Engaging Early American History Through Mapping

Engaging Early American History Through Mapping

History 2391 grew out of a desire to find a new way to expose students to the rich and diverse visual record of Early American history.  We benefited greatly from the enthusiastic support of key staff members in the Olin Library – Eliza Bettinger, Robert Kotaska, Howard Brentlinger, and Lance Heidig – who not only welcomed the class into the Maps and Geospatial Information Library, Kroch Rare and Manuscript Collections, and the Olin Digital CoLab but also assisted with innovative instructional opportunities.

The seminar engages the rich cartographic record of colonial North America via an in-depth analysis of two dozen iconic maps. Integrating visual and textual analysis, students assess human representations of space across cultural boundaries, and explore change over time in the mapmaking practices of indigenous peoples and various European intruders.  A key theme of the course is the study the evolving relationship between cartography and power, attending particularly to the process by which mapping promoted a revolutionary new understanding of American geography as composed of the bounded territories of nation-states.

Centering maps as the key sources for analysis, the class provides an opportunity to experiment with new means to achieve an array of learning goals in various digital platforms. Instead of written research essays, students prepared independently-researched digital exhibits using Omeka, an open-source web-publishing tool.  Students also used MapWarper as an introduction to georeferencing (the practice of associating points on maps with real-world spatial locations) and Social Explorer to experiment with data visualization (the graphical representation of information with the objective of seeing and understanding trends, patterns, and outliers in data).

History 2391 would not have been possible without the recent outburst of new and groundbreaking scholarship on early American cartographic history – students read works by Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth Century America  (2012), Martin Brückner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (2006), and Mark Monmonier, How to Lie With Maps (3/e, 2018).  Additionally, Schulten’s A History of America in 100 Maps (2018) provided critical guidance for selecting many of the exemplary maps assigned for weekly study. The opportunity to hold regular meetings in the Maps and Geospatial Information Library provided invaluable access to resources for students as well as an atmosphere that encouraged independent inquiry.

Professor Jon Parmenter, Department of History, June 2, 2019