Placing History 1 (NAS 30.22)

Dartmouth College, Spring 2021 (Tu & Th 10:20-12:10)

Exploring, Mapping, Visualizing, and Reconstructing Hidden and Lost Aspects of Local History

Course Description

Local + Digital + Public + Geographic/Spatial + Indigenous History

The geographer, Edward Soja, once accused historians of writing history as if it took place “on the head of a pin.” Similarly, the Lakota philosopher Vine Deloria observed - in contrast to American Indians - Westerners struggle transitioning from “thinking in terms of time to thinking in terms of space.”

With these critiques in mind, this course will explore two related questions: how can spatial and place-based thinking benefit historical scholarship? More specifically, how can we combine fieldwork, archival research, and quantitative and qualitative digital analysis to help us recover hidden aspects of local history?

Placing History will provide students with the unique opportunity to explore the way a place's history is both inscribed in and concealed by the local landscape. In this course, students will have the opportunity to:

  1. Search through and examine historical documents from the Rauner Special Collections Library, some of which date from the 1700 and 1800s. Note: with Covid protocols, remote students will work with the Rauner's online collections and on-campus students will have the option to research at the library in person or online
  2. Learn the basics of digital mapping and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software. In developing these new skills, students will learn how to map historical data over geographic models of the local landscape. We will also experiment with qualitative and affective mapping techniques (see the Participatory Mapping section below).
  3. explore local historical sites or monuments near you (whether you are on-campus or live far away), examining whose histories are recorded and whose histories are not.

For the final project, students will produce an exhibit integrating cartography, data visualizations, photos, or textual components to tell a previously uncovered local history. Students will share these exhibits digitally on the course webpage (and, only if conditions allow, at a public showing involving poster / exhibit displays and presentations).

Some local histories you may research include:

  1. Abenaki historical geography: what places around the Upper Valley meant for Abenaki communities
  2. Dartmouth's origins as a school for Native Americans and its early failures to live up to that promise
  3. the College's ties to slavery
  4. the region's ties to the American Revolution and the Civil War
  5. an African-American community that moved into Hanover in the 1780s
  6. environmental changes around Hanover: from deforestation to reforestation
  7. the rise and fall of the area's mill towns
  8. Dartmouth during the Civil Right's era and the subsequent integration of women on campus
  9. many more...

Placing History Examples

Before beginning their own projects, students will examine the ways cartographic and data visualization projects allow local communities to view their town or city in entirely new ways.

Guests on Abenaki Land

Many people know that any proper local history should begin with the story of the place's original inhabitants. However, in the case of Native Americans, we must acknowledge their centrality to local history throughout. The Abenakis, who called the Upper Valley home long before the first Europeans arrived, did not disappear. Understanding their story means challenging the extremely pervasive and pernicious "Myth of the Vanishing Indian." This course will explore what the history and geography of the Upper Valley looks like if we consider the Abenaki perspective.

This app from Native Land allows people across the Americas to identify whose ancestral territory they are living on or passing through. Of course, no people's history was or ever is stagnant. People were always on the move and mixing with others.

Working with Historical Texts

In the March 10, 1898 edition of the Lebanonian, the newspaper (of my current hometown, Lebanon, NH) reminisced about the history of the town. One reporter described in detail the people who inhabited the town forty-three years earlier in 1855. In another article, an author going by the name "O.W.B." recalled the life story of the late Dr. Phineas Parkhurst. During an attack by some Native allies of the British during the American Revolution, Parkhurst had suffered a bullet wound. As O.W.B. told it, Parkhurst was shot in the back warning local townspeople of the attack while riding hard on horseback down the White River Valley. No explanation was offered about the identity of these Native Americans.

Finally, another article began, "If one could look back sixty-five years..." and told various witty stories of townspeople back then. One described a man who came home drunk describing to his wife how he died, went to hell, was rejected by the devil on account of being too drunk, and was sent back among the living. Another told of the partially blind blacksmith with a penchant for wandering around town shoeless.

In this course, we will seek to recover similar lost local histories whether of Hanover, NH or your childhood town. However, unlike the newspaper above, we will move beyond nostalgia and local myths to reconstruct what these stories concealed....

Participatory Mapping

What alternative cartographies emerge when local maps are made, not by local powerbrokers, but by the people most commonly marginalized by their policies? The Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care presents one such example....

Mapping Outcomes

How much does your childhood hometown determine your future opportunity? Raj Chetty's work as illustrated in his Opportunity Atlas examines just how great an impact one's neighborhood makes in determining an individual's social mobility.

The misuses and abuses of data

Using the Mapping Inequality project as a starting point, students will examine the ways urban policymakers used maps and data to segregate and marginalize minority communities. The map above is a HOLC map from 1937 showing the Eliot-King neighborhood in NE Portland, a neighborhood I once called home. Assigning red to this neighborhood, the HOLC attributes this designation to the "detrimental influence" of its "heterogeneous population." The auditor of this neighborhood goes on to state that "the particular hazard in the area is racial," even though he or she observed its physical condition is "not nearly so bad as one would expect" and "but for the racial situation" would have been given a higher, yellow grade. This map and the policies enacted based on such maps 'redlined' this neighborhood, effectively marginalizing and disinvesting in the people who called it home. The consequences of this misuse of data continue to the present.

Learn more

Big Data

Digital historians and data scientists commonly aggregate data to analyze broader patterns. Digital technologies, however, now allow us to view large data sets at high resolutions, as is the case for the Racial Dot Map. The screenshot above is from LA County, another place I once called home.

What does a visual representation of every American tell us about race, segregation, and identity?