Promised Land


“Saint Louis in 1846”
Henry Lewis

This week, The Junto spoke with Lea VanderVelde, the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, a Guggenheim Fellow in Constitutional Studies, and principal investigator of the Law of the Antebellum Frontier project, which “seeks to digitally analyze the legal and economic mechanisms at work on the American frontier in the early 1800s.” She kindly took our questions on her work-in-progress, and why digital research transforms the early American legal history of how the West was run.

JUNTO: Can you describe your historical research, and why you thought it might translate into a digital project?

VanderVelde: Yes, I am delighted to. I have been exploring the social, material, and legal nature of the antebellum frontier, that periphery of settlement and state-building that occurred before the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments. In many ways the Reconstruction Amendments were as much a product of the expansion of the American nation west as they were of the North-South conflict of the Civil War. From the perspective of understanding the U.S. Constitution, the context of American expansion is as crucial to understanding due process, equal protection, the abolition of slavery, birthplace citizenship, and suffrage, as the Revolutionary War was to the crafting of the 1789 Constitution.  The contextual materials of American expansion have been less accessible to us than those of the Revolutionary period for a number of reasons.

Digital research can overcome some of those obstacles by collection and what I call, crunching.  Digital research allows the collection of massive texts as well as demographic data and allows that data to be organized and understood with regard to spatial location as well as chronology.

JUNTO: You’re developing a significant new research platform, one that employs several different kinds of DH methods: text mining, geolocating, embedded video. Can you describe the software and skills in your “digital toolbox,” and offer some spatial history models or training suggestions for DH beginners?

VanderVelde: In many ways I consider myself a beginner in digital history, after years of attempting to assemble and collect data by means of scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and tools as basic as “Word” searches and Excel spreadsheets. More than 15 years ago, I attempted to utilize OCR to scan the Congressional Globe, which contains all the speeches of the Reconstruction Era, a project which I had to abandon because the tools were inadequate to the task. Now the tools have improved to such an amazing degree to become much more intuitive in their ease of use and accurate.  Google Books and other online sources, like, have made many obscure sources more available and easily accessible.

The digital toolbox now includes tools like Mallet, Tableau, GIS, and networking software like Gephi.  I also find that a tool called TimeMap is very useful for timelines.  As far as models and sources of inspiration, I always turn to Stanford Spatial History and CSISS, the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science.

JUNTO: What are some of the technical or aesthetic  challenges that you have faced? Is there a feature you’d like to build, but the technology just doesn’t exist yet?

VanderVelde: What a wonderful question!  Yes. In my mapping of households over time, I have not yet found a suitable way to map changes in the composition of specific households over time.  This is particularly important to me because I focus on work and household dependencies.  Households are never static because people age and the household needs change, both for those individuals employed in the household, those able to generate outside income and goods for the household and particular household needs for domestic goods like food, laundry, and shelter.

I can envision digital tools that would allow me to show a household in 3-dimensional complexity changing over time.  Yet, currently, the basic tools that we have to display these changes seem to be limited to aggregating households to the point of blurring more subtle but recognizable patterns.  Or, portraying a household in the traditional ahnentafel method.  The ahnentafel really does not allow us to take into account slaves and servants residing in the family, persons who have familial dependencies to the head of household, but are not easily packaged as direct descendants.

I have another wish as well, and that is for a tool that would allow us to conveniently translate the legal language of metes and bounds tied to principal meridians of survey to GIS locations.  The data available to us through title transfers has been encoded for years in the cumbersome legal terminology of metes and bounds.  I think it is well time to be able to peer through that to examine land claims and land transfers spatially.

JUNTO: This project brings together big data and small data, and meshes modern culture (social networking) with antebellum culture (fur trade) in an exciting way.  How did converting scholarship into digital form change your reading of primary sources related to American ideas of law, sovereignty, and empire? How might teachers and students use Law of the Antebellum Frontier in the classroom?

VanderVelde: Converting massive amounts of specific textual and quantitative data opens opportunities for seeing and displaying new patterns.  I see my own scholarship in legal history as moving from the anecdotal to analyzing patterns of large numbers of circumstances that have been recorded.  From this change in the spread of texts we can replace the anecdotal with analysis of circumstances that are more representative and see variations in outcomes.  In legal history, this allows us to move away from positivism to a more nuanced legal realism grounded in the full expanse of recorded data available to us.  The anecdote that has held sway in legal history can be seen as outlier, turning point, representative circumstance, or anomaly when situated in the broader context of similar circumstances.  The anecdote when frequently retold becomes so familiar as to be seen as obvious to us, when in fact, it may be simply one of competing visions and circumstances to explain social circumstances and legal reality.

In part, my study of the Dred Scott case evolved this way.  My book Mrs. Dred Scott focused upon the microhistory of the Scott family and the survival contingencies of their lives.  My next book, Redemption Songs, uses digital history techniques to situate the outcome in the notorious Dred Scott case into the outcomes in the broader corpus of slave suits for freedom, in which Dred Scott was the anomaly.  It was an anomaly then written into Constitutional history by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

For teachers and students, the Law of the Antebellum Frontier will open new venues for observation and new data for a lot of scholarship and many seminar papers.  I have just been digitizing all the Territorial Papers of the United States, all 28 volumes. By doing so, I’ve found texts that address issues many students in my courses searched in vain to find.  Questions about ordinary people and how the law evolved on the frontier do not necessarily surface by looking through indexes, and the texts themselves, tens of thousands of letters, are simply too numerous to read through.  The digital search method applied to a good and complete set of texts can elicit information about those issues. The Territorial Papers project will provide information for questions like did women ever petition the government, were there class differences in pardons for murder, what did people on the frontier seek from their government in terms of infrastructure, and what where the preoccupations of Washington with regard to the frontier.

One response

  1. I am so excited about this research Lea!!! As a historian writing in the EAR on land-right culture and as someone trained in Western History I agree with you that understanding the legal, social, and cultural mechanisms of expansion are fundamental to American history. I am really excited about this promising research which has the potential to bring us a new and sounds like totalizing view of expansion.

    My work looks at the formation of the culture of expansion and I use the legal archive very centrally in my book.

    Much of what I would like to talk with you about would best be done off line via email if you would be interested. My email is I am interested in property law and preemption specifically (I just wrote the entry on preemption for the forthcoming Imperialism and Expansionism in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia, 4 volumes (2014)).

    Have you seen any correlation between the various preemption acts and the land market on the so-called “frontier”? And does your work look at squatters at all or just documented families?

    Very interesting and thank JUNTO for bringing this work to the blog!


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