Historical GIS

As mentioned in the introduction to Doing Spatial History, a growing literature has come to refer to ‘spatial history’ as an alternative term for scholarship driven by the tools and approaches of historical geographic information systems (HGIS). Thus, for some, ‘spatial history’ provides an elegant alternative to a clunky acronym. A GIS refers to a ‘system,’ often a piece of software and its supporting components, which create or interact with one or more geographic databases and allow researchers to analyse, explore, and visualise the information in these databases.268 Among some practitioners, though less commonly among historians, the maturation of the technology, and the community of scholars who use it, has resulted in a replacement of ‘system,’ in ‘GIS,’ with ‘science.’ GIS technology has become an important component of research in a wide range of fields. It has expanded beyond its early home of geography to the biological and social sciences. In humanities subjects other than history, for example, scholars of literature have also made productive use of GIS’s tools and methodologies as part of a more interdisciplinary ‘humanities GIS’ or ‘spatial humanities.’269

The use of GIS technologies for historical research and the development of HGIS as a distinct field took shape in the late 1990s. There were sessions on HGIS at two annual conferences of the Social Science History Association in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, the historical geographer Anne Kelly Knowles edited an important special issue in Social Science History entitled ‘Historical GIS: The Spatial Turn in Social Science History.’270 In the first decade of the new millennium, Ian N. Gregory, a geographer and now professor of digital humanities, authored two early methodological introductions.271 One important volume which reflected on the impact of GIS in history was Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship (2008). In this contribution, Anne Kelly Knowles argued that the emerging field of HGIS shares four characteristics: (1) geographical questions ‘drive a significant part’ of historical research, (2) geographical information provides a ‘good share’ of its evidence, (3) this evidence is ‘structured and analysed within one or more databases that record both location and time,’ and (4) the resulting arguments are ‘presented in maps’ as well as other more traditional mediums.272

In 2010, two years after the publication of Knowles’ book, another important intervention was made by Richard White, an environmental historian and the director of the ‘Spatial History Project’ at Stanford University. White described this project as part of a ‘larger spatial turn in history.’ However, he singled out GIS as particularly well-equipped to explore dynamic processes in motion, juxtapose representations of space for analysis, and go beyond mere illustration in the form of static maps to offer new methodologies for historical research.273 Indeed, the gallery of projects hosted by the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis offers an impressively diverse sample of an approach to spatial history. This approach emphasises the power of visualisation, often in highly interactive interfaces. The ultimate goal is to explore ‘patterns of movement and transformation in the past.’274

What does this scholarship actually look like? Six key edited collections of work on HGIS helped set the direction for work in this field. These are Past Time, Past Place (2002), the above mentioned Placing History (2008), The Spatial Humanities (2010), History and GIS (2013), Toward Spatial Humanities (2014), and The Routledge Companion to Spatial History (2018).275 Prominent in these works on HGIS has been an emphasis on the heuristic value of GIS as a part of the scholarly process of discovery.276 Much of the GIS-informed historical work published in the past two decades uses the creation of a GIS as a starting point to identify new questions or areas for further research. It has also explored the interplay between different kinds of data, helped to identify patterns, and generally served to orient the historian as they explore their material. Larger scale historical GIS projects such as the China Historical GIS or the Lyons Historical GIS projects usually incorporate sources and materials that go far beyond what can be justified by the ambitions of any single historical project. They draw sustained interest and funding from their capacity to serve as a starting point for more open-ended explorations of historical space.277

Maps are a useful – but not always a necessary – output for exploring spatial databases. One often overlooked tool in this area is the digital gazetteer. It may claim ties to the rich traditions of chorography, or ‘place-writing,’ that may be found in many societies that developed gazetteers.278 This plays an important role for historians and other scholars in the humanities. It is, essentially, a rich and extensive list of locations and supporting information about them.279 A gazetteer usually includes, at minimum, a name for a place, some designation of its ‘type,’ and a spatial location. As is often the case for historical locations, however, any given place may have any number of names (or spellings of those names). Moreover, it may be classifiable according to multiple ‘types’ that are culturally or historically specific, and its location may not be well-established, subject to the contrary claims of differing sources or, indeed, physical relocation over time.

In the hands of historians, especially, digital gazetteers are important for their capacity to embrace this ‘messiness.’ Places may be recognised as standing in multiple relations to other places, hierarchically or otherwise, and any of its characteristics may be temporally delimited. Gazetteers may be deeply integrated with GIS applications and map visualisations, or they may be explored and analysed in their own right. Important collaborative projects such as the Pelagios Network and the World Historical Gazetteer have created new opportunities for integration between resources like the Pleiades Gazetteer of Past Places, the GeoNames geographical database, and other linked data sources.280

In one key respect, spatial history as HGIS is increasingly mirroring the rapid development of GIS methodologies in the social sciences. This can be seen in spatial history’s use of the analytical tools on offer. Most HGIS practitioners use ‘spatial analysis’ as a synonym for the GIS term ‘geospatial analysis’: the application of statistical methods to geographic information. Ian Gregory has urged historians to move beyond ‘crude spatial-pattern spotting’ to fully embrace the potential of spatial statistics.281 The work of Andrew Beveridge, for instance, shows how more advanced spatial statistics can be used to explore racial residential segregation over time in Chicago. Beveridge identifies a number of indexes that can be used to evaluate the degree of segregation. These include dissimilarity (the proportion of a community that would need to move to equalise distribution over all units of space considered), exposure (proportion of non-majority groups present in a given spatial unit), and isolation (proportion of a group’s total population in a given spatial unit).282

There is certainly no shortage of other methods and techniques. These include, for example, the algorithmic interpolation of historical data to rescale units of analysis or estimate data when it is unavailable. Proximity analysis and spatial correlation methods help to identify spatial patterns or clusters, while watershed and visibility analysis aims to explore historical rivers and land use or the limits of a visible landscape. Meanwhile, cost path analysis can facilitate an exploration of the optimum ways historical actors might move through roads or other spatially defined networks.283

The embrace of spatial statistics and the usually strong emphasis on disambiguation in the underlying data means that HGIS has had to face challenges to its theoretical foundations. Many of these challenges have emerged from the critical traditions of the discipline of geography itself.284 David J. Bodenhamer has been a key figure in bringing much of this critical scholarship to the attention of HGIS practitioners. At the same time, he has proposed alternative ‘deep mapping’ approaches in the form of openly curated, non-static, spatial narratives that can help represent the contested nature of space and its fundamentally relational constitution.285 However, the critical responses rarely advocate for a complete abandonment of GIS. As the impressive range of scholarship on display in the recent Routledge Companion to Spatial History suggests, spatial history imagined as HGIS is naturally a mixed methods approach. Alexander von Lünen goes one step further and advocates for the ‘historian as bricoleur’: someone who imaginatively and creatively tinkers with the tools at hand – including the visualization of historical narratives, or deep mapping – in order to accomplish a task for which those tools may not have been designed originally.286

On the Great Plains

HGIS is still a young field. Geospatial analysis as deployed by geographers, while social scientists frequently make use of spatial statistical methodologies such as those mentioned above. To be sure, these have so far been less common in the work of historians.287 However, even the act of overlaying multiple GIS layers of historical data can help visualise patterns impressive enough to shift the terms of major historical debates. A prominent example of this can be found in the form of Geoff Cunfer’s award-winning On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (2005) and its contribution to debates around the causes of the 1930s Dust Bowl.288

On the Great Plains explores the changing environment in over four hundred counties of the American Great Plains region from the 1870s until the late twentieth century. Its major source base comprises a collection of agricultural census data assembled by the Great Plains Population and Environment Project. This material allows Cunfer to methodically explore cultivation and grazing areas, crop diversity, irrigation patterns and agricultural mechanisation.289 The vast majority of Cunfer’s visualisations in the book come in the form of choropleth maps. These differently shade or colour particular spatial units – in this case, the counties from the case study – according to the value of a chosen variable. They are often combined into a series that captures different moments in time.

The maps find their most powerful use in chapter 6 (‘Drought and Dust Bowl’). In this section of the book, Cunfer evaluates several theories of the reputed causes behind the 1930s economic and environmental Dust Bowl disaster. These have identified, variously, excessive cropland cultivation, erodible soils, and drought as the primary factors behind this catastrophe. The maps provided show the outlines of the area affected most heavily by dust storms in 1935-6, 1938, and 1940. These affected areas provide one layer of data which overlays a series of choropleth maps. These images display each relevant variable at key moments: the percentage of sandy soil; the percentage of counties devoted to crop land; rainfall levels in absolute terms or relative to the minimum required for a given crop; and temperature levels.290

The maps themselves, along with the accompanying analysis, do not depend on advanced spatial statistics. However, when they confront the reader with a visual representation of data from the massive and spatially rich database of agricultural census data, they are rhetorically compelling. Cunfer is able to show a lack of overlap between the reputed cause of the drought and the resulting damage. He is careful to note that the maps and their underlying data cannot eliminate other possibilities for which data is not available, such as the importance of wind or soil surface texture. Nonetheless, this GIS approach to studying the causes behind the Dust Bowl has left a powerful legacy.291

On the Plains was able to challenge the presumed explanatory power of several leading candidates for the primary cause of this important historical event. One claim, for example, held that the amount of cropland was the culprit. Cunfer, however, is able to show how, except for a portion of the Texas panhandle, drought appears to have played a particularly important role in the Dust Bowl. But the book is much more than a collection of maps and tables. Cunfer’s quantitative analysis and maps work hand in hand with contemporary diaries and newspapers. These sources capture the lives of farmers at the time, but they also show that certain continuities were affected by dust storms in earlier periods. Cunfer’s book thus offers a powerful example of the potential of HGIS to help shift historical debates around large-scale processes.

  1. Ian N. Gregory and Paul S. Ell, Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 2-5.↩︎

  2. Peta Mitchell, ‘Literary Geography and The Digital: The Emergence of Neogeography,’ in Tally (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space, pp. 85-94, here p. 93; David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris (eds.), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010; see also David Cooper (ed.), Literary Mapping in the Digital Age, London and New York: Routledge, 2016, and Barbara Piatti, ‘Literary Cartography: Mapping as Method,’ in Engberg-Pedersen (ed.), Literature and Cartography, pp. 45-72.↩︎

  3. Anne Kelly Knowles also made use of GIS to explore the development of the US iron industry in her award-winning book, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.↩︎

  4. Gregory and Ell, Historical GIS; Ian Gregory, A Place in History: A Guide to Using GIS in Historical Research, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2003. For a survey of the early period, see Ian N. Gregory and Richard G. Healey, ‘Historical GIS: Structuring, Mapping and Analysing Geographies of the Past,’ Progress in Human Geography 31, 2007, 638-53.↩︎

  5. Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier (eds.), Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, Redlands: Esri Press, 2008, p. 7.↩︎

  6. Richard White, ‘What is Spatial History?’ The Spatial History Project, February 2010. Available HTTP: <https://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29> (accessed 31 March 2021).↩︎

  7. Spatial History Project gallery. Available HTTP: <https://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/gallery.php> (accessed 10 January 2021). The Stanford Literary Lab, founded in 2010, is another project at Stanford using GIS technologies in some of its projects studying literature. Available HTTP: <https://litlab.stanford.edu/> (accessed 31 March 2021).↩︎

  8. Knowles and Hillier (eds.), Placing History; Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes (eds.), Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014; Bodenhamer, Corrigan and Harris (eds.), The Spatial Humanities; Ian Gregory, Don DeBats and Don Lafreniere (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Spatial History, London: Routledge, 2018; Anne Kelly Knowles (ed.), Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History, Redlands: Esri Press, 2002. Another recently published collection is Charles Travis, Francis Ludlow and Ferenc Gyuris (eds.), Historical Geography, GIScience and Textual Analysis: Landscapes of Time and Place, Cham: Springer, 2020, which also includes chapters employing computational text analysis. One useful list of publications and resources related to HGIS is the Historical GIS Research Network. Available HTTP: <http://www.hgis.org.uk/> (accessed 1 January 2021).↩︎

  9. See, for example, this exploratory approach in Nicholas Terpstra and Colin Rose (eds.), Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence: Historical GIS and the Early Modern City, London and New York: Routledge, 2016. In his use of historical GIS, Brian Donahue speaks of ‘interpretive maps’: The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. xi-xii.↩︎

  10. On these two GIS projects see Peter Bol, ‘Creating a GIS for the History of China,’ in Knowles and Hillier (eds.), Placing History, pp. 27-60; Bernard Gauthiez and Olivier Zeller, ‘Lyons, the Spatial Analysis of a City in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Locating and Crossing Data in a GIS Built from Written Sources,’ in Susanne Rau and Ekkehard Schönherr (eds.), Mapping Spatial Relations, Their Perceptions and Dynamics: The City Today and in the Past, Cham: Springer, 2014, pp. 97-118; see also Bernard Gauthiez, The Production of Urban Space, Temporality, and Spatiality: Lyons, 1500-1900, Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2020.↩︎

  11. For a discussion of ‘chorography,’ see Wigen, A Malleable Map, pp. 14-15; and della Dora, Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium, p. 11; see also the previous section on ‘Cartographic Representations.’↩︎

  12. See Merrick Lex Berman, Ruth Mostern and Humphrey Southall (eds.), Placing Names: Enriching and Integrating Gazetteers, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016; see also a detailed chapter by a major contributor to digital gazetteer development: Linda L. Hill, Georeferencing: The Geographic Associations of Information, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2006, pp. 91-154.↩︎

  13. See HTTP: <https://pelagios.org/> (accessed 31 March 2021). They are also the author of the powerful tool Recogito, available HTTP: <https://recogito.pelagios.org/> (accessed 31 March 2021). The World Historical Gazetteer project is at HTTP: <http://whgazetteer.org/> (accessed 31 March 2021). Pleiades Gazetteer of Past Places, available HTTP: <http://pleiades.stoa.org/> (accessed 31 March 2021). GeoNames is a huge and publicly editable gazetteer of places, which aggregates place data from many sources. Available HTTP: <http://www.geonames.org/> (accessed 31 March 2021).↩︎

  14. See Gregory and Ell, Historical GIS, p. 118; see also his arguments in Ian N. Gregory, ‘“A Map is Just a Bad Graph”: Why Spatial Statistics are Important in Historical GIS,’ in Knowles and Hillier (eds.), Placing History, pp. 123-50.↩︎

  15. Andrew A. Beveridge, ‘The Development, Persistence, and Change of Racial Segregation in U.S. Urban Areas 1880-2010,’ in Gregory and Geddes (eds.), Toward Spatial Humanities, pp. 35-61.↩︎

  16. See the chapters by Antonis Hadjikyriacou as well as Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano in Bavaj, Lawson and Struck (eds.), Doing Spatial History for examples of interpolation and cost path analysis. For a broader range of the techniques used in geospatial analysis see, for example, Michael J. de Smith, Michael F. Goodchild and Paul A. Longley, Geospatial Analysis: A Comprehensive Guide to Principles, Techniques and Software Tools, 6th ed., Leicester: Matador, 2018.↩︎

  17. The most important early contribution to this debate is John Pickles (ed.), Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems, New York: Guilford Press, 1995; see also Michael R. Curry, Digital Places: Living with Geographic Information Technologies, London: Routledge, 1998; and Matthew W. Wilson, New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.↩︎

  18. See David J. Bodenhamer, ‘Narrating Space and Place,’ in David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris (eds.), Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015, pp. 7-27, here p. 21; id., ‘The Potential of Spatial Humanities,’ in id., Corrigan and Harris (eds.), The Spatial Humanities, pp. 14-30, here pp. 14-20; see also the reflections in Alexander von Lünen and Charles Travis (eds.), History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections, New York: Springer, 2013.↩︎

  19. Alexander von Lünen, ‘Tracking in a New Territory: Re-Imaging GIS for History,’ in id. and Travis (eds.), History and GIS, pp. 211-39, here pp. 234-6.↩︎

  20. A fact lamented by Gregory, ‘“A Map is Just a Bad Graph.”’↩︎

  21. Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Cunfer’s work engages that of Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.↩︎

  22. ‘Great Plains Population and Environment Data Series.’ Available HTTP: <https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/DSDR/series/207> (accessed 31 March 2021).↩︎

  23. Cunfer, On the Great Plains, pp. 154-5 on sandy soil, pp. 157-9 for rainfall, pp. 160-1 for temperatures.↩︎

  24. See Frank Uekötter, ‘The Meaning of Moving Sand: Towards a Dust Bowl Mythology,’ Global Environment 8, 2015, 349-79, here 378.↩︎