Going Farther Afield

At the Digital Scholarship Lab, we’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years developing an enhanced digital edition of Charles O. Paullin’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States because of our conviction that more than eight decades after its original publication it remains a remarkable and remarkably useful historical atlas. One of the most useful and most fun things about the many thoughtful and creative maps in the atlas is that they end up prompting interesting questions about American history just as often as they provide answers.

Paullin and the atlas’s editor, John K. Wright, were quick to make exactly this point. In his introduction to the atlas, Wright insisted that the maps were not interpretations in-and-of themselves. Instead he characterized each map as “a refinement … of the raw materials, comparable to a document carefully edited with textual criticism but without historical interpretation.” The maps presented evidence, often quantitative in nature, but didn’t provide analysis. They maps were often less conclusions than starting points for thinking about and researching history. Wright challenged readers of the atlas not to stop with the maps in the atlas but to “go farther afield if he would know what they really mean.”

In the coming weeks we’ll follow Wright’s advice and go farther afield in this blog. We’ll be providing historical context and offering historical interpretations that we hope provide some thoughtful insights into many of the maps in the atlas. While we greatly admire the atlas as a work of scholarship, we’ll begin with a critique of what we think is the most historically and politically regrettable aspect of the atlas: it’s treatment of Native Americans.

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