A Beginner’s Guide to Mapping Early America with Basic GIS

QGISOver the past couple years, friends have asked me a lot about maps and mapping software—questions I probably have no business fielding. I’m not truly formally trained in GIS, I’ve picked up a lot of things online, from books, in workshops, but mostly through trial-and-error, and half the time I still prefer to draw my maps by hand. (Yes, I like to draw.) It’s sort of like the four-eyed leading the blind.

There’s a reason, though, that my friends have few other places to turn. Workshops at universities, as well as many guides online, are still largely geared towards those working on more contemporary history, and to those looking to manipulate census and other large data sets. For those of us working on colonial America—especially those working on frontiers, borderlands, and native grounds—our materials rarely support this kind of work.

As I thought about my post the last couple days, I realized I wanted to write something less to those also working on spatial-intensive projects, and something more for those—like my friends—looking to find quick and simple ways to add maps to presentations and papers. In other words, those who aren’t about to download ArcGIS, run windows on their mac, enroll in a series of workshops, lose days (weeks and months) to inputting vector and raster data, and become geospatial pros. Those who are more interested in manipulating a historic map than creating a new one from historic data. Casual mappers and prospective weekend warriors of geohistorical analysis, this is for you. Continue reading

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Rethinking the Early American Map

AmeriqueSeptentrionaleIt’s time we remake the North American map.

Open up most any early American history book and flip to the list of tables and figures. Chances are you’ll find—if provided—maps devoid of almost any indigenous peoples. If the book is more recent, perhaps instead you’ll find that the author included two maps: one of European settlements, and one of Native American peoples. Or, just maybe, you happen to have on hand one of the few books to merge all of these together. But look closely and see if you can find the usual tension—an unbalance resulting from the projection of European empire on one hand, and the illustration of limited, isolated, scattered indigenous nations on the other.

How can so many maps of colonial North America display European power and political influence, but not do the same for American Indian polities and groups?

Maybe the better question is, how can we overcome our own historiographical strictures and the limitations of seventeenth and eighteenth-century maps to better portray the American landscape?

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Driving the Dissertation

OhioRiverFor the past several days, I’ve been on the road, driving highways and back streets of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Weeks before, with an invitation to an Alabama wedding, and a school year (and orals) finally behind me, I realized I had the perfect opportunity for a road trip. And being the impossibly hip grad student that I am, I also decided I’d be driving my dissertation.

Part of my research entails recovering the mid-eighteenth-century transportation and communication paths that cut across and radiated out from Ohio Valley. While I’ve studied maps, charts, letters, and travel accounts, I’d never traveled on or along those waterways, roads, or footpaths—even the well-known routes of Braddock’s and Forbes Roads.

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