroad: being “sold down the river” to new planting frontiers in the Deep South. The sheer volume of this movement dwarfed the far smaller trickle of runaways: between 1810 and 1860 southern planters and slave traders forced nearly one million enslaved people to move southward and westward. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860 helps us understand the scale and trajectory of this mass movement of human beings.

The visualization uses a map and timeline to illustrate a clear decade-by-decade pattern: enslaved people streaming out of the Upper South and the eastern seaboard and into the cotton-growing regions of the Black Belt (western Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi), the Mississippi River Valley, and eastern Texas and Arkansas. It shows that this shift was not uninterrupted, but came in fits and starts. The reverberations of the 1837 financial panic, for instance, dampened and diffused this movement during the 1840s. An accompanying data pane charts the in-migration and out-migration on a state and county level: during the 1830s more than 120,000 slaves left Virginia, even as 108,000 slaves streamed into Alabama. None of these findings are especially new for historians of the period, but The Forced Migration of Enslaved People brings them into sharp focus.

ForcedMigration_Data

On an interpretive level, The Forced Migration of Enslaved People helps reorient the locus of American slavery away from The Plantation and towards The Slave Market. This is part of a larger historiographical pivot, one that can be seen in Walter Johnson’s book Soul by Soul (1999). Johnson reminds us that American slavery depended not just on the coerced labor of black bodies, but on the commodification of those same bodies. It wasn’t enough to force people to work; the system depended first and foremost on the ability to buy and sell human beings. Because of this, Johnson argues that the primary sites of American slavery were slave markets in places like Charleston, Natchez, and New Orleans. Soul by Soul was an early landmark in the now flourishing body of literature exploring the relationship between slavery and capitalism. The book’s argument rested in large part on the underlying mass movement of black men, women, and children, both through slave markets and into the expanding planter frontier of the Southwest. American Panorama lays bare the full geography of this movement in all of its spatial and temporal detail.

There is a certain irony in using Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul to discuss The Forced Migration of Enslaved People. After all, Johnson’s book includes a critique that might as well have been addressed directly to the project’s creators. He bluntly asserts that the use of maps and charts to illustrate the slave trade hides the lives and experience of the individuals that made up these aggregated patterns. Instead, Johnson calls for the kind of history “where broad trends and abstract totalities thickened into human shape.” (8) His critique echoes the debates that swirled around Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974) and continue to swirl around the digital project Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

The creators of The Forced Migration of Enslaved People gesture towards the larger historiographical divide between quantification and dehumanization in an accompanying text: “Enslaved people’s accounts of the slave trade powerfully testify to experiences that cannot be represented on a map or in a chart.” Instead, they attempt to bring these two modes of history together by incorporating excerpted slave narratives alongside its maps and charts. Clicking on icons embedded in the map or the timeline reveals quotes from individual accounts that mention some dimension of the slave trade. This interface allows the reader to shift back and forth between the visual language of bars, dots, and hexbins, and the written words of formerly enslaved people themselves. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People uses a digital medium to present both the “broad trends and abstract totalities” and the “human shape” of individual lives. One of the analytical and narrative payoffs of an interactive interface is the ability to seamlessly move between vastly different scales of reading. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People breaks important new ground in this regard by blending the macro scale of demographics with the micro scale of individuals.

ForcedMigration_Expanded

Ultimately, however, the project’s attempt to combine narrative accounts and quantitative data falls short of its potential. On the whole, the scale of the individuals recedes under the scale of the data. The problem lies in the way in which the project presents its excerpted quotes. Flurries of names, places, events, and emotions appear divorced from the broader context of a particular narrative. Reading these text fragments can often feel like driving past a crash on the side of a highway. You might glimpse the faces of some passengers or the severity of the wreck, but you don’t know how they got there or what happens to them next. Then you pass another crash. And another. And another. The cumulative weight of all these dozens of wrecks is undeniable, and part of what makes the visualization effective. But it’s also numbing. Human stories begin to resemble data points, presented in chronological, bulleted lists and physically collapsed into two-line previews. The very features that make narratives by enslaved people such powerful historical sources – detail, depth, emotional connection – fade away within this interface. Narratives give voice to the millions of individuals whose stories we’ll never hear; The Forced Migration of Enslaved People helps us to hear some of those voices, but only briefly, and only in passing.

ForcedMigration_Collapsed1

Historians characterize the years leading up to the Civil War as a period defined by sectional conflict between North and South. The abolition of slavery was not the major flashpoint for this conflict; rather, the expansion of slavery into western states and territories was the primary wedge between the two sides. The issue would come to define national politics by pitting two competing visions of the nation against one another. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People reminds us that this was not just an ideological or political issue, but a spatial issue rooted in the physical movement of hundreds of thousands of people into areas like the Black Belt and the Mississippi River Vally. By the 1850s, many northerners feared that this great heave of slaveholders and enslaved people would continue onwards into the Far West. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People forces us to take those fears seriously. What if the visualization’s red hexbins didn’t stop in the cotton fields of eastern Texas? What if its timeline didn’t end in 1860? Southern slavery did not stand still during the antebellum era and its demise was far from inevitable. This visualization gives us a framework with which to understand that trajectory.

I doubt that most Americans would put slave traders and shackled black bodies within the historical pantheon of great national migrations, but American Panorama injects this vast movement of people into the history of the antebellum United States. In the second part of my discussion, I’ll turn my attention to a much more familiar historical migration unfolding at the same time: The Overland Trails.

The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology

[The following is the text of a talk I prepared for a panel discussion about authoring digital scholarship for history with Adeline Koh, Lauren Tilton, Yoni Appelbaum, and Ed Ayers at the 2015 American Historical Association Conference.]

 
I’d like to start with a blog post that was written almost seven years ago now, titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” In it, Tom Scheinfeldt argued that the rise of digital history represented a disciplinary shift away from big ideas about ideology or theory and towards a focus on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” Tom’s post was a big reason why I applied to graduate school. I found this methodological turn thrilling – the idea that tools like GIS, text mining, and network analysis could revolutionize how we study history. Seven years later the digital turn has, in fact, revolutionized how we study history. Public history has unequivocally led the charge, using innovative approaches to archiving, exhibiting, and presenting the past in order to engage a wider public. Other historians have built powerful digital tools, explored alternative publication models, and generated online resources to use in the classroom.
 
But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
 
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.
 
There are many reasons for this imbalance, including the desire to reach a wider audience beyond the academy, the investment in collection and curation needed for electronic sources, or the open-ended nature of big digital projects. All of these are laudable. But there is another, more problematic, reason for the comparative inattention to scholarly arguments: digital historians have a love affair with methodology. We are infatuated with the power of digital tools and techniques to do things that humans cannot, such as dynamically mapping thousands of geo-historical data points. The argumentative payoffs of these methodologies are always just over the horizon, floating in the tantalizing ether of potential and possibility. At times we exhibit more interest in developing new methods than in applying them, and in touting the promise of digital history scholarship rather than its results. 
 
What I’m going to do in the remaining time is to use two examples from my own work to try and concretize this imbalance between methods and results. The first example is a blog post I wrote in 2010. At the time I was analyzing the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, made famous by Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. The blog post described how I used a process called topic modeling to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Martha Ballard between 1785 and 1812. To grossly oversimplify, topic modeling is a technique that automatically generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). So, for instance, the technique grouped the following words together:
 
gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds
 
As a human reader it’s pretty clear that these are words about gardeningOnce I generated this topic, I could track it across all 10,000 entries. When I mashed twenty-seven years together, it produced this beautiful thumbprint of a New England growing season.
 
Seasonal Presence of GARDENING topic in Martha Ballard’s Diary
 
Interest in topic modeling took off right around the time that I wrote this post, and pretty soon it started getting referenced again and again in digital humanities circles. Four and a half years later, it has been viewed more than ten thousand times and been assigned on the syllabi of at least twenty different courses. It’s gotten cited in books, journal articlesconference presentations, grant applications, government reports, white papers, and, of course, other blogs. It is, without a doubt, the single most widely read piece of historical writing I have ever produced. But guess what? Outside of the method, there isn’t anything new or revelatory in it. The post doesn’t make an original argument and it doesn’t further our understanding of women’s history, colonial New England, or the history of medicine. It largely shows us things we already know about the past – like the fact that people in Maine didn’t plant beans in January.
 
People seized on this blog post not because of its historical contributions, but because of its methodological contributions. It was like a magic trick, showing how topic modeling could ingest ten thousand diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, tell you what the major themes were in those entries and track them over time, all without knowing the meaning of a single word. The post made people excited for what topic modeling could do, not necessarily what it did do; the methodology’s potential, not its results.
 
About four years after I published my blog post on Martha Ballard, I published a very different piece of writing. This was an article that appeared in last June’s issue of the Journal of American History, the first digital history research article published by the journal. In many ways it was a traditional research article, one that followed the journal’s standard peer review process and advanced an original argument about American history. But the key distinction was that I made my argument using computational techniques. 
 
The starting premise for my argument was that the late nineteenth-century United States has typically been portrayed as a period of integration and incorporation. Think of the growth of railroad and telegraph networks, or the rise of massive corporations like Standard Oil. In nineteenth-century parlance: “the annihilation of time and space.” This existing interpretation of the period hinges on geography – the idea that the scale of locality and region were getting subsumed under the scale of nation and system. I was interested in how these integrative forces actually played out in the way people may have envisioned the geography of the nation. 
 
So I looked at a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas, during the 1890s and wrote a computer script that counted the number of times the paper mentioned different cities or states. In effect, how one newspaper crafted an imagined geography of the nation. What I found was that instead of creating a standardized, nationalized view of the world we might expect, the newspaper produced space in ways that centered on the scale of region far more than nation. It remained overwhelmingly focused on the immediate sphere of Texas, and even more surprisingly, on the American Midwest. Places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis were far more prevalent than I was expecting, and from this newspaper’s perspective Houston was more of a midwestern city than a southern one. 
 
Cameron Blevins, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” Journal of American History, 101, no. 1 (June 2014), 127.
 
I would have never seen these patterns without a computer. And in trying to account for this pattern I realized that, while historians might enjoy reading stuff like this…
 
maine_zoom
 
…newspapers often look a lot more like this:
 
rr_timetable_crop
 
All of this really boring stuff – commodity prices, freight rates, railroad timetables, classified ads – made up a shockingly large percentage of content. Once you include the boring stuff, you get a much different view of the world from Houston in the 1890s. I ended up arguing that it was precisely this fragmentary, mundane, and overlooked content that explained the dominance of regional geography over national geography. I never would have been able to make this argument without a computer.
 
The article offers a new interpretation about the production of space and the relationship between region and nation. It issues a challenge to a long-standing historical narrative about integration and incorporation in the nineteenth-century United States. By publishing it in the Journal of American History, with all of the limitations of a traditional print journal, I was trying to reach a different audience from the one who read my blog post on topic modeling and Martha Ballard. I wanted to show a broader swath of historians that digital history was more than simply using technology for the sake of technology. Digital tools didn’t just have the potential to advance our understanding of American history – they actually did advance our understanding of American history.
 
To that end, I published an online component that charted the article’s digital approach and presented a series of interactive maps. But in emphasizing the methodology of my project I ended up shifting the focus away from its historical contributions. In the feedback and conversations I’ve had about the article since its publication, the vast majority of attention has focused on the method rather than the result: How did you select place-names? Why didn’t you differentiate between articles and advertisements? Can it be replicated for other sources? These are all important questions, but they skip right past the arguments that I’m making about the production of space in the late nineteenth century. In short: the method, not the result. 
 
I ended my article with a familiar clarion call:
Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.
This is the rhetorical style of digital history. While reading through conference program I was struck by just how many abstracts about digital history used the words “potential,” “promise,” “possibilities,” or in the case of our own panel, “opportunities.” In some ways 2015 doesn’t feel that different from 2008, when Tom Scheinfeldt wrote about the sunrise of methodology and the Journal of American History published a roundtable titled “The Promise of Digital History.” I think this is telling. Academic scholarship’s engagement with digital history seems to operate in a perpetual future tense. I’ve spent a lot of my career talking about what digital methodology can do to advance scholarly arguments. It’s time to start talking in the present tense.

Making Numbers Legible

What do you do with numbers? I mean this in the context of writing, not research. How do you incorporate quantitative evidence into your writing in a way that makes it legible for your readers? I’ve been thinking more and more about this as I write my dissertation, which examines the role of the nineteenth-century Post in the American West. Much like today, the Post was massive. Its sheer size was part of what made it so important. And I find myself using the size of the Post to help answer the curmudgeonly “so what?” question that stalks the mental corridors of graduate students. On a very basic level, the Post mattered because so many Americans sent so many letters through such a large network operated by so many people. Answering the “so what?” question means that I have to incorporate numbers into my writing. But numbers are tricky.

Let’s begin with the amount of mail that moved through the U.S. Post. In 1880 Americans sent 1,053,252,876 letters. That number is barely legible for most readers. I mean this in two ways. In a mechanical sense we HATE having to actually read so many digits. A more conceptual problem is that this big of a number doesn’t mean all that much. If I change 1,053,252,876 to 1,253,252,876, would it lead you, the reader, to a fundamentally different conclusion about the size of the U.S. Post? I doubt it, even though the difference of 200 million letters is a pretty substantial one. And if instead of adding 200 million letters I subtract 200 million letters – 1,053,252,876 down to 853,252,876 – the reader’s perception is more likely to change. But this is only because the number shed one of its digits and crossed the magic cognitive threshold from “billion” to “million.” It’s not because of an inherent understanding of what those huge numbers actually mean.

ActualPerceived
Actual and perceived differences between 853,252,876 vs. 1,053,252,876 vs. 1,253,252,876

One strategy to make a number like 1,053,252,876 legible is by reduction: to turn large numbers into much smaller ones. If we spread out those billion letters across the population over the age of ten, the average American sent roughly twenty-eight letters over the course of 1880, or one every thirteen days. A ten-digit monstrosity turns into something the reader can relate to. After all, it’s easier to picture writing a letter every two weeks than it is to picture a mountain of one billion letters. Numbers, especially big ones, are easier to digest when they’re reduced to a more personal scale.

1,053,252,876 letters / 36,761,607 Americans over the age of ten = 28.65 letters / person

A second way to make numbers legible is by comparison. The most direct corollary to the U.S. Post was the telegraph industry. Put simply, the telegraph is a lot sexier than the Post and both nineteenth-century Americans and modern historians alike lionized the technology. A typical account goes something like this: “News no longer traveled at the excruciatingly slow pace of ships, horses, feet, or trains. It now moved at 670 million miles per hour.” In essence, “the telegraph liberated information.” But the telegraph only liberated information if you could afford to pay for it. In 1880 the cost of sending a telegram through Western Union from San Francisco to New York was $2.50, or 125 times the price to mail a two-cent letter. Not surprisingly, Americans sent roughly 35 times the number of letters than telegrams. The enormous size of the Post was in part a product of how cheap it was to use.

telegraphvspost
Cost of Telegram vs. Letter, San Francisco to New York (1880)

This points to a third strategy to make numbers legible: visualization. In the above case the chart acts as a rhetorical device. I’m less concerned with the reader being able to precisely measure the difference between $2.50 and $0.02 than I am with driving home the point that the telegraph was really, really expensive and the U.S. Post was really, really cheap. A more substantive comparison can be made by looking at the size of the Post Office Department’s workforce. In 1880 it employed an army of 56,421 postmasters, clerks, and contractors to process and transport the mail. Just how large was this workforce? In fact, the “postal army” was more than twice the size of the actual U.S. Army. Fifteen years removed from the Civil War there were now more postmasters than soldiers in American society. Readers are a lot better at visually comparing different bars than they are at doing mental arithmetic with large, unwieldy numbers.

PostOffice_Military

Almost as important as the sheer size of the U.S. Post was its geographic reach. Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States. A liberal postal policy meant that almost any community could successfully petition the department for a new post office. Wherever people moved, a post office followed close on their heels. This resulted in a sprawling network that stretched from one corner of the country to the other. But what did the nation’s largest spatial network actually look like?

1880_PostOffices

Mapping 43,012 post offices gives the reader an instant sense for both the size and scope of the U.S. Post. The map serves an illustrative purpose rather than an argumentative one. I’m not offering interpretations of the network or even pointing out particular patterns. It’s simply a way for the reader to wrap their minds around the basic geography of such a vast spatial system. But the map is also a useful cautionary tale about visualizing numbers. If anything, the map undersells the size and extent of the Post. It may seem like a whole lot of data, but it’s actually missing around ten thousand post offices, or 22% of the total number that existed in 1880. Some of those offices were so obscure or had such a short existence that I wasn’t able to automatically find their locations. And these missing post offices aren’t evenly distributed: about 99% of Oregon’s post offices appear on the map compared to only 47% of Alabama’s.

Disclaimers aside, compare the map to a sentence I wrote earlier: “Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States.” In that context the specific number 43,012 doesn’t make much of a difference – it could just as well be 38,519 or 51,933 – and therefore doesn’t contribute all that much weight to my broader point that the Post was ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century United States. A map of 43,012 post offices is much more effective at demonstrating my point. The map also has one additional advantage: it beckons the reader to not only appreciate the size and extent of the network, but to ask questions about its clusters and lines and blank spaces.* A map can spark curiosity and act as an invitation to keep reading. This kind of active engagement is a hallmark of good writing and one that’s hard to achieve using numbers alone. The first step is to make numbers legible. The second is to make them interesting.

* Most obviously: what’s going on with Oklahoma? Two things. Mostly it’s a data artifact – the geolocating program I wrote doesn’t handle Oklahoma locations very well, so I was only able to locate 19 out of 95 post offices. I’m planning to fix this problem at some point. But even if every post office appeared on the map, Oklahoma would still look barren compared to its neighbors. This is because Oklahoma was still Indian Territory in 1880. Mail service didn’t necessarily stop at its borders but postal coverage effectively fell off a cliff; in 1880 Indian Territory had fewer post offices than any other state/territory besides Wyoming. The dearth of post offices is especially telling given the ubiquity of the U.S. Post in the rest of the country, showing how the administrative status of the territory and decades of federal Indian policy directly shaped communications geography.

Still Playing Catch-Up

As I was flipping through the February 2014 issue of the American Historical Review I was encouraged to see that American historical profession’s flagship journal seems to be doing a pretty decent job of publishing the impressive work of female historians. Three out of its four main articles were written by women and four out of the five books in its “Featured Reviews” section were also by women. That’s encouraging. But what about the rest of the February issue? Figuring out how many women are in the 176 contributors for this single issue is a lot harder. And what about not just this issue, but all five issues it publishes annually? And what about not just this year, but every year since its inception in 1895?

Looking at gender representation in the American Historical Review is exactly the kind of historical project that lends itself well towards digital analysis. Collecting individual author information from 120 years of publication history would take an enormous amount of tedious labor. Fortunately the information is already online. I wrote a Python script to scrape the table-of-contents from every AHR issue and then, with the help of Bridget Baird, began to process all of this text to try and extract the books that were reviewed in the AHR, their authors, and the names of the person reviewing them. The data was something of a nightmare, but we were eventually able to get everything we wanted: around 60,000 books, authors, and reviewers. The challenge turned to: was there a way to automatically identify the gender of all of these different people? Especially for a dataset that spanned more than a hundred years we needed a way to take into account potential changes in naming conventions. A historian named Leslie who was born before 1950 was likely to be a man, but if that same Leslie was born after 1950 the person was likely to be a woman. Bridget’s solution was for us to write a program that relies on a database of names from the Social Security Administration dating back to 1880 to account for these changes. This approach is not without problems. It only includes American names while subtly reinforcing an insidious gender binary framework. Nevertheless, it does contribute a useful new digital humanities methodology and one that we are planning to explore with Lincoln Mullen in more depth.

This might come as a real shock, but the American Historical Review didn’t feature very many women for much of its publication history. Over the first eighty years of the AHR‘s existence there were rarely more than a handful of books written by female authors in any given issue – as a percentage of all authors, women made up less than 10% of reviewed books through the 1970s. But things began to change in the late 1970s, when female authors began a steady ascent in the AHR‘s reviews. By the end of the 1980s women’s books had nearly doubled in the journal. By the twenty-first century there were three times as many women as there had been in the 1970s.

gender_percent_byyear
Gender of book authors (as a percent of all authors) in the American Historical Review between 1895 and 2013. The number of authors categorized as “Unknown” in the early years stems from the widespread use of initials (ex. K. T. Drew). Most of these authors were likely men, but we’ve erred on the safe side in categorizing them as Unknown. In the later years, many of the “Unknowns” stem from non-U.S. names.

But other numbers paint a less rosy picture. Lincoln Mullen’s recent work on history dissertations showed a similarly steady upwards trajectory in the number of female-authored history dissertations since 1950. Although it has plateaued in recent years, women have very nearly closed the gap in terms of newly completed history dissertations. But the glass ceiling remains stubbornly low in terms of what happens from that point onwards. In book reviews published in the AHR male authors continue to outnumber female authors by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. Whereas there is now a gap of around 3-5% separating the proportion of male and female dissertation authors, that gap jumps to 25-35% in terms of the proportion of male and female book authors being reviewed in the American Historical Review.

mf_diss_book_bluegreen
Gender of dissertation authors and of book authors in the American Historical Review. Note: The above chart only looks at authors whose gender was successfully identified by the program. It is also something of an apples-to-oranges comparison given that Lincoln and I were using slightly different methods, but it gives a rough sense for the gap between dissertations and the AHR.

On the reviewer side of the equation, things aren’t much better. There are still more than twice as many male reviewers as female reviewers in the AHR. But gender inflects this relationship in less direct ways. In particular, we can look at the gender dynamics of who reviews who. About three times as many men write reviews of male-authored books as do women. In the case of female-authored books, there are slightly more male reviewers than female reviewers but the ratio is much closer to 50/50. In short, women are much more likely to write reviews of other women. And while men still write reviews of the majority of female-authored books, they tend to gravitate towards male authors – who are, of course, already over-represented in the AHR.

male_authors_withreviewers
Gender of reviewers for male-authored books. Note: The above chart only looks at authors and reviewers whose gender was successfully identified by the program.
female_authors_withreviewers
Gender of reviewers for female-authored books. Note: The above chart only looks at authors and reviewers whose gender was successfully identified by the program.

Bridget and I were also able to extract the subjects used by the AHR to categorize their reviews. Although these conventions changed quite a bit over time, I took a stab at aggregating them into some broad categories for the past forty years. Essentially, I wanted to find out the gender representation within different historical fields. As you can see in the chart below, the proportion of men and women is not the same for all fields. Caribbean/Latin American history has had something approaching equal representation for the past decade-and-a-half. In both African history and Ancient/Medieval history female historians made some quite dramatic gains during the late-nineties and aughts. The guiltiest parties, however, are also the two subject categories that publish the most book reviews: Modern/Early Modern Europe and the United States/Canada. Both of them have made steady progress but still hover at around two-thirds male.

categories_gender_bytime
The different subjects are sorted left-to-right by the number of reviews in the AHR. Again, please note that the above chart only looks at authors whose gender was successfully identified by the program.

Women are now producing history dissertations at nearly the same rate as men, but the flagship journal of the American historical profession has yet to catch up. There are, of course, a lot of factors at play. This gap might reflect a substantial time-lag as a younger, more evenly-balanced generation gradually moves its way through the ranks even as an older, male-skewed generation continues to publish monographs. It might reflect biases in the wider publishing industry, or the fact that female historians continue to bear a disproportionate amount of the time-burden of caring for families. That the AHR continues to publish far more reviews of male authors than female authors is depressing, but unfortunately not surprising given the systemic inequalities that continue to exist across the profession.

The County Problem in the West

Happy GIS Day! Below is a version of a lightning talk I’m giving today at Stanford’s GIS Day.

Historians of the American West have a county problem. It’s primarily one of geographic size: counties in the West are really, really big. A “List of the Largest Counties in the United States” might as well be titled “Counties in the Western United States (and a few others)” – you have to go all the way to #30 before you find one that falls east of the 100th meridian. The problem this poses to historians is that a lot of historical data was captured at a county level, including the U.S. Census.

521px-Map_of_California_highlighting_San_Bernardino_County.svg
San Bernardino County

San Bernardino County is famous for this – the nation’s largest county by geographic area, it includes the densely populated urban sprawl of the greater Los Angeles metropolis along with vast swathes of the uninhabited Mojave Desert. Assigning a single count of anything to San Bernardino county to is to teeter on geographic absurdity. But, for nineteenth-century population counts in the national census, that’s all we’ve got.

TheWest_1871_Population-01-01

Here’s a basic map of population figures from the 1870 census. You can see some general patterns: central California is by far the most heavily populated area, with some moderate settlement around Los Angeles, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Santa Fe. But for anything more detailed, it’s not terribly useful. What if there was a way to get a more fine-grained look at settlement patterns in these gigantic western counties? This is where my work on the postal system comes in. There was a post office in (almost) every nineteenth-century American town. And because the department kept records for all of these offices – the name of the office, its county and state, and the date it was established or discontinued – a post office becomes a useful proxy to study patterns over time and space. I assembled this data for a single year (1871) and then wrote a program to geocode each office, or to identify its location by looking it up in a large database of known place-names. I then supplemented it with the the salaries of postmasters at each office for 1871. From there, I could finally put it all onto a map:

TheWest_1871_PostOffices

The result is a much more detailed regional geography than that of the U.S. Census. Look at Wyoming in both maps. In 1870, the territory was divided into five giant rectangular counties, all of them containing less than 5,000 people. But its distribution of post offices paints a different picture: rather than vertical units, it consisted largely of a single horizontal stripe along its southern border.

Wyoming_census-02   Wyoming_postoffices-02

Similarly, our view of Utah changes from a population core of Salt Lake City to a line of settlement running down the center of the territory, with a cluster in the southwestern corner completely obscured in the census map.

Utah_census-01   Utah_postoffices-01

Post offices can also reveal transportation patterns: witness the clear skeletal arc of a stage-line that ran from the Oregon/Washington border southeast to Boise, Idaho.

Dalles_Boise

Connections that didn’t mirror the geographic unit of a state or county tended to get lost in the census. One instance of this was the major cross-border corridor running from central Colorado into New Mexico. A map of post offices illustrate its size and shape; the 1870 census map can only gesture vaguely at both.

ColoradoNewMexico_census-02   ColoradoNewMexico_postoffices-02

The following question, of course, should be asked of my (and any) map: what’s missing? Well, for one, a few dozen post offices. This speaks to the challenges of geocoding more than 1,300 historical post offices, many of which might have only been in existence for a single year or two. I used a database of more than 2 million U.S. place-names and wrote a program that tried to account for messy data (spelling variations, altered state or county boundaries, etc.). The program found locations for about 90% of post offices, while the remaining offices I had to locate by hand. Not surprisingly, they were missing from the database for a reason: these post offices were extremely obscure. Finding them entailed searching through county histories, genealogy message boards, and ghost town websites – a process that is simply not scalable beyond a single year. By 1880, the number of post offices in the West had doubled. By 1890, and it doubled again. I could conceivably spend years trying to locate all of these offices. So, what are the implications of incomplete data? Is automated, 90% accuracy “good enough”?

What else is missing? Differentiation. The salary of a postmaster partially addresses this problem, as the department used a formula to determine compensation based partially on the amount of business an office conducted. But it was not perfectly proportional. If it was, the map would be one giant circle covering everything: San Francisco conducted more business than any other office by several orders of magnitude. As it is, the map downplays urban centers while highlighting tiny rural offices. A post office operates in a kind of binary schema: no office, no people (well, at least very few). If there was an office, there were people there. We just don’t know how many. The map isn’t perfect, but it does start to tackle the county problem in the West.

*Note: You can download a CSV file containing post offices, postmaster salaries, and latitude/longitude coordinates here.*

Who Picked Up The Check?

Adventures in Data Exploration

In November 2012 the United States Postal Service reported a staggering deficit of $15.9 billion. For the historian, this begs the question: was it always this bad? Others have penned far more nuanced answers to this question, but my starting point is a lot less sophisticated: a table of yearly expenses and income.

SurplusDeficitByYear
US Postal Department Surplus (Gray) or Deficit (Red) by Year

So, was the postal department always in such terrible fiscal shape? No, not at first. But from the 1840s onward, putting aside the 1990s and early 2000s, deficits were the norm. The next question: What was the geography of deficits? Which states paid more than others? Essentially, who picked up the check?

Every year the Postmaster General issued a report containing a table of receipts and revenues broken down by state. Let’s take a look at 1871:

AnnualReportTableReceiptsExpenditruesByState
1871 Annual Report of the Postmaster General – Receipts and Expenditures

Because it’s only one table, I manually transcribed the columns into a spreadsheet. At this point, I could turn to ArcGIS to start analyzing the data, maybe merging the table with a shapefile of state boundaries provided by NHGIS. But ArcGIS is a relatively high-powered tool better geared for sophisticated geospatial analysis. What I’m doing doesn’t require all that much horsepower. And, in fact, quantitative spatial relationships (ex. measurements of distance or area) aren’t all that important for answering the questions I’ve posed. There are a number of different software packages for exploring data, but Tableau provides a quick-and-dirty, drag-and-drop interface. In keeping with the nature of data exploration, I’ve purposefully left the following visualizations rough around the edges. Below is a bar graph, for instance, showing the surplus or deficit of each state, grouped into rough geographic regions:

SurplusDeficitBar_Crop
Postal Surplus or Deficit by State – 1871

Or, in map form:

SurplusDeficitMap_Crop
Postal Surplus (Black) or Deficit (Red) by State – 1871

Between the map and the bar graph, it’s immediately apparent that:
a) Most states ran a deficit in 1871
b) The Northeast was the only region that emerged with a surplus

So who picked up the check? States with large urban, literate populations: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois. Who skipped out on the bill? The South and the West. But these are absolute figures. Maybe Texas and California simply spent more money than Arizona and Idaho because they had more people. So let’s normalize our data by analyzing it on a per-capita basis, using census data from 1870.

SurplusDeficitBar_PerCapita_Crop
Postal Surplus or Deficit per Person by State – 1871

The South and the West may have both skipped out on the bill, but it was the West that ordered prime rib and lobster before it left the table. Relative to the number of its inhabitants, western states bled the system dry. A new question emerges: how? What was causing this extreme imbalance of receipts and expenditures in the West? Were westerners simply not paying into the system?

ReceiptsExpendituresByRegion
Postal Receipts and Expenditures per Person by Region – 1871

Actually, no. The story was a bit more complicated. On a per-capita basis, westerners were paying slightly more money into the system than any other region. The problem was that providing service to each of those westerners cost substantially more than in any other region: $38 per person, or roughly 4-5 times the cost of service in the east. For all of its lore of rugged individualism and a mistrust of big government, the West received the most bloated government “hand-out” of any region in the country. This point has been driven home by a generation of “New Western” historians who demonstrated the region’s dependence on the federal government, ranging from massive railroad subsidies to the U.S. Army’s forcible removal of Indians and the opening of their lands to western settlers. Add the postal service to that long list of federal largesse in the West.

But what made mail service in the West so expensive? The original 1871 table further breaks down expenses by category (postmaster salaries, equipment, buildings, etc.). Some more mucking around in the data reveals a particular kind of expense that dominated the western mail system: transportation.

TransportationMap_PerCapita_Crop
Transportation Expenses per Person by State (State surplus in black, deficit in red) – 1871

High transport costs were partially a function of population density. Many western states like Idaho or Montana consisted of small, isolated communities connected by long mail routes. But there’s more to the story. Beginning in the 1870s, a series of scandals wracked the postal department over its “star” routes (designated as any non-steamboat, non-railroad mail route). A handful of “star” route carriers routinely inflated their contracts and defrauded the government of millions of dollars. These scandals culminated in the criminal trial of high-level postal officials, contractors, and a former United States Senator. In 1881, the New York Times printed a list of the ninety-three routes under investigation for fraud. Every single one of these routes lay west of the Mississippi.

1881_StarRouteFrauds_Crop
Annual Cost of “Star” Routes Under Investigation for Fraud – 1881 (Locations of Route Start/End Termini)

The rest of the country wasn’t just subsidizing the West. It was subsidizing a regional communications system steeped in fraud and corruption. The original question – “Who picked up the check?” – leads to a final cliffhanger: why did all of these frauds occur in the West?

A Dissertation’s Infancy: The Geography of the Post

A history PhD can be thought of as a collection of overlapping areas: coursework, teaching, qualifying exams, and the dissertation itself. The first three are fairly structured. You have syllabi, reading lists, papers, classes, deadlines. The fourth? Not so much. Once you’re advanced to candidacy there’s a sense of finally being cut loose. Go forth, conquer the archive, and return triumphantly to pen a groundbreaking dissertation. It’s exhilarating, empowering, and also terrifying as hell. I’ve been swimming through the initial research stage of the dissertation for the past several months and thought it would be a good time to articulate what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Note: if you are less interested in American history and more interested in maps and visualizations, I would skip to the end.

The Elevator Speech

I’m studying communications networks in the late nineteenth-century American West by mapping the geography of the U.S. postal system.*

The Elevator-Stuck-Between-Floors Speech

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century the US. Post steadily expanded into a vast communications network that spanned the continent. By the turn of the century the department was one of the largest organizational units in the world. More than 200,000 postmasters, clerks, and carriers were involved in shuttling billions of pounds of material between 75,000 offices at the cost of more than $100 million dollars a year. As a spatial network the post followed a particular geography. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the West, where the region’s miners, ranchers, settlers, and farmers led their lives on the network’s periphery. My dissertation aims to uncover the geography of the post on its western periphery: where it spread, how it operated, and its role in shaping the space and place of the region.

My project rests on the interplay between center and periphery. The postal network hinged on the relationship between its bureaucratic center in Washington, DC and the thousands of communities that constituted the nodes of that network. In the case of the West, this relationship was a contentious one. Departmental bureaucrats found themselves buffeted with demands to reign in ballooning deficits. Yet they were also required by law to provide service to every corner of the country, no matter how expensive. And few regions were costlier than the West, where a sparsely settled population scattered across a huge area was constantly rearranged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the late nineteenth century. From the top-down perspective of the network’s center, providing service in the West was a major headache. From the bottom-up perspective of westerners the post was one of the bedrocks of society. For most, it was the only affordable and accessible form of long-distance communication. In a region marked by transience and instability, local post offices were the main conduits for contact with the wider world. Western communities loudly petitioned their Congressmen and the department for more offices, better post roads, and speedier service. In doing so, they redefined the shape and contours of both the network and the wider geography of the region.

The post offers an important entry point into some of the major forces shaping American society in the late nineteenth century. First, it helped define the role of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, for many Americans the post was the federal government. Articulating the geographic size and scale of the postal system will offer a corrective to persistent caricatures of the nineteenth-century federal government as weak and decentralized. More specifically, a generation of “New Western” historians have articulated the omnipresent role of the state in the West. Analyzing the relationship between center and periphery through the post’s geography provides a means of mapping the reach of federal power in the region. With the postal system as a proxy for state presence, I can begin to answer questions such as: where and how quickly did the state penetrate the West? How closely did it follow on the heels of settler migration, railroad development, or mining industries? Finally, the post was deeply enmeshed in a system of political patronage, with postmasterships disbursed as spoils of office. What was the relationship between a communications network and the geography of regional and national politics?

Second, the post rested on an often contentious marriage between the public and private spheres. Western agrarian groups upheld the post as a model public monopoly. Nevertheless, private hands guided the system’s day-to-day operations on its periphery. Payments to mail-carrying railroad companies became the department’s single largest expenditure, and it doled out millions of dollars each year to private contractors to carry the mail in rural areas. This private/public marriage came with costs – in the early 1880s, for instance, the department was rocked by corruption scandals when it discovered that rural private contractors had paid kickbacks to department officials in exchange for lavish carrying contracts. How did this uneasy alliance of public and private alter the geography of the network? And how did the department’s need to extend service in the rural West reframe wider debates over monopoly, competition, and the nation’s political economy?

Getting Off The History Elevator

That’s the idea, at least. Rather than delve into even greater detail on historiography or sources, I’ll skip to a topic probably more relevant for readers who aren’t U.S. historians: methodology. Digital tools will be the primary way in which I explore the themes outlined above. Most obviously, I’m going to map the postal network. This entails creating a spatial database of post offices, routes, and timetables. Unsurprisingly, that process will be incredibly labor intensive: scanning and georeferencing postal route maps, or transcribing handwritten microfilmed records into a database of thousands of geocoded offices. But once I’ve constructed the database, there are any number of ways to interrogate it.

To demonstrate, I’ll start with lower-hanging fruit. The Postmaster General issues an annual report providing (among other information) data on how many offices were established and discontinued in each state. These numbers are fairly straightforward to put into a table and throw onto a map. Doing so provides a top-down view of the system from the perspective of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. For instance, by looking at the number of post offices discontinued each year it’s possible to see the wrenching reverberations of the Civil War as the postal system struggled to reintegrate southern states into its network in 1867:

Post Offices Discontinued By State, 1867
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1867)

The West, meanwhile, was arguably the system’s most unstable region. As measured by the percentage of its total offices that were either established or discontinued each year, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana were continually building and dismantling new nodes in the network.

Post Offices Established or Discontinued as a Percentage of Total Post Offices in State, 1882
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1882)

Of course, the broad brush strokes of national, year-by-year data only provide a generalized snapshot of the system. I plan on drilling down to far more detail  by charting where and when specific post offices were established and discontinued. This will provide a much more fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) view of how the system evolved. Geographer Derek Watkins has employed exactly this approach:

Screenshot from Derek Watkins, “Posted: U.S. Growth Visualized Through Post Offices” (25 September 2011)

Derek’s map demonstrates the power of data visualization: it is compelling, interactive, and conveys an enormous amount of information far more effectively than text alone. Unfortunately, it also relies on an incomplete dataset. Derek scraped the USPS Postmaster Finder, which the USPS built as a tool for genealogists to look up postmaster ancestors. The USPS historian adds to it on an ad-hoc basis depending on specific requests by genealogists. In a conversation with me, she estimated that it encompasses only 10-15% of post offices, and there is no record of what has been completed and what remains to be done. Derek has, however, created a robust data visualization infrastructure. In a wonderful demonstration of generosity, he has sent me the code behind the visualization. Rather than spending hours duplicating Derek’s design work, I’ll be able to plug my own, more complete, post office data into a beautiful existing interface.

Derek’s generosity brings me back to my ongoing personal commitment to scholarly sharing. I plan on making the dissertation process as open as possible from start to finish. Specifically, the data and information I collect has broad potential for applications beyond my own project. As the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure, the postal system provides rich geographic context for any number of other historical inquiries. Cameron Ormsby, a researcher in Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, has already used post office data I collected as a proxy for measuring community development in order to analyze the impact of land speculation and railroad construction in Fresno and Tulare counties.

To kick things off, I’ve posted the state-level data I referenced above on my website as a series of CSV files. I also used Tableau Public to generate a quick-and-dirty way for people to interact with and explore the data in map form. This is an initial step in sharing data and I hope to refine the process as I go. Similarly, I plan on occasionally blogging about the project as it develops. Rather than narrowly focusing on the history of the U.S. Post, my goal (at least for now) is to use my topic as a launchpad to write about broader themes: research and writing advice, discussions of digital methodology, or data and visualization releases.

*By far the most common response I’ve received so far: “Like the Pony Express?” Interestingly, the Pony Express was a temporary experiment that only existed for about eighteen months in 1860-1861. In terms of mail carried, cost, and time in existence, it was a tiny blip within the postal department’s operations. Yet it has come to occupy a lofty position in America’s historical memory and encapsulates a remarkable number of the contradictions and mythologies of the West.

Pilgrims, Cowboys, and Loneliness

The provocative title of Stephen Marche’s Atlantic article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” invites immediate skepticism as the latest iteration in the sub-genre of technological alarmism about the internet. Like much of this literature, Marche’s writing is far more thoughtful and measured than his simplistic title would indicate. He admits, for instance, that “Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.” He also makes the interesting point that Facebook requires a relentless and exhausting performative dance on a digital stage. But he also makes some problematic claims. A range of responses have critiqued Marche’s use of studies and statistics, but what caught my eye was Marche’s use of history. In one passage, worth quoting at length, Marche writes:

Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.

Self-invention is only half of the American story, however. The drive for isolation has always been in tension with the impulse to cluster in communities that cling and suffocate. The Pilgrims, while fomenting spiritual rebellion, also enforced ferocious cohesion. The Salem witch trials, in hindsight, read like attempts to impose solidarity—as do the McCarthy hearings. The history of the United States is like the famous parable of the porcupines in the cold, from Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism—the ones who huddle together for warmth and shuffle away in pain, always separating and congregating.

I always get annoyed when historians mount their high horses to harumph about how Americans don’t know anything about history. But indulge me for one paragraph while I do just that. There are two major problems with Marche’s use of history here. First, it’s inaccurate. There’s a big difference between “loneliness,” “independence” “self-determination” and “self-reliance,” but Marche seems to conflate them all together. The Pilgrims were more about religious reform than religious independence, and leaving one place for another place doesn’t make you lonely. Or alone. Or independent. Or self-reliant. As Marche himself admits, they also pursued their “spiritual rebellion” in an intensely communal manner.

Then there’s the cowboys. Oh boy. A generation of “New Western Historians” have pretty conclusively dispelled the idea of the self-reliant, independent wrangler. Cowboys were always deeply reliant on others: the federal government to remove plains Indians and enforce ranching and riparian rights, or a host of merchants, storekeepers, and meat-packers that inextricably tied them to national and international markets. And I don’t even understand what “traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect” even means.

Image courtesy of Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

My problem is less with the accuracy of Marche’s history but in how he uses it. I don’t expect an article in the Atlantic to delve into the historiographical intricacies of the Puritans or the problematic nature of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. What Marche is talking about is American mythology, not some “core” of the American character or “actual” history. If he had made this distinction clearer, it’s a quite relevant and important point. Independence, self-reliance, self-determination: these are cherished ideals that undergird many of the stories Americans tell themselves about their past. And it’s fascinating to think about how these ideals interact with the separate (but related) reality of both loneliness and community in a present-day context.

Alexis de Tocqueville tackled this paradox between individualism and communalism two centuries ago in Democracy in America. The French political thinker toured America in 1831 and wrote an expansive account of American institutions, history, society, and character. A major theme running through Democracy in America was the tension between the individualism produced by a society based on equality with institutions and associations based on communal life. De Tocqueville argued that social equality had the downside of producing immensely self-centered people. In true de Tocqueville fashion, he penned one passage that has a ring of timelessness to it – Marche could have used it word-for-word in his characterization of present-day loneliness:

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

But de Tocqueville goes on to describe how American society during the Jacksonian era combated the effects of isolation brought about by social equality, perhaps most importantly through associational life: “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. ” Americans in the 1820s and 1830s loved forming groups: political parties, religious sects, reform movements. This was the age of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, massive evangelical revivals, temperance movements, and the American Anti-Slavery Society. So what does it say that one of the most famous historical observers of American society highlighted the intense communalism of that society? My point is not that de Tocqueville was right or wrong, it’s that Americans and critics of American society have always wrestled with the balance between communalism and individualism.

A lack of historicity is my major problem with “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”. Marche uses history as a vague, unexamined point of departure for the present, oftentimes veering into  trope of a lost “Golden Age.” He cites some studies demonstrating, for instance, that the number of households with one inhabitant has increased from 1950, or that the number of personal confidants decreased from the 1980s to the present. Although Eric Klinenberg thoughtfully disputes Marche’s claim that “various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history,” I’m less concerned with the accuracy of Marche’s claims than his treatment of history itself.

There’s a tendency when writing critiques of present-day society to make a direct implication that things are fundamentally new and are changing for the worse. And this tendency seems to be even more prevalent in diatribes against technology, which operate under an often-unexamined assumption that technology X (the telegraph, the automobile, the Internet, social media) has irrevocably reshaped our world. It’s useful to talk about the effects of technological changes: there are many ways in which Facebook and social media has, in fact, fundamentally changed our society. But too often these articles assume that any and every change is a) something fundamentally new, and b) directly attributable to the technology itself. Marche neatly encapsulates this lack of historicity in two sentences: “Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful. But the very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us, obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters.”

Facebook isn’t magic and the “good old days of disconnection” only exist in our historical imagination. Not only do cowboys have an American Professional Rodeo Association, the group has its own Facebook page. As de Tocqueville reminds us, we’ve wrestled with the contradictions between loneliness, individualism, and communalism for a long, long time. What Facebook has done is change some of the channels and format of these tensions. Like any technology, it needs to be more thoughtfully placed in its historical context. History is not a golden age or a black box or a passive point of departure for a completely new paradigm. Critics of Facebook or Twitter or whatever new technology will be undermining the “American core” in twenty years should do a better job of keeping this in mind.