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Mapping History: Digital Historical Mapping

One of the many great uses and advantages that today’s historians, mapmakers and digital archivists have at their utility, is programs like ArcGIS, which allow these experts to tell stories and illustrate research in a way that is encourages interaction and engages the reader/viewer in a plethora of ways: through media (video & film), text, historical documents, interactive buttons to click, narratives, maps and map-points, and a variety of other different tools that enrapture the senses.

This week in Digital Humanities class, we observed a few sources which illustrate how digital mapping and storytelling can be done. The first of these, was Sean Fraga’s article Digitally Mapping Commercial Currents Maritime Mobility, Vessel Technology, and U.S. Colonization of Puget Sound, 1851โ€“1861. Fraga tells the reader of a man named Simpson P. Moses, who along with his successors, had wrote a series of notes. This ledger was used to record the vessels entering and leaving the Puget Sound. Mappings of vessels underwent various changes. Starting in 1848, when the U.S. began to consolidate territorial holdings to make the Pacific more apart of the U.S. In 1851, Moses moved to a new ledger and officials recorded data related to a vessel’s voyage, the vessel itself and who and what was on it. In 2019, Fraga and his two undergrads used digital mapping and data visualization to reveal trends of vessels going into and out of the Puget Sound. With Maps, Scatter plots and a log scale, Fraga is able to demonstrate the data that Moses had detailed about. However, Fraga states that “there are still structural limits to this data: It did not capture indigenous martime networks, did not record a vessel’s full itinerary, and the U.S. customs districts did not track voyages made within the Puget Sound Customs District.” Also, Fraga mentions that one major setbacks of research is that while information is more accessible today, hundreds and thousands of newspapers are made from each decade and looking through all of this presents a major research setback. Nonetheless, Fraga suggets is that “transcribing other ledgers could expand the dataset’s chronological and geographic coverage, yielding additional insights.” While there is still setbacks when trying to map historic research – whether by its accessibility, historical evident changes and shifts in recording data – interaction with historical data and making connections by using tools that we have today can help paint the full picture and map-out historical patterns for us, in the future.

Jennifer Bell, Esri Events, Youtube

The next source we observed was Jennifer Bell’s brilliant presentation about ArcGIS Storymaps. In the video, she produces a story about Mount Everest which was based on Alex Tate’s expedition to Mount Everest. In just 8 minutes, she showed how quick, efficient and interactive you can generate a masterful story for whatever research you are pursuing. With ArcGIS Storymaps, you can include pictures, sidebar posts and interactive tools, dashboards about things like the weather, 2D maps, 3D maps, locations of specific points of reference (with pictures included) which you can also design that layouts for, web scenes and references for viewers to do their own research based on your work. What’s really amazing about ArcGIS Story maps, is that is also comes in 37 languages, and hits all of the sensory points. Bell best summarizes the importance of tools like ArcGIS Story maps when it comes to producing effective story-telling and historical mapping: “Story maps can raise awareness, inspire action, and tell stories of our Earth.”

Looking more at ArcGIS Storymaps, our class observed the arcGIS story map The World in 1812 and 2013. The map used was drawn by John Pinkerton in 1812, jointly produced by National Geographic and Esri, and is a digital collection from David Ramsey. This story map is truly fascinating, as you can literally see the world while using an interactive spyglass tool! As you zoom into countries, you can see explorer’s routes, and if you look over Africa or Australia, one will see just how little European nations had known about Africa, as there is very little written on it. Tools like this are a great way to engage the reader by comparing and contrasting the world from the 1800’s, form the world as it was in 2013. Storymaps like this show that in some instance, less is more and by using interactive tools like the spyglass mixed with digitally scanned versions of earlier and modern U.S. physical maps, the story allows to come to the reader with being too overwhelmed with various features.

Another nice source that blends traditional maps, but in Digital form (with out all the extra features) is the New York Public Library Digital Map Galleries collection of “16 -Early 20th Century Maps Of Africa.” This source includes 113 maps and its accompanying text which was scanned and collected by J. Herskovits Library of African Studies. These maps are great, because as I previously mentioned, Africa Was not very well-known in the early 1800’s.


Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University Libraries. “A new map of Africa”, 16th-Early 20th Century Maps of Africa. Accessed Sun Nov 22 2020. https://dc.library.northwestern.edu/items/7a58ca98-d709-4d4d-8b9c-5b5074c780e9

As the map illustrates, The Southern part of Africa is labeled “Unknown Parts.” Sources like this which simply aim to preserve these traditional maps help to tell a story all on their own. While they may not be as interactive, as say ArcGIS, it still demonstrates how digital tools interact with historical sources for preservation, and to further future research.

Next, our class looked at the storymap The San Francisco 1906 Earthquake & Fire. This map illustrates Captain Henry Mitchell’s duty, work, settings, and the surrounding events during the 1906 Earthquake. This Stormap was very intriguing, because the inclusion of maps with reference points and markers definitely illustrates some of the nice advantages digital maps can bring, especially when mixed with a narrative. However, The source I felt could have used pictures on the locations, but with it being 1906 these would probably be more like drawing which may be difficult to obtain, thus I somewhat understand their exclusion.

Black Communism

Lastly, I personally explored the “Black Communism” Story by Bita Karooski and Lim Jing Wen, located in Esr.com link entitled Story Maps and the Digital Humanities. Through the usage of Claude McKay (and African American communist speaker and middle-class intellectual), counter-racist propaganda pictures like mammy figures and black characters portrayed with “an overdetermination of blackness,” and other important communist & socialist figures like Richard Wright, the Scottsboro Brothers, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panther, Karooski and Wen illustrate “the ways in which Black communism rose to prominence in the U.S. and why fluctuations of popularity occurred among African American communists.”


Jing Wen Lim, โ€œIntro Vid (BLM),” Black Communism, Youtube.com

As the viewer scrolls through this story, the siderbar comments, films and pictures really help to create a story in such a simplistic way, yet the page is so detailed and well-structured. The story really captures the struggle of black lives, even in a political sphere where they felt most comfortable to express these struggles. From 1920-1960’s, the Communist Party was willing to to learn about how the Communist Party was willing to have African American members, yet the Party privileged economic discrimination over racial discrimination. A term that was used in this source that I had never heard of, describes Communist Party Members who oversimplified black struggles as “Negrotarians.” Negrotarians “rob African Americans of their humanity, because they propagate charity to the cause, but don’t promote changes to the system and expect African Americans to ‘do their part’ and overcome the system on their own.” Richard Wright, a Communist philosopher, stated that “Marxism does over simply black experiences and struggles, but Marxism is about fighting political power and does not centralize around fighting for racial equality.”

I learned from this story, that black communism was apart of the Black Panther movement, because African American members were upset by Martin Luther King Jr.’s silent treatment when it came to bringing socialism to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. When socialist and Communist leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton were assassinated, the Black Communist Movement effectively ended.

Digital Maps allow the history of the past, come alive today. What we do with it, how curators, experts and viewers interact with it present the best ways to gain new insights to try and overcome the structural limitations that our modern tools may have. As historians learn more about these tools and continue to engage with them, the designs of inspiration and creation and preservation will continue. This will help promote and give a sense of urgency to historical patterns, resources and issues in a way that that is applicable to much broader crowds on a much wider scale.

One thought on “Mapping History: Digital Historical Mapping

  1. Great post, Brandon. It’s interesting how little maps appeared in the piece on Black Communism! I think public history presentations thrive as multimedia projects, regardless of whether digital maps are an included form of media.

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