James P. Ambuske

Historian of the American Revolution and Early Republic

Month: September 2014

Visualizing Early America through MapScholar and Beyond

Note:  This entry was first  posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog at UVa on September 22, 2014. 

Hello, DH World! As this is my first official post as a DH Grad Fellow in the Scholars’ Lab, I’d like to start it by thanking the folks in the Lab for the opportunity to join the team for this academic year. I feel really fortunate that I have the chance to hang out with bright and fun people for the next several months.

Now on to the topic at hand…

In the introduction to his remarkable work, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783, the historian Michael J. Jarvis asks, “what did early America look like from the deck of a ship, and how might this perspective change the ways we understand it?”

This provocative question challenges scholars of early America to rethink how historical actors in a variety of contexts interpreted the world around them in spatial and geographical terms. A sailor traversing trade routes connecting London, Bermuda, and mainland colonial ports like Philadelphia or New York had a very different sense of the world in comparison to Thomas Jefferson atop Monticello or the Catawba in colonial South Carolina. What role then can the digital humanities play in our efforts to reconstruct these historical perspectives?

One solution is a new tool called “MapScholar.” MapScholar is a simple, yet dynamic interactive visualization platform that enables anyone to tell stories through the creation of digital map galleries. The program works with the Google Earth online plugin in web browsers. It gives users the ability to georeference multiple historical maps on the Google Earth globe. Archives and libraries have made a prolific number of maps available online in the last few years. This has created new opportunities for users of programs like MapScholar or Neatline to bring together different kinds of sources in new and innovative ways. In MapScholar, a number of tools permit users to annotate maps with text, shapes, images, data, and even video. Different modes allow curators to display maps as an “Atlas” or as a “Book” depending on the particular goals of the project.

This ongoing initiative was conceived and developed by professors S. Max Edelson and Bill Ferster with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and UVA. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with Max, Bill, and the rest of the team over the last two years to build this program and test the limits of its possibilities.

We’ve created a site, Visualizing Early America: Three Maps that Reveal the New World, to demonstrate MapScholar’s capabilities. It tells the story of three key moments in early American history. The featured maps reflect European and American perceptions of colonial North America. The site also highlights some of the tools that one can use in creating and interpreting these digital galleries. I encourage you to take a look!

My work on MapScholar has informed the project I’d like to pursue during my time as a DH Fellow. My dissertation centers on the massive emigration of Scots to North America in the era of the American Revolution. Im’ interested in how that migration informed Scots’ perception of the British Empire. Between 1763 and 1775 roughly 40,000 Scots left home for the colonies, and as farmers and tradesmen from both the Highlands and Lowlands removed to places like New York or North Carolina, leading figures in Scotland debated what the loss of those people meant for Scotland and the stability of the British Empire at a time when American colonists increasingly questioned their own attachment to Great Britain.

I want to visualize part of this emigration phenomenon using Neatline in an attempt to understand how the local origin of the emigrants, their professions, and their stated reasons for leaving Scotland influenced the kind of discussions politicians and commentators had in trying to assess the potential consequences of this migration. In other words, I want to recreate their collective mental map and show how the changes in that map altered the arguments for or against emigration over time.

Developing this project will help me to write one of the key chapters of my dissertation. The story I am telling is transatlantic in scale, and using a digital tool like Neatline to organize the geography of Scottish emigration more effectively will enable me to clarify my dissertation’s argument. And that, I think, points to the larger potential of the digital humanities. Tools like MapScholar and Neatline can inform the direction of our scholarship by bringing to “life” historical sources in new and compelling ways.

I’m excited to begin my time in the Scholars’ Lab and look forward to pushing the digital envelope, especially with my Fellows in (digital) crime, Jennifer Foy and Emily Senefeld.

The Road to (British ) Disunion?

While in Edinburgh this past weekend for the annual British Group of Early American History Conference I managed to snag a piece of campaign literature from one group of Scots advocating for a “Yes” vote in the Scottish Independence referendum. On September 18, 2014 voters will consider a single question on the ballot: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If Scots vote in the affirmative, it could mean the end of the 307-year-old union between England and Scotland.  Here’s a look at a “Yes Scotland” campaign piece:

photo 2

photo 1

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get material from the “Better Together” campaign. Will Britain soon cease to be Great? We’ll know in a few days’ time.

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