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.

Review: White Flight: Atlanta and The Making of Modern Conservatism

By 1970, the north Atlanta suburban counties of Gwinnett, Cobb, and north Fulton had experienced massive explosions in both population and median income. Their racial profiles were also 95, 96, and 99 percent white, respectively (245). In White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kevin Kruse explores the processes leading up to this shift. Kruse sets his study within Atlanta’s urban landscape during the 1950s and 1960s and traces the gradual abandonment of spaces by white citizens and its political impact on the development of the conservative movement. By charting three distinct stages of the movement, Kruse reveals a gradual reorientation in political patterns of white resistance, as white Atlantans moved towards a coded ideological emphasis on individual rights, privatization, and small government. Kruse argues that this combination of physical relocation and political consolidation proved to be the most successful strategy employed by those resisting the civil rights movement.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, working-class whites felt themselves under siege from what they saw as a black invasion of their neighborhoods and public spaces such as parks and swimming pools. Working-class whites at first turned to organized violence and intimidation, but soon realized the importance of winning the battle for public image. In Kruse’s words, “In time, they would learn to put aside the brown shirts of the [white supremacist] Columbians and the white sheets of the Klan and instead present themselves as simple homeowners and concerned citizens.” (44) On an ideological level, they moved from trying to protect the integrity of their communities (a cohesion that Kruse convincingly undermines), and instead began to emphasize their individual rights and liberties to live amongst whomever they chose. In many neighborhoods, their struggle was not enough, as the first wave of black homeowners caused a stampede of white individuals rushing to sell their homes before property values decreased.

Meanwhile, a similar battle over the desegregation of public schools led middle-class whites into the fray during the 1950s. Segregationist leaders quickly picked up on a central theme that ran through their movement (and one that runs through White Flight as well): “freedom of association.” For a middle-class white father, barring blacks from attending the same school as his daughter was purportedly less about denying black people rights as it was preserving his own right to determine who his daughter could and should interact with. Even as this line of reasoning proved ineffectual at halting desegregation, white families fled from public schools into private ones, creating a second-wave of de facto segregation in Atlanta’s school system.

The third stage of white flight came in the early 1960s. As working and middle-class whites faced the integration of their neighborhoods, parks, and schools, many upper-class whites observed the conflict form a distance, safely ensconced in their wealthy neighborhoods, country clubs, and private schools. But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, suddenly their businesses came under direct assault. Elite businessman, hitherto allied in a moderate coalition with white politicians and black leaders, bitterly struggled against organized sit-in protests and later government injunctions that aimed to desegregate their restaurants and department stores. It was during their struggle that the earlier shifts towards individual rights and privatization crystallized into an organized and increasingly powerful conservative ideology.

The strength of Kruse’s argument lies in tracing this conservative political crystallization, sometimes at the expense of a more rigorous analysis of white flight as a spatial phenomenon. While maps are scattered throughout White Flight, most of them serve as modest visual signposts, when they have the potential to more deeply enrich the project. Nevertheless, Kruse persuasively argues that this tandem of political and spatial movements had profound historical implications. As white Americans increasingly coalesced into white suburban (and later exurban) enclaves, they eventually became the backbone of the Republican party. This “politics of suburban secession,” maintained the traditional tenets of white flight: retreating from any and all interaction with the black community (now synonymous the city itself) and championing minimal government, headlong privatization, and the primacy of the individual.

Kruse is an adept narrator, weaving together a host of characters and events into a compelling storyline of the racial landscape of Atlanta during the mid-20th century. He paints a convincing portrait of a coalescing conservative movement based on withdrawal and charts the distinctive class divisions within this movement. The reader is sometimes left wishing for the kind of broader analysis that mainly occupies the final chapter and epilogue of his book. Atlanta’s patterns of white flight were simultaneously taking place in spaces across the country, yet Kruse offers only passing glimpses of how the city fit within a national framework. Despite this, White Flight remains a compelling case study on the origins of the modern conservative movement within the social and political backlash against the civil rights movement.

Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Valley of the Shadow and the Digital Database

Since its inception as a website in the early 1990s, the digital history project Valley of the Shadow has received awards from the American Historical Association, been profiled in Wired Magazine, and termed a “milestone in American historiography” in Reviews in American History. The project is also widely regarded as one of the principal pioneers within the rough-and-tumble wilderness of early digital history.1 Conceived at the University of Virginia as the brainchild of Edward Ayers (historian of the American South and now president of University of Richmond), the project examines two communities, one Northern and one Southern, in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War. The initiative documented and digitized thousands upon thousands of primary source materials from Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia, including letters, diaries, newspapers, speeches, census and government records, maps, images, and church records.

By any measure, Valley of the Shadow has been a phenomenal success. Over the course of a decade and a half, it has provided the catalyst for a host of books, essays, CD-ROM’s, teaching aids, and articles – not to mention more than a few careers. At times it seems that everyone and their mother in the digital history world has some kind of connection to Valley of the Shadow. The impact the project has had, both within and outside of the academy, is a bit overwhelming. In this light, I decided to revisit Valley of the Shadow with a more critical lens and examine how it has held up over the years.

At the bottom of the Valley‘s portal, it reads “Copyright 1993-2007.” There aren’t many academic sites that can claim that kind of longevity, but this also carries a price. In short, the website already feels a bit dated. The structure of the website is linear, vertical, and tree-like. The parent portal opens up into a choice between three separated sections: The Eve of War (Fall 1859 – Spring 1861), The War Years (Spring 1861 – Spring 1865), and The Aftermath (Spring 1865 – Spring 1870). Each of these are divided into different repositories of source material, from church records to tax and census data to battle maps. Clicking on a repository leads to different links (for instance, two links leading to the two counties’ letters). A few more clicks can lead to, say, a letter from Benjamin Franklin Cochran to his mother in which he leads off with the delicious detail of lived experience that historians love: “I am now writing on a bucket turned wrong side up.”

In this sense, the database is geared towards a vertical experience, in which users “drill down” (largely through hyperlinks) to reach a fine-grained level of detail: Portal -> Time Period -> Source Material Type -> County -> Letter. What this approach lacks is the kind of flexible, horizontal experience that has become a hallmark of today’s online user experience. If one wanted to jump from Cochran’s letter to see, for instance, battle maps of the skirmishes he was referencing or if local newspapers described any of the events he wrote about, the process is disjointed, requiring the user to “drill up” to the appropriate level and then “drill down” again to find battle maps or newspapers. This emphasis on verticality is largely due to the partitioned nature of the website, divided as it is into so many boxed categories. This makes finding a specific source a bit easier, but restricts the exploratory ability of a user to cross boundaries between the sites’ different eras, geography, and source types.

If different sections of the website are partitioned from one another, what kind of options exist for opening the database itself beyond the websites own walls? In October of 2009, NiCHE held a conference on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the Digital Humanities, with the problem it was tackling outlined as follows:

To date, however, most of these resources have been developed with human-friendly web interfaces. This makes it easy for individual researchers to access material from one site at a time, while hindering the kind of machine-to-machine exchange that is required for record linkage across repositories, text and data mining initiatives, geospatial analysis, advanced visualization, or social computing.

This description highlights the major weakness of Valley of the Shadow: its (relative) lack of interactiveness and interoperability. A human researcher can access specific information from the website, but it remains a major challenge to employ more advanced digital research techniques on that information. Every database is inherently incomplete. But one way to mitigate this problem is to open up the contents of a database beyond the confines of the database itself. The following scenario might fall under the “pipe-dream” category, but it illustrates the potential for an online database: a researcher writes a programming script to pull out every letter in Valley of the Shadow written by John Taggart, search both the Valley‘s database and national census records in order to identify the letters’s recipients, capture each household’s location and income level, and use that data to plot Taggart’s social world on a geo-referenced historical map or in a noded social network visualization. Again, this might be a pipe-dream, but it does highlight the possibilities for opening up Valley of the Shadow‘s phenomenally rich historical content into a more interactive and interoperable database.

At the end of the day, Valley of the Shadow deserves every ounce of acclaim it has received. Beyond making a staggering array of primary sources available and accessible to researchers, educators, and students, it helped pave the way for the current generation of digital humanists. Valley of the Shadow embodies many of the tenets of this kind of scholarship: multi-modal, innovative, and most importantly, collaborative. Its longevity and success speaks to the potential of digital history projects, and should continue to serve as a resource and model moving forward.

1 I, for one, imagine the early days of digital history to be a rough-and-tumble wilderness, resplendent with modem-wrangling Mosaic cowboys and Usenet bandits.

Review: What Hath God Wraught

Andrew Jackson = bad.

Whigs = good.whathathgodwrought

That’s my five-word summary of Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning, 900-page, career-defining work What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Of course, the tome is monumental in every sense of the word, in its subject matter, scope, weight, and approach. Howe is fearless in shouldering the daunting task to chart the the United States’ tumultuous adolescence. In an academic climate of sometimes numbing specialization, What Hath God Wrought is boldly and refreshingly big.

Howe approaches this task by looking at the nation’s growth through the eyes of the two ideological competitors fighting for its future. In one corner sat the Democrat ideals of Andrew Jackson, which lay out a path of white male individualism, territorial and racial conquest, and limited federal government. In the other corner sat the Whig’s ideology of national improvement through an active government and strong internal commercial expansion. Howe maintains this general dichotomy as he wanders down thirty-odd years of national history. The thematic path he treads most commonly is that of the communications and transportation revolution, although he winds enthusiastically down every manner of side trail and parallel road.

Daniel Walker Howe detests Andrew Jackson. His characterization of our seventh president throws all notions of bland academic sterility to the winds, instead engaging in fierce and almost-personal skirmishes against Jackson. First and foremost, Howe argues that Jackson’s legacy is marked by the insidious morally debilitating advancement of white male supremacy.  “…historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy…was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the first place it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.”

Howe is absolutely relentless in his campaign against Jackson’s apologists, and in many ways he makes a convincing argument. Indian Removal remains one of the most shameful aspects of our nation’s history, and Andrew Jackson was one of its most effective champions. In the eloquent and caustic words of Howe, “During the Removal process the president personally intervened frequently, always on behalf of haste, sometimes on behalf of economy, but never on behalf of humanity, honesty, or careful planning.” In doing so, Jackson became the figurehead for a growing ideology of American imperialism, as our national borders expanded both literally and figuratively. Howe argues convincingly that the Jacksonian flavor of imperialism included not only territorial expansion, but a dissolution of the rule of law. Concepts such as treaties, property rights, or basic civil liberties were swept aside when it came to the forcible and violent relocation of Indian tribes from their land.

Jackson also gets taken to task for his assault on that pesky thorn in the side of ideologues everywhere: freedom of speech. Specifically, Jackson attempted to stifle the increasingly loud voices of abolitionists, whom he deemed “monsters.” He took action by using federal control of the postal system to hinder abolitionist material from being transported through the mail. Jackson also went further, instructing his postmaster general to publish the names of abolitionists guilty of “exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” These measures were met with mixed results, but regardless, Howe fulminates that restricting abolitionist material through the post quite possibly constituted “the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history.” Umm, Mr. Howe? Didn’t you just describe the violent removal of tens of thousands of people from their rightfully-owned property? Might that not constitute a bigger “peacetime violation of civil liberty”?

Big, bold statements such as these make What Hath God Wrought fun and refreshing, but Howe’s argumentation can sometimes stray into the realm of hyperbole. I appreciate the fact that he makes no bones about having an overt historiographical agenda, but it can lead to rather blatant side-taking. For instance, in Howe’s view, Jackson’s administration had a hand in causing the Panic of 1837: “Democrats blamed the banks. Whigs blamed Jackson.” Which side do you think Howe falls on? Thankfully, he doesn’t play coy: “There is more truth in the Whig argument.” Meanwhile, Howe spends ample time cheerleading the expansion of federally-funded internal improvements under John Quincy Adams (a Whig), but when that same federal funding for internal improvement soars even higher under Jackson, Howe dismisses the administration’s efforts as hypocritical, ad-hoc, and ambiguous.

In comparison to Jackson, Howe takes a decidedly rose-tinted view of the Whigs. Given his scholarly background as the author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs, this isn’t necessarily surprising. In Howe’s opinion, “the Whigs, though not the dominant party of their own time, were the party of America’s future.” He (rightfully) champions their role in connecting a disparate young collection of states and communities into an integrated whole. Howe even opens the “what-if” door to offer a brief glimpse into what might have been different had John Quincy Adams won the 1828 election instead of Andrew Jackson. Although he doesn’t come out and say it, Howe delicately insinuates that maybe, just maybe, an Adams administration could have pre-emptively prevented the Civil War: “[The Whigs’] strong central government would have held long-term potential for helping the peaceful resolution of the slavery problem…” I mean, come on…really? For that small segment of the American population interested in historiography (like myself), nuggets such as these contribute to the juicy platter of provocative scholarly interpretation that Howe serves up to his readers.

Howe’s romp through the historical period is done with a stylistic flair and easy grace that continously impressed me. In the hands of many writers, a three-decade survey of America would devolve into a yawn-inducing litany of dates, names, and events. Instead, Howe nimbly leaps from micro to macro across a dizzying geography, effortlessly mixing anecdotes, analysis, and arguments. His writing is evocative and unpretentious, allowing him to open a paragraph bluntly: “Then the whole thing blew up in the administration’s face,” and to end a chapter with a playful cliffhanger: “Why an abolitionist believed Texas annexation presented a moral crisis requires explanation.” The skill with which he crafts language allows him to show off his stunning grasp of the subject matter – a fantastic combination that contributes to his humble (tongue-in-cheek?) claim that “This book tells a story” – and, I might add, one told by a supremely skilled storyteller.

Review: The Postal Age

The hardcover version of David Henkin’s The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America catches your eye immediately, as a tall and slim volume that looks not unlike a slightly oversized envelope from another century. Likely by design, the physical layout of the book certainly primes the reader for it contents. As an examination of the rise of the American postal system in the middle decades of the 19th century (roughly the 1840’s-1860’s), The Postal Age offers up a fascinating blend of intellectual, cultural, and thematic history.

Henkin lays out his book in two sections. “Joining a Network” focuses on a more nuts-and-bolts examination of the spread of the postal system, how and what people mailed, and mail in a rising urban environment. The second section, “Postal Intimacy,” takes a more cultural approach towards common letter-writing styles and cliches, the post as a lens for growing geographic mobility, and the rise of mass mailings.

As someone who often struggles with writing introductions, I was absolutely blown away at how Henkin handled his own introduction. He used the story of Anthony Burns, a captured fugitive slave who somehow managed to write several letters from his jail cell in Virginia in 1854: “[Burns] managed to use the facilities of the federal postal system, including those housed in Virginia, to engage in confidential correspondence with his abolitionist lawyer in Boston.” Of course, Henkin used the Burns anecdote as a particularly powerful springboard to launch into the introduction to the meat of his book: the “cultural transformation” over the past decades that made the story possible. If I ever manage to write such a clever introduction, I’d consider myself satisfied.

I also particularly enjoyed his second chapter, “Mailable Matters,” which discussed what people mailed and how it evolved during his timeframe of study. In particular, the history of “transient newspapers,” (periodicals sent along through the post by someone other than the publisher) was fascinating. People used newspapers to anchor the recipient in a far-off place, provide information, and even work as a covert means of relaying personal messages. Due to its lower cost compared to letters, senders would mail newspapers with “‘Cabalistic concealment,” such as making certain marks or drawing pictures in the margins in order to convey basic information.

The postal bureaucracy of course cracked down on this practice, and by 1845 Congress had passed a postal price reduction that lowered the price of letters and reduced the appeal of transient newspapers. Interestingly, Henkin chooses to glide through much of the political legislation or campaigns behind critical postal reforms (such as the 1845 reduction). At times I wanted more background beyond the passing references to political history that Henkin often uses as distant backdrop for the center stage of cultural inquiry. Who spearheaded these campaigns? Was there a regional divide in lobbying efforts (coastal states vs. frontier regions)? Economic divides (merchant vs. agrarian classes)? I’m not sure if a lengthier discussion of these issues would have bogged down the writing pace, but at times it might have been helpful.

Henkin also discusses the growing transitory movements during the middle of the century, and in particular how letters and familial correspondence played a role in morally anchoring migrant men during the Gold Rush and the Civil War. Surrounded by the debauchery of mining or army camps, personal letters from wives, sisters, and mothers became mythologized as virtual placeholders of domesticity and moral influence. In fact, contemporaries often referred to letters from home in near-religious terms, whose effects on otherwise rough and tumble forty-niners “eerily resembles a conversion experience.” Even men who had spent the previous night gambling, drinking, and carousing with prostitutes could open a letter from his far-away home and be swept up in a fit of repentance and (presumed) absolution.

Finally, the last chapter I found to be the most fascinating: “Mass Mailings: Valentines, Junk Mail, and Dead Letters.” The information presented by Henkin took me by surprise, as I had no idea the sheer scale and reach of such mass mailings. For instance, the rise of the postal system went hand-in-hand with the rise of Valentine’s Day, as a new culture of exchange grew up surrounding the day (including cruel/hilarious V-Day pranks and mock valentines). Meanwhile, I loved Henkin’s discussion of the phenomenon of “dead letters,” those pieces of post that never reached their intended recipient (due to faulty address-writing, not being picked up at the post office, etc.) These letters would sit for three months in local post offices before being sent to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C. – in 1866 alone, almost 5.2 million letters ended up at this office.

Henkin wryly notes that these letters “were not quite dead, but they were certainly in critical condition.” Dead letters fascinated an American populace, and for good reason: their contents offered an incredibly intimate, almost voyeuristic, glimpse into the lives of everyday Americans. The list of items that were lost in the mail is a staggering array of oddities, including sewing machines, rattlesnake skin, and of course money of all denominations. Dead letters also revealed the inherent tension that accompanied the rapidly-expanding social worlds of everyday Americans. A letter addressed “To the big-faced Butcher, with a big wart on his nose – Cleveland, Ohio” may have worked for close-knit communities, but by the middle of the century these familiar addresses proved inadequate to meet the requirements of a national postal network. In a beautifully crafted piece of writing, Henkin writes, “Dead letters floated in the intermediate space between names and people, and between the personal recognition marked by an individually addressed letter and the impresonality of a large, mobile, and uprooted society.”

David Henkin writes engagingly, without relying on a traditional narrative format to tell his story. The volume is, to use a cliche of reviewers, exhaustively researched. The pages are teeming with specific examples and tidbits of primary research, yet it does not get bogged down by offering up footnoted research notes for their own sake. Henkin utilizes the full toolkit of the cultural and intellectual historian in order to craft a unique perspective on the growth-filled adolescent years of American history.

Review: National Museum of American History

(Cross-posted at Progressive Historians)

On a cold Friday morning this past November, I set my alarm extra early, walked to the metro, and made my way to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for re-opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. After staking out a position in the crowd next to the television crews, I was rewarded for a forty minute wait by turning around and coming face-to-face with Colin Powell, who was making his way to the stage flanked by security.  I was too star-struck to say anything besides, “Good morning, sir,” although I did get to shake his hand on his way out. After a relatively short ceremony that included the national anthem and Powell reading the Gettysburg Address, they cut the ribbon and let the streaming crowds into the renovated and revamped museum. I took a brief walk around before realizing I was late for work. Today I finally had the chance to return to the museum for a proper exploration.

I had never been to the pre-renovation museum, but from what I’ve read it was relatively dark and cluttered. The new museum has largely addressed these issues, as the main lobby on the mall entrance is expansive, and wide glass skylights allow in ample sunlight to illuminate sleek architectural lines. Guests are funneled largely towards the crown jewel of renovation efforts: a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art exhibit to house and display the Star-Spangled Banner. I was less than impressed with the exhibit. The visitor is first led down a hallway containing some basic background behind the story of the flag. The information was not conveyed very clearly, the lighting was too dim, and the wall screens displayed cheesy and surprisingly low-tech animations of the War of 1812. The part of the exhibit displaying the flag itself was a bit better, and it gave a very strong sense for the sheer size and weight of the flag (30 x 34 ft):

Next to the flag was a really well-done tabletop with a slowly scrolling and panning zoomed image of the flag, with small nodes/hostpots that the visitor could “click” to open up a infobox on various aspects of the flag. I thought the coolest part was that it gave the impression of a massive touch-screen, but all of it was in fact a projected image from above with an extremely sensitive sensor system that created a supremely dynamic and fluid interactive framework.

The next exhibit I walked through was the impressive “Within These Walls,” which leads the visitor around a partially reconstructed house from the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts:

Originally constructed in the mid-18th century, the house serves as a focal point for exploring its development through the next two centuries. My favorite aspect of the exhibit was an impressive use of written primary source material alongside the flashier material objects. Behind the array of medallions and tables, the walls themselves displayed important texts with pertinent sections highlighted. For example, one panel displayed a recorded will from one of the house’s residents that included a mention of Chance, a black house servant and former slave. This was a conscious decision on the part of the curator(s), as they begin the exhibition with an explanation of how historians find “clues” to examine the house. The exhibit does a great job of weaving together these clues, from allowing visitors to view a sample paint chip through a microscope to see its different layers, to enhancing an old map of the neighborhood with overlaid photographs and diagrams of a nearby mill and train depot. While a little bit simplistic, I was impressed at their efforts to make the process of historical research and discovery more accessible to a general public beyond, “Hey check out this sweet Gatling Gun!”

The next exhibit I explored was “Communities in a Changing Nation,” which uses three different communities (New England factory workers, Cincinatti’s Jewish enclave, and blacks in South Carolina) to examine 19th-century America:

In my opinion, “Communities in a Changing Nation” was less than impressive. It embodied a lot of the less appealing elements of a more “traditional” museum exhibit. Using a largely linear approach, with exhibits on either side of the hallway, it lacked both clarity and innovation. The exhibit assigned a matrix system of four broader themes to the three communities: Land and Abundance, Equality and Democracy, Freedom and Independence, and Progress and Opportunity. I didn’t even realize this thematic attempt until halfway through the exhibit, and even when I was aware of these themes, I had trouble identifying differences between them. Finally, the African-American community seemed a little patronizing. It included several life-like mannequins that didn’t work that well, especially considering that none of the other “communities” had similar displays. While not necessarily offensive, I don’t think it was done with particular subtlety or sensitivity.

If anyone has the chance to go to the museum in the next several weeks, I’d recommend seeing the White House copy of the Gettysburg Address, on loan only until January 4th, 2009. While the exhibit itself isn’t anything special, being able to see Lincoln’s handwritten copy of arguably one of the most famous speeches in American history is certainly special in and of itself.

Finally, my surprise favorite exhibit was “America on the Move,” a massive, winding exploration of transportation in America. I was largely skeptical as I entered through a doorway labeled “General Motors Hall of Transportation,” and prepared myself for overt championing of the automaking industry alongside a superficial, traditional, and commercialized presentation. Instead, I was greeted with a remarkably organic layout. Although a bit confusing for those who like linear, clearly organized exhibits, I soon discovered the joys of stumbling onto various nooks and corners and becoming utterly absorbed in individual sections. Public historians talk a lot of about allowing the visitor to explore a space for themselves, but it’s often difficult to achieve this goal. I felt that “America on the Move” managed to accomplish it.

As an example of one such instance of exploration, I inadvertently walked into a side-room that included two screens, one on a pedestal and another wall-sized display mounted above. On the smaller screen, the visitor could place pins onto a touchscreen map of the world, with each pin representing their lineage – where they, their parents, and their grandparents were born. Upon completion, the results were displayed on the larger screen before being added to an aggregate dot-image map displaying the results of every visitor’s participation. The composite image was a constantly-changing and growing database displaying museum visitors’ ancestries. The viewer was left not only with a larger sense of what constituted being “American,” but also a feeling of participation in a larger project.

I was impressed with the immersive aspect of “America on the Move,” largely made possible through the significant donations of a wide range of supporters (including, unsurprisingly, GM, AAA, Exxon Mobil, UPS, and Caterpillar). But there was an attention to detail that made it really fascinating – for instance, displays that included baskets of synthetic fruit to be transported actually smelled like fruit (or something like fruit). When the visitor stepped on board a model commuter bus, its vibrating machinery, moving images, and sharp sounds actually made them fell like a 1959 commuter. There is a fine line between overdone and cheesy special effects and those subtle touches that accomplish the goal of making the visitor feel like they are actually “there.” The exhibit did a great job of deftly navigating that line.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is faced with a daunting task: preserving and displaying our entire nation’s history. There is simply no way to adequately accomplish this task, and there will always be omissions and interpretative differences. But if the museum makes a real commitment to gather and respond to feedback from a variety of sources, to evolve and ask tough questions, and to continually self-improve beyond a $85 million physical renovation, then I am optimistic for its future as a publicly accessible gateway into examining America’s past.

Review: A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale was published in 1990, and achieved what sports coaches would call a complete victory. Its accolades included a Bancroft and a Pulitzer, along with the AHA’s Joan Kelly and John H. Dunning prizes. Favorable academic reviews were balanced with smashing commercial success, and the book remains a top-selling and widely recognized title.

I finished reading the book last month, and was quite impressed. Ulrich lays out the book into chronological chapters, each of which focus on a particular series of events in the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife who practiced in Hallowell, Maine. After printing several excerpts from the diary on which the book was based at the beginning of each chapter, Ulrich delves into analysis and discussion of the events, their context, and their meaning. Topics range from marital infidelity, the spread of rural debt, evolving (or devolving) medical practices, and the neighbor economy. Ulrich treats each of these subjects with a remarkably incisive and thorough exploration of how oftentimes sparse and measured words in a diary can open up windows into the world of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century New England.

Ulrich writes beautifully, and offers up a plethora of quotable passages ranging from the sage to the touching to the comedic. Included in this is the methodological advice that, “Opening a diary for the first time is like walking into a room full of strangers. The reader is advised to enjoy the company without trying to remember every name.” Meanwhile, when discussing rural debt, Ulrich writes, “Martha’s diary shifts the focus from mortgages and lawyers to wood boxes and sons, showing how family history shaped patterns of imprisonment in an era of political and social transformation…” This is a wonderful quote, and one that succinctly and powerfully makes the argument for the importance of social and family history.

I would argue that Ulrich has had as much of an impact on the field of US social history as any historian in the past twenty years. Social history has been taken seriously within the academy for years, but it has had a slow journey onto the bestseller bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. However, in Ulrich’s case, a great many people recognize the title of her book, which is a monumental achievement for any historical work, and it is made even more remarkable by the fact that it was published 18 years ago. Popular history books are dominated by the subject areas of “great man” biography, military (particularly Civil War and Revolutionary) history, and to a lesser degree politics and economics. To have achieved this level of commercial success with the general public while writing about a relatively obscure eighteenth-century rural woman is a remarkable achievement. Ulrich’s ultimate success was combining the scholarly and commercial potential for a work of social history, demonstrating that the bottom-up perspective can be told with equal degrees of academic thoroughness and popular appeal.

I enjoyed the book on a personal level for a variety of reasons. It dealt with much of the same subject matter as my thesis (social history, rural and neighbor economic patterns, etc.), and she used an empirical methodology that deeply appeals to me. While browsing online, I came across a great interview with Ulrich that spells out how she did much of her research. She took an incredibly disciplined and thorough approach to cataloging almost every aspect of the diary:

I began by counting things. The very thing that had attracted me to the diary in the first place was also the thing that made it difficult to work with. I mean there’s just so much. The diary is a long accumulation of workaday entries. And so I had to find some way to get control of the information so that I could find patterns in it. I hit upon the idea of making up a little form, kind of a data collection form. (And this was in the days before personal computers). And I would go day by day for every other year of the diary, and I would tick off what was in each entry: baking or brewing, spinning or washing, or trading, sewing, mending, deliveries, general medical accounts, going to church, visitors, people coming for meals, etc. Using these sheets, I was able to count the incidence of virtually every activity mentioned in the diary.

When reading this, I couldn’t help but think what Ulrich could have accomplished if she had been conducting her research twenty years later with even a basic grasp of how to use text mining tools. She ended up only cataloging every other year to (understandably) “keep her sanity,” but writing a relatively simple program would have allowed for a far greater and faster analysis of such a huge collection of data. I’m not sure Ulrich could have purposefully given a better plug for the potential and power of digital history.

It is a testament perhaps to the influence and impact of scholars in social and women’s history (such as Ulrich) that I didn’t find the book to be ground-breaking in its subject matter. In the two decades since writing it, women’s history has shifted from a fringe focus to a widely accepted (albeit not fully mainstream) path. The idea of writing about a small-town midwife does not seem like a revolutionary approach within today’s academic landscape. Instead, I read A Midwife’s Tale for what it was: a phenomenally well-researched and well-written work that took an in-depth and refreshing perspective on life in the early American republic.

Review: Placing History (III)

(This is the third installment of my review of Placing History. See the first and the second parts.)

I’ve finally finished Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. As my previous posts have made clear, I’m quite impressed with the breadth and depth of the compilation. As before, I’ll briefly recount the remaining chapters, and wrap up my thoughts at the end.

“Mapping Husbandry in Concord: GIS as a Tool for Environmental History,” by Brian Donahue. I liked this chapters for a multitude of reasons. On a personal note, his research is quite similar (though wider in scale) to the work I did in mapping property holdings and transactions of Venture Smith. So in a self-congratulatory mood, I found myself nodding with satisfied agreement at his various points about the benefits and drawbacks to mapping land deeds and parcels. On a less personal level, I liked the various angles he took in pursuing his study of Concord – especially examining seemingly disparate holdings of a variety of original families and noting patterns of land use.

“Combining Space and Time: New Potential for Temporal GIS,” by Michael Goodchild. For starters, the cover illustration for this chapter was a piece of Charles Minard’s famous “Carte Figurative,” which depicts a staggering array of geographic, temporal, and statistical information regarding Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign:

Charles Minard
Charles Minard's "Carte Figurative"

Information graphic guru Edward Tufte described it as “the best statistical graphic ever drawn,” which effectively canonized it for any map and information graphic nerd such as myself. This is a roundabout way of saying I was excited to start reading Goodchild’s chapter. Goodchild doesn’t dissapoint, as he uses decades of geography experience to explore ways in which the field is gradually shifting to incorporate temporal data. Although its heavy on technical geography, it’s a rewarding chapter that covers one of the fundamental challenges of historical GIS: how do you visually display the relationship between space and time? Goodchild predicts that this challenge will rapidly diminish, as tools and systems to display things such as dynamic data, or even a history-specific model, will become more and more accessible and widespread.

“New Windows on the Peutinger Map of the Roman World,” by Richard J.A. Talbert and Tom Elliot. Talbert and Elliott present an analysis of the Peutinger Map, a nearly 7 meter long Roman map depicting the Mediterranean world and beyond, constructed around 300 CE:

Detail of Peutinger's Map
Detail of Peutinger's Map

I liked this chapter a lot, despite my complete unfamiliarity with the subject matter. The authors make compelling arguments backed by GIS analysis, such as: “the basis of the map’s design was not its network of land routes (as has always been assumed) but rather the shorelines and principal rivers and mountain ranges, together with the major settlements marked by pictorial symbols.” They present a quantitative analysis of routes, and utilize a histogram to further examine the segments and their distances.

“History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline,” by David J. Bodenhamer. This chapter, along with the first chapter and conclusion, gives the best “big-picture” perspective on historical GIS. Bodenhamer describes the field of history as a whole, in particular elements of it that relate to spatial analysis. He believes that in order for GIS to become a valuable historical tool, “it must do so within the norms embraced by historians…” GIS is well-situated to do so, because it uses a format of presenting information (the map) that historians are already familiar with, and its visualization and integration of information makes it easier to display the complexity of historical interpretation. He also discusses the challenges to historical GIS. One point I really liked was that technology as a whole, and GIS in particular, often requires a level of precision that historical documents cannot display within “a technology that requires polygons to be closed and points to be fixed by geographical coordinates.” Other challenges range from the theoretical (ex. temporal analysis) to the practical (ex. learning a completely new discipline). Finally, he succinctly sums up one of the greatest challenges: “GIS does not strike many historians as a useful technology because we are not asking questions that allow us to use it profitably.” I could not have said it better myself – until historians begin to ask the type of questions that can be addressed through spatial analysis, GIS will likely remain a technological oddity within the discipline.

“What Could Lee See At Gettysburg?” Anne Kelly Knowles. This is probably one of the most accessible chapters in the book for a layperson. It combines an engaging narrative prose with rich, stylistic maps, and a “popular” subject matter (the Battle of Gettysburg). But more importantly, it clearly presents an answer to a historical question, while contextualizing the issue and presenting possible ideas for future studies. Viewshed (line-of-sight) analysis is of obvious and particular interest to military historians, but it has other implications as well. In particular, this chapter illustrates the phenomenal power of GIS to transport the reader to the past, and get a micro sense of “being” there.

Beyond thoroughly enjoying Placing History, I believe it’s an important contribution to the field of historical methodology in general, and (of course) historical GIS in particular. The compilation gives a wonderful balance while thoroughly exploring the topic: its current state and background, case studies ranging from micro to macro and “hard” to “soft”, discussions on theory and approach, and an outline for the future. I recommend the book to educators, historians, digital humanists, or anyone with even a passing interest in a growing and valuable area of scholarship.

Review: Placing History (II)

(This is the second installment of my review of Placing History. See the first and the third parts)

I’ve just finished reading about half of Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles. I’ll briefly go through each one, and focus on the ones that particularly interested me.

“Creating a GIS for the History of China,” by Peter K. Bol. Bol, chair of Harvard’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, discusses his China Historical GIS project. The project attempts to create a basic framework and data source (both spatial and temporal) for geospatial analysis of Chinese history. On a theoretical note, Bol argues that in the case of China, historical GIS should utilize a greater reliance on point data in place of polygons for marking boundaries and territory, in order to better replicate the top-down administrative system of traditional Chinese cartography.

“Teaching With GIS,” by the late Robert Churchill and Amy Hillier. Churchill gives a good overview of the value of GIS in a liberal arts education. I liked his point that one of the benefits of using historical GIS is that any in-depth use of the technology requires an equally in-depth understanding of the problem you’re looking to address. Great point. Because so much of GIS is front-loaded, in that you spend a huge amount of effort in obtaining and managing the data, it requires you to really get your hands dirty in the sources themselves. Hillier gives a lot of great examples of students’ work using historical GIS, mostly Philadelphia-based data. Some of them also included a great 1896 map by W.E.B. Du Bois detailing social class in the city. She also gives some useful tips for educators who want to incorporate GIS.

“Scaling the Dust Bowl,” by Geoff Cunfer. I loved this chapter. Cunfer follows up his previous research in Knowles first book, Past Time, Past Place, by additional analysis of the Dust Bowl. In this chapter, he takes on the common perception of the dust bowl as championed by Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s. While some of Cunfer’s analysis supports Worster, he takes issue with Worster’s commonly-held assertion that the capitalistic over-development of lands for farming the major factor in the fabled 1930’s dust storms. Cunfer first demonstrates through spatial analysis that, although plow-up during the 1920’s did contribute to the Dust Bowl, it was in fact instances of drought that had a much more direct correlation.

He goes on to further his critique of the notion that the Dust Bowl was an extraordinary phenomena caused by human activity. By examining and mapping newspaper accounts of dust storms from the 19th century, along with storms after the 1930’s, he finds that “dust storms are a normal part of southern plains ecology, occurring whenever there are extended dry periods.” Although extensive plowing can enhance the problem, it was not “the sole and simple cause of the Dust Bowl.” Cunfer’s analysis succeeds on many different levels. First, I like the accessibility of it. There’s always a temptation to include too much in the final products, to show off the fruits of your hours and hours of labor. Instead, his maps are clear, uncluttered, and persuasive.  Second, I like the way he blended traditionally quantitative analysis tools (GIS) with qualitative historical research (newspaper accounts). He does a good job of highlighting this tension, and aptly warns of its danger, while explaining simply how he accomplished it. Third, his work is a great example of the “right way” to use new technology to both challenge and supplement traditional historical arguments, and in doing so, present an original and different narrative.

“‘A Map is Just a Bad Graph’: Why Spatial Statistics are Important in Historical GIS,” by Ian Gregory. This chapter was much more technical, and included scary words like “regression coefficients” and “heteroscedasticity.” Although statistics in particular, and math in general, is low down on my list of skills, I got a fair amount out of the chapter. I liked his critique of the traditional thematic map, which usually displays one type of data, and with usually one variable involved. Statistical analysis can go beyond simple thematic maps and really open up the powerful underbelly of GIS.

There are several more chapters that I am looking forward to reading and reviewing in a later post.