Tech Tuesday: Spatial Mapping/Historic GIS – The Future of Genealogy?

The spaces in which we live profoundly affect us. Genealogists all know the benefit of plotting their ancestor’s life and migrations on an atlas or map. But those maps are 2D and only through photos or a visit to the site itself (impossible for many of us on limited budgets located a far distance from the ancestral homeland) can solve the questions we most want answered: What did the family farm look like from the back stoop? What did great-grandmother see looking out her kitchen window? What was the lay of the land like for that soldier who fought in that one battle of the Civil War? What was the context of these events, not just chronologically or socially, but spatially?

A relatively new technology called ‘spatial mapping’ or ‘historical GIS’ may help us answer those questions one day. It’s already being used to help answer questions about the Battle of Gettysburg and the Dust Bowl, as well as the Salem Witch Trials. As indicated in this excellent article from the New York Times by Patricia Cohen, “With Digital Mapmaking, Scholars See History,” we may never be able to properly understand some of the decisions made in military or civil affairs without ‘seeing’ the lay of the land as our ancestors did. To that end, a variety of groups and organizations are making efforts to ‘apply space to the humanities’ and set up GIS (Geographic Information Systems) of historical areas or information. Anyone interested in how this is being applied to world or U.S history should take a look at Historical GIS. This site has a large list of projects currently underway, as well as links to original sources. Mapping projects underway range from slavery in the U.S. to the Salem Witch Trials, Civil War, vegetation changes in Iowa in the 1800s and other international projects in various countries. Especially worth looking at on this site are the databases, historical gazetteers, and maps and atlases.

GIS is not for the casual user, and everyday application of this technology by the lay person is not possible yet. But one day, perhaps not too far away, could spatial mapping become standard fare in our genealogy software? Will we be able to not just access these maps and data on particular sites developed for particular studies, but create them with ease for ourselves to apply to our own ancestors in a program on our own computer? I certainly hope so. It might allow us to see why our ancestor chose this plot of land over that one, why they chose that migration pattern and not another, and perhaps even see what the land looked like when they first arrived and broke ground. Spatial context, as much as chronological and social context, could give a whole new dimension of life to our ancestors that I find very exciting. Hopefully the day is sooner than we think!

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