American Panorama: Mapping History for the Twenty-First Century

By Joanna Wendel

What is a map? Fundamentally, it’s a tool, a visual record of the surface of the world. Yet maps are also portals into memory and imagination. One glance can be enough to evoke thoughts of past journeys, or daydreams of future travels. Embedded in any map are countless narratives of human movement and cultural transformation, waiting to be excavated. But what if we could design maps that bring those hidden narratives to light? That question is the driving force behind American Panorama, an award-winning project at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL), where scholars use innovative digital methods to create historical maps for the twenty-first century: dynamic, data-rich, and visually arresting.

The concept behind American Panorama originated with Edward Ayers, Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond and distinguished scholar of American history. According to Robert Nelson, Director of the DSL and co-editor of American Panorama, Ayers envisioned the project as an updated take on the traditional genre of the historical atlas. (Indeed, the project still bears the subtitle “An Atlas of United States History.”) Ayers anticipated that the project would generate a series of maps highlighting different topics in American history, organized by subject area into “volumes.” Unlike a traditional atlas, however, American Panorama would be free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

The project took off in 2012, when the DSL received a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation. Ayers and Nelson decided to begin with data that had “an obvious spatial component”—specifically, data related to migration and transportation. Working with Stamen, a noted design studio specializing in data visualization, they created four initial maps tracking movement within and across United States borders. These maps document the forced migration of enslaved people; the routes taken by travelers along the Overland Trails; the shifting origins of the United States’ significant foreign-born population; and changing patterns of trade along American canals.

The first two maps named above are enriched with first-person accounts that give voice to the experiences of people who actually journeyed, willingly or unwillingly, over these paths. The map of forced migration allows the user to trace, decade by decade, the involuntary movement of thousands of enslaved people across state and county lines between 1810 and 1860—primarily into regions where the cotton industry flourished. Throughout the map, clickable icons link to excerpts of narratives written by former slaves from the geographic area in question. The linked narratives remind us that stories of real people lie behind the sea of data points. Similarly, the map tracing the journeys of settlers along the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails links stops along the trails with hundreds of journal entries from travelers who describe difficult terrain, harsh weather, and encounters with Native Americans.


Mapping gets creative

The team soon realized that the one-size-fits-all format they had envisioned at the outset was too restrictive to accommodate the range of stories they wanted to tell. According to Justin Madron, GIS Analyst and Project Manager at the DSL, the maps have become increasingly differentiated over time, with an emphasis on tailoring each map to the nature of a particular data set. For example, “The Executive Abroad,” which tracks over 100 years of international travel by presidents and secretaries of state, cleverly combines a map of the globe (with Washington, DC positioned at the center) with an encircling graph charting the frequency of visits to a particular region year by year. The names of presidents and secretaries of state are embedded in the perimeter of the globe; click on a name, and it rotates to the top, expanding the portion of the graph during which that individual held office. Color-coded bubbles mark the location and frequency of visits to every part of the world, providing an eye-catching record of presidential travel over the past century.

According to Nelson, American Panorama has also moved away from its initial plan to produce a series of coherent volumes. On the other hand, some maps are so packed with data that they practically constitute complete volumes unto themselves. For example, “Mapping Inequality,” which documents the practice of mortgage redlining by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s, contains so much information that the word map is almost insufficient to describe its function. The map links hundreds of color-coded city maps with written reports created by the HOLC describing each neighborhood according to the racial and economic background of its inhabitants. Areas marked red—generally containing a higher percentage of black and immigrant residents—were deemed “hazardous,” or high-risk, and were less likely to receive mortgage loans as a result. It is widely believed that this practice created a lasting economic disadvantage for residents of redlined neighborhoods, creating a ripple effect of inequality that lingers to this day.

Last year, the American Historical Association honored American Panorama with the Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History. So far, “Mapping Inequality” has received the most visitor traffic, as well as the most media attention. However, Nelson believes that the forced migration map deserves more attention, and hopes to update it with an improved design to increase its visibility.

Nelson foresees “no end in sight” to the number of projects American Panorama will tackle next. Currently, the team is developing a map of homesteading in the western United States from the 1860s through the early twentieth century, which will also trace the resulting displacement of Native American populations. Nelson also hopes to design a new presidential election map, although he notes that many maps on this topic already exist, and that finding a unique way to present the data will be a challenge. Whatever comes next, American Panorama seems poised to remain a key innovator in the field of digital humanities.