Jenny Reeder

Historical Landscape through Digital Maps
October 17, 2006, 6:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

 This past summer I worked as a research assistant on a book project about the Mountain Meadows Massacre tragedy in Southern Utah. At the beginning of the summer, the lead author took me, the editor, and another researcher on a trip through the different sites of the book. Many towns and roads no longer exist. We turned off the interstate to catch a breathtaking view described by the pioneer fort but not visible from the freeway. We trekked along dirt roads and non-roads, through sage brush, junipers, and hills, searching for a culvert where the emigration party had camped. We even hiked to a mountain lookout and saw the wagon road below where Paiute Indians had scouted out the event. The massacre site was impressive; the lay of the land had clearly determined the order of the week’s events, from a dangerous canyon to the south, to a small, marshy creek, to a gentle slope. It was clear that the settlers and Indians had used geography to accomplish their needs. I had seen the maps of the area previously but the geographical contours jumped out at me in person. Unfortunately, the book will contain only one-dimensional maps of the area with perhaps typewritten descriptions of the land, without the benefit of rich 2- or 3-dimensional images and views. The richness of time and space will be lost.

 I am intrigued by the concept of mapping and the valuable historical analysis that can occur through the visualization of maps. As a research assistant a few years ago, I assisted a professor working on the travels of a woman to southern Utah in 1880-81. Eliza R. Snow traveled from Salt Lake City to St. George, stopping at several settlements along the way. During the months she spent in St. George, Snow went on three smaller trips to various southern settlements. I created maps to trace these trips, and using PhotoShop, I put the maps together in different layers with different colors onto one map. It was a great visual help to see the bredth of her travels.

Robert M. Schwarts explains the value in understanding a sense of place as social history. Although I am not inherently interested in railways and population growth in England, I became fascinated by the way different maps uncovered different trends over time. Digital maps provide valuable juxtaposition of time and space, allowing for a new dimension of analysis.

To apply this brand of historical methodology to my own field, I would love to map out the development of Relief Society organizations throughout Utah Territory. I would do it similarly to Schwartz: I would examine geographic patterns through settlement (rather than migration), and I would trace numbers of growth, perhaps with the arrival of the train. I imagine that I would find a cluster of growth beginning in Salt Lake City and moving out, particularly along the Wasatch Front, a significant North-South mountain range in Utah. If possible, I would love to take this study a step further and examine the travels of women among these settlements. I would love to compare who took what trips where and when, and how big the settlements were. Digital maps would be an excellent way to measure change through time. Even then, there must be some way to capture the mountain height, the flow of water, and the impact on people and subsequent events.