Course Description

How did nineteenth-century Americans imagine the space of the American West between the discovery of California goldfields in 1848 and the purported “closing” of the frontier in 1893? The course answers this question through an introduction to the practice of digital history in an age of “big data.” By pairing traditional forms of historical analysis with cutting-edge technological tools, the class will explore how competing visions of the West played out in the mental maps of nineteenth-century Westerners and non-Westerners. Which regions and places were over- and under-represented in these imagined landscapes? What physical changes in space (railroads, overland migration, communications networks) underlay perceptions of space?

The course is divided into two parallel tracks. On each week’s first meeting, students will critically analyze individual primary sources (maps, letters, novels, travel guides, etc.) related to a single theme, such as mining booms, settler-Indian relations, or travel and tourism. In the second meeting of the week, students will operate in a “lab” setting to analyze a similar source digitally. This will provide students with an introduction to the technical skills and issues surrounding archival digitization, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), text and data mining, and information visualization. Collaborative final projects will employ these tools to analyze how a specific place, locale, or sub-region manifested itself in nineteenth-century spatial imaginations and present this analysis through an electronic medium.

1. Historical:  Locate and critically analyze primary documents related to the imaginative geography of the American West, taking into account factors such as authorship, intent, and historical context.

2. Technical:  Gain basic competency in: digitization, Geographic Information System (GIS), introductory text mining, database creation, and information visualization.

3. Collaborative: Work in small groups to complete both lab assignments and a final project.