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Maps

A Historical Atlas of America, Built for the 21st Century

The country’s most formative stories are coming alive in a new digital “Panorama.”

(American Panorama)

When Charles Paullin’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States first appeared in 1932, it was hailed as a “monument to historical scholarship.” Its 700 maps traced nearly every dimension of American life across the country’s geographical bounds—its natural history, its settlement by Europeans, the spread of railroads, state boundaries, suffrage, and much else.

Paullin, a naval historian, hoped his meticulous research and beautiful renderings would inspire new research into history’s old narratives. They did. And yet for nearly a century, no other project really attempted to match its depth.

Inspired by the scope and intellectual ambition of its predecessor, a new project promises an American historical atlas for the online era. Produced in collaboration by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and cartography firm Stamen, the American Panorama is an array of maps that revive the country’s most formative stories in modern, digital form.

“We don’t want it to be faithfully following the look of a historical atlas,” says Jon Christensen, a partner at Stamen and scholar of history at UCLA. “We want these to look like maps made in the 21st century.”

To be clear, these are not the simple animated maps or hover-over statistical visualizations to which Internet trawlers are by now so accustomed. The Panorama’s plates are dense, like entire textbook chapters turned interactive tools.

A map titled “Foreign-Born Population: A Nation of Overlapping Diasporas” is just one. Here, readers can move a time-line to watch how arcs of immigration have shifted between 1850 and 2010, from the county level in America to nations all over the world. There are striking insights: For example, with the exception of a few decades, the vast majority of immigrants settling in Fresno County, California have always been from Mexico. By contrast, new arrivals in Middlesex County, New Jersey have been incredibly diverse—mainly Irish until 1900, then German, Hungarian and Polish for nearly a century. Since 1990, Indian immigrants have been settling there in droves.

Like Paullin, Robert K. Nelson, director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and one of the Panorama’s lead editors, hopes the project will help scholars make new historical findings. But he also wants novices to be just as fascinated.

“The maps should communicate something that doesn’t require tons of time and effort,” he says. “But they should also be deep enough that they reward explorations that take more time.”

It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes the wealth of data represented in the space of each map can feel overwhelming. There are many additional interactive graphs packed into these visualizations, and their meanings are not always self-evident.

(American Panorama)

Just as often, though, the extra data offer new understandings. Probably the Panorama’s best map so far,Forced Migration of Enslaved People” shows, in largely unprecedented detail, how slaves were bought and sold across the South from 1810 to 1860. Changes in historical Census population data (again, down to the county level) shows how a gruesome economic cycle based on the sale of human bodies reflected reproductive patterns.

“Every 20 to 30 years, as enslaved people were born, they became commodities,” says Nelson. “And states that had been intense importers of slaves became primarily exporters.” He adds that this helps illustrate one reason why white Southerners were aggressive about expanding slavery into the West: “They needed new markets.”

The suffering and trauma of separation for families who were enslaved and sold apart: This cannot be shown on a map. The Panorama, however, includes hundreds of narratives, spanning 50 years, of people who experienced this in America. “I will just say that any human reason [sic] can imagine how I felt to leave a dear brother and sister, but more particularly the twin to myself, who was taken and sold far away in the South,” wrote a slave named Aaron A. Adams in his 1850s diary. “I thought, though but a boy, if I could just die to get rid of my sorrow and distress, I would be satisfied.”

Funded by a $750,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the Panorama (which follows the Digital Scholarship Lab’s complete online reproduction of Paullin’s atlas) presently consists of four maps: the aforementioned two, plus one that traces 19th-century canal infrastructure, and another on the spread of the Overland Trails. Many more maps—about redlining, urban renewal, and elections, to start—will appear over the next months and years.  

“We’re going to be doing a lot more—at least dozens —and at an accelerated pace,” says Nelson. “It’s not an atlas yet.”

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.