A Companion Site to

Southern Journey:

The Migrations of the American South, 1790–2020

Edward L. Ayers

Justin Madron

Nathaniel Ayers


We are not surprised when maps show the southeastern corner of the United States standing apart in politics, religion, health, economics, and opinion. The South, after all, has differed in fundamental ways from the rest of the country since the nation’s founding. That difference has been fed by constant movement, by restless journeys to, across, and from the South from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. The migrations of the South weave throughout American history, indigenous, enslaved, citizen, and immigrant people moving among one another, their paths tracing patterns both bold and intricate.

Today, new migrations carve channels of their own. For the first time in the nation’s history, people are choosing to move southward in large numbers, their arrival creating an American South with an unwritten and unmapped history before it. The migrations do not flow in smooth waves and currents. Instead, the movements surge and recede, rushing around seen and unseen obstacles, pushed and pulled by forces near and distant.

We have produced a book with Louisiana State University Press that explains those patterns in the context of southern, American, and global history. Southern Journey draws on a rich literature of historical writing to tell us what the patterns mean.

The maps are of interest in and of themselves, however, and so we have produced this StoryMap to trace the journeys of people who otherwise left few marks on the historical record. The maps show clear and striking patterns: shades of copper in the places where the number of people increased and gradations of blue where they declined. The brighter the colors, the greater the change. The captions describe the most important patterns in each map.

How the maps were made

We have chosen our methods with two particular goals in mind: to reveal patterns we could not see otherwise among the lives of millions of people, and to produce maps as consistent and clear as possible across more than two hundred years of American history.  Toward those ends, we use small geographic units, straightforward numbers, and focused chronology.  These high-resolution techniques reveal patterns invisible in methods that rely on state-level maps, artificially aggregated subregions, and formulas divorced from contexts of place and time.

Mapping census data across time presents well-known challenges, the most obvious of which are shifting boundaries. As the nation expanded and developed, states continually created new counties, divided counties, and combined counties. Such changing boundaries make it difficult to compare places from one decade to another. To avoid that problem, we have laid down a grid of small hexagons over the landscape, defining spaces more precisely than county borders and minimizing the effect of variations within each hexagon. The strategy, its complexities described in the technical appendix, allows us to see complexities and continuities otherwise invisible.

We combine a simple method with the hexagons to avoid another common challenge in mapping change over time and space: the “small denominator problem.” In counties with small populations, a relatively small change in migration appears as a large rate of change. To avoid that distortion, our maps register the actual number of people of a particular ethnicity who increased or decreased over a given decade. To create a meaningful metric of growth and decline, the maps before the twentieth century focus only on the South because few Black southerners managed to leave the South before then and few immigrants arrived. The maps after the turn of the century broaden their range to include the entire United States, showing southern migrations in national and international context. Where rates of natural increase and decline shaped populations in particularly significant ways—such as in the domestic slave trade—we explain why.

Each map also uses a tight chronological focus, the decade between censuses. People moved, the maps clearly show, in the context of historical events, pressures, and opportunities that varied sharply over time as well as space. Migration immediately reacted to changes near and far, in turn setting the stage for unanticipated changes yet to come. The narrative, working at the same regional scale as the maps and drawing on a rich historical literature, allows us to understand the patterns in ways the maps themselves cannot explain.

The maps of Southern Journey, using these strategies, embrace everyone who lived in the South—free and enslaved, rich and poor, male and female, native and immigrant, settler and suburbanite—from the first national census of the late eighteenth century to the sophisticated surveys of the early twenty-first century. Across all those generations, all those migrations, the movement of people beat as the very pulse of southern history.