Published February 25, 2021 by Tom Porter

GIS: A Different Approach to History

“Historians and history students are used to working with words on the page, says Professor of History Patrick Rael, “but for many years I had been wanting to incorporate a more spatial and data-driven approach to the subject.” That opportunity presented itself with the arrival on campus of geographer and statistical consultant Aaron Gilbreath in 2016.

rael and gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath (top) and Patrick Rael

They began devising a new course and for the first time American History through GIS (HIST 2625) was taught in Fall 2020. The intermediate level class, which was taught remotely, used geographic information systems (GIS) to explore historical problems in nineteenth-century US history.

So, what is GIS? Simply put, explains Gilbreath, it’s a way of using computers to capture and display several different types of data and visualize how those data intersect. “Imagine you have a number of transparent maps—so you have one with just railroad lines, another with  counties, another with highways, and so on. Traditionally, what you’re limited to is what you can visibly display and make coherent in a map, but with GIS each of those layers is digital.” So, on top of the visual features, like rivers and railroads, he explains, you can incorporate all kinds of other data, like population and census numbers in the areas served by the railroad, for example, as well as information about when the railroad was built, what materials were used, and more.” It’s exciting, says Gilbreath, to be able to use GIS in collaboration with someone else. “Previously, I had only taught the method and the software, so it was eye-opening to teach GIS with specific content in mind.”

"Some of the fundamental questions about history can be explained by looking at how things are different over space”

The idea, says Rael, is to use GIS as the main avenue of investigation for a history course. “We mostly dealt with nineteenth-century US history. We had data on a wealth of subjects, like transportation networks, politics, immigration, and industrialization, and we were able to marry that with academic units. So, we might have a unit on the transportation revolution, where we look at the scholarship and some of primary historical sources to talk about the growth of canals and railways. Then we use GIS techniques to explore and test hypotheses we might find in the literature, allowing us to explore some of our own problems and develop our own historical datasets and questions.

Rael describes the class as history with a strong geographic flavor, which he says is really useful in helping students visualize their subject. “Space is hugely important. Some of the fundamental questions about history can be explained by looking at how things are different over space,” he explains. Rael uses an area of his own expertise, slavery and the antebellum South, as an example. “Not everywhere in the South was uniformly dedicated to slavery, and you can see that on a map. Then you can start asking, Why was that? Why was cotton grown here? Sugar over here? Tobacco here? GIS is a really useful tool for enabling you to see and experience history in this way.”

A sample of student projects:  

Annabel Winterberg ’21 chose the travels of pioneering female botanist and illustrator Kate Furbish as her topic.

winterberg's furbish GIS project
Mapping the travels of Kate Furbish. Click here to view Annabel Winterberg's project.

Using much of the data available at Bowdoin’s Special Collections and Archives, she plotted Furbish’s journeys throughout Maine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as she collected samples. Using GIS, Winterberg compared the geographic scope of Furbish’s activities with the growth of the railway network in Maine at that time. “Anna was able to illustrate and quantify important aspects of this woman’s career that I don’t believe have been illustrated before,” Rael explains. Winterberg says the class gave her the tools to engage with history in a way that she hadn't before. “I was able to use and visualize archival materials in a new way and find creative approaches to investigating a historical problem.”

Evan Brown ’22 combined politics with geography in his project. “I focused on President Johnson's so-called ‘Swing around the Circle,’ an infamous campaign trip he took across the North by train in 1866.” After the trip, Johnson’s Democrats lost resoundingly in the midterm elections, something that historians have linked to Johnson’s vulgar and inflammatory behavior during that disastrous trip. (Johnson went on to be impeached in 1868.) Brown dissects that journey, mapping it out and combining that with congressional election data in an effort to get a true idea of the impact of the “Swing” and why Johnson chose the route he did. “It was amazing to do this kind of original analysis,” he says. “I also got a great foundation in GIS, which I hope to use again.”

Mackey O’Keefe ’21 mapped the New York City draft riots of 1863 for his project. The violent disturbances are traditionally seen as an expression of working-class discontent at being called up to fight in the Civil War. O’Keefe paid special attention to the demographic, socioeconomic, and other characteristics of the neighborhoods where the unrest occurred. “I was able to show how violence was at least in part concentrated in more affluent, upper-middle-class areas of the city. This added to the understanding of the event as in part a class struggle,” he says, adding that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the class was being able to look at local data in this way.

Gabe Batista ’23 studied the downfall of the Whig party in the 1850s and how it transformed into the Republican Party. The Whigs split over the issue of slavery, he explains, and the Republicans were able to capitalize on that growing antislavery sentiment to grow as a party. The project went into extraordinary geographical detail about which places Republicans inherited from the Whigs, and which places the Democrats inherited, says Rael. “It’s especially relevant today, where the Republican Party could be realigning itself once more,” he adds. Batista says maps were essential to the project, not just to demonstrate research but as tools with which to conduct research.

American History through GIS was an immensely enjoyable class for students and faculty alike, say Rael and Gilbreath, and it’s one they hope to offer again in the fall as a “live” in-person class. “It’s great that it offers opportunities to fulfill the curricular requirement to study quantitative reasoning with a humanities subject,” Rael says. “Furthermore, this kind of class leads the way in collaborative teaching and how a liberal arts education can offer classes that combine the skills of people like myself and Aaron [Gilbreath.]”