Cartographies of Time

Kinda late getting this post in, and I can’t find the cool flowchart of pre-to-post grunge Seattle bands I was going to use as an example of a pen-and-ink graphic approach to visual representation of multiple, intersecting strands of chronological change. So I’ll just say that this was one enjoyable read, that I’ll definitely be keeping this book lying around as a “coffee table book” for guests and family to peruse, and that I found the central thesis–that the timeline is not some obvious, purely utilitarian function that evolved naturally from the study from history but actually a product of modernity and the print revolution–to be both surprising and enlightening. 


Geographic Literacy in the Early Republic

Martin Bruckner’s “The Geographic Revolution in Early America” traces the process by which evolving norms of “geographic literacy” educated Americans to consider their relation to the national polity, and the emerging nation’s relationship to both competing European empires outside its borders and native nations within. It’s a fascinating read.

My favorite aspect was how unexpected the parameters of his area of study were. I expected to read about maps and geography textbooks. I did not expect to find connections between geographic literacy and early American novels, or between geography as a subject and pedagogy as an ideological, nation-building project. And the section on the Lewis and Clark expedition was, I imagine, much more interesting than anything Stephen Ambrose has to say about their journey.


“Map In Our Lives”

The Library of Congress digital exhibition “Maps in Our Lives” is based on a series of chronologically-ordered maps of land that George Washington acquired in the 1760s. This land was adjacent to his Mount Vernon estate. Not only does the exhibition track the changes in ownership and land use, it also demonstrates changes in cartographic techniques.

What most struck me after looking the site over, however, was the realization that all these maps, created over a period well exceeding two centuries, were “framed” quite similarly. This is because all these maps are concerned with private land ownership, either exclusively of or including the “River Farm” property.

This is a small insight (maybe trivial, even), but still worth remembering. While noting the changes and improvements in the survey plat, or any other map genre, it’s important to note continuities and constants.  


The importance of scale in map-based history

I am a big fan of Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, so I felt more than a little trepidation when I was ready to begin reading Geoff Cunfer’s essay in Placing History. I knew from an earlier discussion in class that Cunfer had disproven the long-established theory that reckless overplowing of the fragile Plains environment had directly caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 

I needn’t have worried. Cunfer does, in fact, make a compelling case that the conventional wisdom is wrong, but he does so with plenty of respect for Worster. He acknowledges that Worster worked at a time when the sort of systematic, sweeping analysis that Cunfer was able to perform in GIS was not feasible, meaning that the case study approach of Worster’s book was the most logical choice. Furthermore, Cunfer acknowledges that within the limited (but deeply nuanced and highly detailed) parameters that approach imposes, Worster’s interpretation is the most logical one to make.

However, by using GIS Cunfer was able to take a broader view of the entire High Plains region in question, and by doing so was able to cross reference statistical data on dust storms, drought* conditions, and percentage of land plowed versus left as grassland–all on a county-by-county basis. Doing so, he was able to show that while “over-plowing” could be a mitigating factor, the most direct correlation was between the prevalence of dust storms and below-average rainfall, not with the percentage of grassland being plowed up.

With this GIS data, Cunfer was then able to use standard historical primary sources–written reports from the mid- and late-nineteenth century–to argue that dust storms are a regularly reoccurring phenomena on the High Plains–it was just that previous dust bowls hadn’t been widely observed or reported, and the drought of the 1930s was extreme in severity.


*Or “drouth”.

Historic Atlas Evaluation

For class this week, we’ve been asked to write a Historical Atlas evaluation, based on six sources–two books and four websites.

The first book, “Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past” by Jeremy Black, is a history of historical atlases rather than being a historical atlas itself. Given that this book is a general survey covering a period of two centuries over the entire globe (the first chapter briefly covers historical mapmaking prior to 1800) in under 250 pages, it cannot help but be somewhat perfunctory in its coverage. Yet while the book might not break any new ground for specialists in the field, for the general reader this is a fantastic introduction not only to the genre but to the issues one must consider when reading a historical atlas–from basic mastery of both cartographic and historic information by the creator, to the ideological purposes of an atlas, and so on. The chapters are both chronologically and thematically structured, giving the reader a sense of the historic atlas as an evolving tool of the state (the link between map-making and state-building, already discussed in this class, is strong) and other national institutions. Whether considering medieval cadastral maps or the atlases produced in the Soviet Union, Black does a respectable job of keeping the reader focused on the subtext in every historical atlas under consideration.

After reading, Black’s brief, sometimes terse, but always clear-eyed survey, Derek Hayes’ “Historical Atlas of the United States” comes across as more than a little naive and simplistic. There is no arguing with the book as far as it’s physical presentation–it’s a very handsome volume, very much designed as a “coffee-table” book for browsing by general readers. The text font is readable and the pages have a light yellow color which keeps the illustrations (of which there are hundreds in full color) from contrasting too starkly with the text portions of the pages. The illustrations are nearly all maps from the entire sweep of American history, and they fill this volume–there isn’t a single page with no map on it.

But many of the maps are only reproduced in part, and while the chapters are brief and straightforward (too straightforward, as noted below), Hayes uses the maps as illustrations for the simplistic narrative he tells. Very rarely does he examine the subtext or ideological assumptions behind these maps; rather, he is interested in technical detail and historic edification. Although this book is an atlas, and even though the maps take up the bulk of the page space, it functions essentially as a straightforward account of American history which avoids controversy or any lengthy discussion of any problematic issues which the maps themselves might raise. Ultimately, this book functions as a very basic, but very lavishly illustrated, American history primer. As a historic atlas, it falls short.

The first of the four websites we are considering is from the David Rumsey collection–an 1830 Historical Atlas by an Edward Quin. Rumsey’s interface is decently user-friendly for a digitized version of a printed book. And what a book it is–while most of the pages consist of text, there are several color maps, and these maps are absolutely dripping with Euro-centric bias. The book purports to be a history of the world, and each map is scaled the same, so that a full map of the world will fill the page. But Quin only shows the area that during any particular historical period covers what was known to Western civilization. But rather than zoom in to that region, or show the rest of the world blank, literally blacks out the rest of the globe, meaning that many of these map pages are largely made up of black space. Framing the “known world” portion of the otherwise dark globe is a drawing of thick banks of clouds, or perhaps fog. If you ever wondered what a Eurocentric view of global history would look like in map for, this atlas has the answer in spades.

Having recently blogged that I find the Library of Congress website interface to be pretty robust and user friendly, I need to admit that as far as digital collections go, most of my time in “American Memory” has been spent with photographs rather than books or manuscripts. The next historical atlas under consideration, “Scribner’s statistical atlas of the United States, showing by graphic methods their present condition and their political, social and industrial development by Fletcher W. Hewes and Henry Gannett”, from 1880, is available through LOC and I have to say that while the interface isn’t terrible, and the readability of individual pages is quite good, interface makes perusing an individual volume a lot more work than would be ideal. Which is too bad, because this is a pretty handsome volume even in digitized form. It certainly reflects the growing importance of statistical data in the late 19th century, as the growth of the Federal Government during the Civil War and the nationalizing effect of Presidential politics during the period led to an increasingly national scope of consideration for policy making.

The “Historical Atlas of Maine” site actually features select digitized plates from an upcoming print atlas. There will presumably be a more complete selection of maps once the project is completed, but based on the sample already available, the atlas will feature a collection of clean, uncluttered maps heavily slanted towards demographic and economic information.

The “Historical Atlas of Canada” site is also dedicated to select pages from an upcoming print project, but in this case the project seems to be much larger and much more of it is already available online. The site is subtitled “Online Learning Project” and the interface is designed to allow users–many of whom would presumably be students–to dig in and manipulate the data. Maps include layers which can be activated so that, for instance, the user can cross-reference the geographic spread and location of 17th-century Indian tribes with modern cities and political boundaries. This limited ability to control the data being displayed encourages the user to explore aspects other than the original query. However, the site is still incomplete, and it seems that some of the maps are hampered by incomplete information perhaps due to inconsistent access to information.

Cartography as Imperialism

While mapmaking can be many things and can serve a number of functions, it is never a value-free exercise. That is to say; a map is not a neutral, objective, transparent reflection or representation of reality. A mapmaker can certainly strive for greater accuracy, and can make a good-faith effort to avoid imposing bias or ideology onto a map, but every map is the result of choices made and a perspective taken. What is left out, what is not shown, is just as meaningful as what the mapmaker does choose to include and how to present it.

On a more explicit level, however, maps often serve more deliberate purposes and reflect biases which are either explicitly intended or which reflect unquestioned assumptions. The early colonial maps of British North America co-opted indigenous geographic knowledge for the imperial purpose of dispossessing them of the land they helped explorers and colonists to map. Our readings focused on the largely unacknowledged role that American Indian knowledge played in early European maps of the New World; not only did mapmakers often rely on Native peoples for specific information about the land beyond the explored coastline, but they sometimes–consciously or unconsciously–borrowed indigenous ways of seeing and expressing geographic features. Specifically, Barbara E. Mundy argues that the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan, despite the European provenance and the very Eurocentric renderings of buildings surrounding the central square, is actually borrowed from a native Mexican map (which has been lost). She believes this is so because the map reflects spiritual beliefs and spatial and temporal information which Cortes and his men simply would not have “seen” because they lacked the cultural context necessary to see the city the way the Aztec residents would have.

We have already had some readings on the relationship between map-making and state-building, so the relationship between maps and colonial/imperial projects was an obvious avenue of exploration as well.