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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.