Interactive maps shed new light on American history
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Maps are more than geographic sketches of place. They contain stories. A wealth of digital tools is available to mapmakers today. It means that these stories have now evolved to take viewers into the past. The maps show changes over time. They serve as detailed sources of information.
The University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab is striving to push geographic storytelling even further. It has created a new set of maps from its "American Panorama" project.
The lab teamed up with cartography firm Stamen Design. They created an atlas. It spans the shaping of America, writes Laura Bliss for City Lab. They have four maps available to explore now. Those are, "The Forced Migration of Enslaved People in the United States, 1810-1860," "The Overland Trails, 1840-1860," "Foreign-Born Population: A Nation of Overlapping Diasporas, 1850-2010" and "Canals, 1820-1860."
The project was inspired by Charles Paullin's Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. It was originally published in 1932. That atlas uses almost 700 maps to cover many aspects that shaped the political, social, geological and economic boundaries of the country.
Paullin's editor was John K. Wright. He commented at the time that "[t]he ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion-picture maps," reports Jennifer Schuessler for The New York Times. The Richmond lab brought Wright's desire to life. The lab digitized Paullin's atlas in 2013. With "American Panorama," the lab works to boost the spirit of the project further.
Panorama is a completely digital atlas. It is not just one adapted to the form. "We don't want it to be faithfully following the look of a historical atlas," Jon Christensen tells City Lab. He is a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles and partner with Stamen. "We want these to look like maps made in the 21st century."
They do. As Bliss notes, the maps are dense, "like entire textbook chapters turned interactive tools."
In the diaspora map, viewers can click on individual counties in each state. Viewers can trace the people living there in each decade back to their country of birth. That is often Ireland or Germany in the 1860s, Mexico in the 1990s and China for the West Coast in the 2000s. Historical notes explain the reasons for some of the shifting patterns. For example, there was the Immigration Act of 1965. It allowed many more people from countries outside of Western Europe to come to the United States.
The Overland Trails map tracks how many people journeyed through parts of the United States each year. It also offers background to explain the reason for the spikes and declines in travel. It links to travelers' diary entries. These passages often record details on the weather people endured. And the company they kept on the road.
The map of forced migration tells the most powerful story through data and narration. While one tab alongside the map shows the number of enslaved people in each state by year, the other tab gives life to those statistics. The information comes through accounts by those forced into slavery.
The goal for the project is to help scholars in making new historical findings. At the same time, it makes the maps accessible for the general public, Bliss writes for City Lab. In the coming months, the team plans to add maps on redlining discrimination during the Great Depression, presidential voting and urban renewal in postwar America, among others.