David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: United States History (page 1 of 2)

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.

Misrepresenting plantation life

Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an interesting story about the deterioration of the mansion at Carter’s Grove, a 1750 James River plantation whose opulent mansion now faces ruin due to neglect. This story, which I would otherwise recommend, begins with wrong history that perpetuates plantation nostalgia and stereotypes about Native American savagery.

The lede describes the exquisite detail of the plantation master’s mansion, considered one of the finest examples of plantation architecture. The author then states that Carter Burwell, of the Virginia gentry Carters, wanted his mansion “to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.”

This sentence is problematic, to put it mildly. For one thing, the writer ignores and/or mistakes from what, or more accurately whom, Burwell and his fellow gentry extracted their wealth. While an English visitor in 1750 may have thought that the Virginia Tidewater was a wilderness, what could legitimately be considered that loaded term was much further west by then.

Most importantly, this statement, combined with the lede, romanticizes plantation life. Burwell wrung his wealth–note the article’s passive voice–from the enslaved persons (47 in 1783) who lived and toiled at Carter’s Grove every day for undernourishing rations and pitiful housing.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve seen such romanticization of plantation life in The Post‘s pages. Last year the paper ran a travel story about a 1778 plantation-turned-inn near Orange, Virginia, where the writer imagined herself and her husband as “lord and lady of the manor,” talked about the other “buildings” on the “estate,” and included a joke that a mannequin in a tux was “the original butler.” Never mind that while Virginia’s gentry fancied themselves as English, they were running (sometimes) profitable slave-labor operations; some of the buildings on the plantation may be former slave quarters, if such flimsily-built housing even survives; and that the original butler would not be the well-paid and attired Mr. Jeeves but an enslaved person.

This year’s magazine story further presents a faulty interpretation of Virginia’s past when it discusses Wolstenholme, a colonial settlement that “was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.” The Encyclopedia of Virginia‘s blog tackles this point. The individual act could be described as a massacre, as it was the opening act of a war. The Powhatan leader Opechancanough led his tribe in an attack upon English settlements, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Again, though, the context that the article’s statement lacks is important. The Powhatans’ 1622 uprising came after 15 years of continuous depredations on the part of English colonists. Omitting that portion of the story perpetuates the trope of savage Indians.

Both articles are not specifically about the history of the places. This week’s magazine story focuses on the destruction by neglect of what is not just an architectural gem but a significant archaeological site. I would otherwise recommend it as an interesting look at historic preservation issues. To be fair, the author does write further in the article about the former slave quarters, formerly maintained (along with the big house) by Colonial Williamsburg, and mentions excavations of a Powhatan village on the site.  Meanwhile, the travel story from last year is a light-hearted look at an inn.

Nonetheless, the tone of both of these stories presents a whimsical look at plantation life–a life that was hardly whimsical for the majority of a plantation’s inhabitants. The historical pictures presented in both stories lack context, perpetuating toxic myths that form the heart of this country’s fraught racial and ethnic relations.

I realize that the writers of both stories were likely working with limited word counts, and the scopes of their stories were beyond these historical statements. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying many more people will read these articles than will read the latest monographs on colonist-Indian relations or slavery in colonial Virginia. As such, these statements matter. It behooves any writer to get his or her history right.

Update: The Encyclopedia Virginia’s blog rightfully responded to this post by pointing out the important difference between getting history right and certain interpretations of history right. An important distinction here, and one that the Encyclopedia Virginia makes well. Thanks!

And now, it is done…

At least for now. At least for the sake of Dr. Petrik’s gradebook. You can see my final assignment, “Santa Anna Goes to Washington.”

There is still more that I would like to do. In spite of Geoff and Sheri’s helpful advice, I never got around to learning how to make an image map. So, my map is not clickable, as was my original plan. I simply ran out of time with the content. Nonetheless, it is here for all to see.

Overall, I’m happy that I worked with Omeka, as it will help me to build upon this site in the future. Part of me wished that I had worked with regular HTML and CSS for the sake of the class assignment, as I would have needed to do less tinkering, but in the end, I was happy with the flexibility to add more pages and objects. As I continue on my overall project, I will continue to add objects and information. I’m also excited to learn more about using PHP in Clio 3 this fall.

But for now, I am going to sleep.

To all of my classmates and Dr. Petrik, thank you for a great semester. I have learned a lot, and have particularly enjoyed getting to know a dynamic, intelligent, and nice bunch of fellow historians and art historians. Thanks to everyone for your help this semester. I will look forward to continuing to learn from, and with, all of you.

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

Addendum: Making my own information more accessible

1846 and Boschke maps of Washington, merged together

The two maps, together. I suppose another step would involve superimposing one on the other. Perhaps another time.

This afternoon, as I finished up Visual Explanations, and furthermore tonight, when I returned home from giving a talk and saw Megan’s insightful comment about ability to compare maps, I realized I had made a mistake of parallelism in my previous blog post. When I displayed the 1846 and Boschke maps of Washington, I didn’t display them next to each other, and more importantly, I didn’t display them consistently.

The Boschke map was rotated as drawn, because it was taking in the area of the original diamond-shaped, off-angle District of Columbia–thus was not drawn with north facing up. The 1846 map took in just the city of Washington, and was drawn with north facing up.

So to make them more comparable, I went back to our now old friend Photoshop. I didn’t, for now, bother with making them a consistent color or cleaning any damage (since it’s 12:31 a.m.–so if anyone sees me bleary-eyed in class, you know why!). But I did rotate the Boschke map, and crop it so that it was consistent with the 1846 map. Then, I put the two maps into one image, separated by a small white line. So, here is my work–I saved it at 800 pixels wide, so you can get more of a comparison by clicking on the image. Now it’s easier to see how the 1846 map just shows the city’s blocks, giving an illusion of a built-out city, while the Boschke map shows the city as it actually existed in the late 1850s–having grown significantly even since 1846.

Addendum 2: This week I commented on Claire’s and Richard’s posts.

Tucson: Overreaction as protest?

The last few days, my Twitter stream has lit up with justified outrage about the banning of ethnic studies–and related books–in Arizona’s classrooms. What has especially made news is the Tucson Unified School District’s seizure of the banned books.

Opponents of ethnic studies in Arizona’s schools claim that such curricula “divide [students] by race and teach its group about its own background only,” as the state’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction put it. Yes, teaching ethnic history does have the chance of instilling chauvinism and triumphalism. But so does teaching national history. So does teaching “great white men” history. So does teaching religious history. So does teaching, really, any kind of history.

But ethnic history, and any kind of history of a group or individual, also allows one to see the bigger story through the lens of that particular group or individual. It brings to light past–and present–injustices and triumphs. It instills a sense of history in many students–helping students of that ethnicity understand from whence they came, and helping students of other ethnicities understand from whence their peers came.

Since Tucson originated the Mexican-American studies program that led to the state’s ban, I couldn’t help but wonder–is Tucson’s overreaction a form of protest by the district against the state? Rather than inconspicuously removing books during off-hours, the district removed them in plain sight of students–interestingly, around the time of a holiday celebrating a slain civil rights leader, a holiday that Arizona refused to celebrate for many years.

This is pure speculation on my part. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps, as this Public Radio International story says, the district is mainly worried about losing funding from the state if it doesn’t comply with the vaguely-worded ban. But it does seem something here is up, more than meets the eye. If the district is indeed trying to make a stand by demonstrating to all the fallacy of the state’s law, good for it. If that’s not the case, well, at least the district’s actions have called attention to this significant issue. Hopefully some good will come out of this.

Data Mining & Distant Reading: Valuable Tools, but Merely Tools

This week’s readings (scroll to Week 10) concerned using digital technology to “read” texts in different ways.

I use the term “read” in quotation marks to draw attention to it, as this is not what many of us colloquially call reading–that is, what you are doing now, going over my post with your eyes. That term nonetheless applies–it describes what, for example, Google is doing with this post, going through it with algorithms to fish certain information out of it.

For me, the readings harkened back to those from week 3, particularly Susan Hockey’s “History of Humanities Computing.” In my post for that week, I mentioned my surprise, based on my own experience, how long of a history humanities computing had. Through most of that history, computers had been used for production of knowledge rather than its dissemination, beginning with Father Busa’s use of punchcards to index the works of Thomas Aquinas. This week’s readings focused on new, and not-so-new, ways of using digital technology in humanities research, particularly with texts.

Digital technology has assisted with knowledge production in the humanities by assisting us with the problem of quantity. Besides the basic function of searching through mountains of material to pull out what we need, the technology enables us to find patterns and quantities in the material itself.

As the readings all make clear, however, these tools are merely tools–means to an end, not ends in themselves. Nor should they be ends in themselves. To show that, I’ll use an example from my own work here.

For my American Revolution seminar at GW in 2006, I wrote a paper comparing ideology in the American Revolution and the contemporaneous Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru. Referencing other works’ historiography, I stated that interest in the Tupac Amaru Rebellion had picked up in the 1960s and 1970s. I revised that paper for my Ph.D. program writing sample in late 2010–just after the debut of Google’s N-grams Viewer.

So just for fun, I used the N-gram Viewer to find instances of the term “Tupac Amaru” in the English and Spanish corpuses since 1780. The results largely bore out what the historiography said: at least in English, a rise in mentions of that combination of terms in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, though, the Spanish corpus shows a rise–indeed, a peak–in the 1950s.

As Dan Cohen correctly points out, using this tool is merely a start. Indeed, it leads to a host of other questions. For example, why do the English and Spanish corpuses have their peaks at different times? As Franco Moretti does with 18th- and 19th-century English novels, we need to look at the social contexts of those times to understand those peaks. In the case of Tupac Amaru, the rise of the term, in the English corpus at least, coincides–not coincidentally–with the rise of anticolonial movements and subaltern history. That’s what the historiographies in recent works said, at least. Why an earlier rise of the term’s frequency in the Spanish corpus? That is a question for further research.

To tease out other issues, we need to look more closely at the works cited. For example, the English corpus shows a rise of that combination of terms in the 1990s–not surprisingly, corresponding with the rise in popularity of the rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, and, I’m guessing to a lesser extent, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement’s 1997 seizure of the Japanese embassy in Lima. Only by reading deeper–i.e., reading in the traditional, commonly-understood sense of the term–would one be able to learn whether that 1990s rise had to do with increased scholarship about the 1780-83 rebellion or the prominence of an individual and a group named for that rebellion’s leader.

Thus, my takeaway from this week’s readings: similar caveats as those that apply to the N-gram Viewer apply to other data mining and distant reading tools. The tools help us formulate questions, help us answer those and other questions, help us make sense of a mass of information. And they are super-cool. But they do not provide answers in themselves. For that, we still need to rely on the oldest tool in the humanities arsenal: the human brain.

Presentation: “Familiar Strangers”

Here is my presentation for class on October 11.

Draft: Project #1

See the attachment. Fellow students and Sharon: I’ve left the criteria in for now–hence why the narrative extends beyond six pages. I plan to remove for the final. Will look forward to your comments!

NEH-ODH grant draft

The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms

I looked forward to this week’s reading, about creating the websiteRaid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704,” because it connected the strands of my career to-date in academic, digital, and public history.

When I took David Silverman’s Colonial North America seminar (syllabus in Microsoft Word format) in spring 2005, we read a scholarly monograph on the same subject: Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney‘s masterful Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield. As I read the article and explored the website, I thought back to that book and the resultant class discussion, particularly what the differences in format say about history in digital versus book form.

One of the similarities that struck me was the quest of Haefeli and Sweeney–both involved in producing the website–and the creators of the website to tell the story from multiple perspectives. This reflects a positive trend in recent historiography on Colonial North America. Richard Melvoin followed a similar path in his 1992 New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, which differed from traditional New England town studies in that it begins with a Native American settlement, then the succeeding English settlement.

The website and Captors and Captives, due to their technology, approach this quest for multiple perspectives in different ways. The book follows a more traditional narrative strategy. With chapters on New England towns, New France, mission Indians, and independent Indians between New France and New England, it brings the reader to the time of the raid by discussing the development of the societies that clashed on that fateful day in February 1704. Then it interweaves the stories of the multiple groups into a cohesive narrative of the leadup to the raid, the raid itself, and its aftermath.

The website, meanwhile, allows visitors to explore the different perspectives separately. Instead of the multiple perspectives being narrated together, as in the book, the site provides the multiple perspectives through tabs, combined with an overview of each vignette.

Each approach, besides being suited for its technology, offers certain advantages and disadvantages instructive for any public digital history project.

The separation of the perspectives in the website can be both an advantage and a handicap. An advantage, in that each site visitor can more thoroughly “immerse” himself or herself in each side of the story. Indeed, one could follow the entire story from one perspective, then shift over to another perspective.

Or the person could follow the story from just one perspective–and leave it at that. As we discussed in class recently, such a layout makes it easier both to present and ignore multiple perspectives. When a visitor videotaping my history talk at the Alamo wanted to ignore the Mexican government side of my interwoven narrative, he had to make the effort to turn off the camera. Presumably his video appeared choppy.

A visitor to the “Raid on Deerfield” website does not need to make such an effort to ignore the other perspectives presented, whereas a reader of the book would have to make an effort similar to Jefferson’s with the Bible to do the same.

These caveats not meant to disparage the effort made on the website. They should only serve to remind us of an issue that we as digital historians should address; that said, we may just need to “let go” and allow visitors to do what they will with the content we put out there.

Thus, I concur with my classmate and fellow public historian Chris that “Raid on Deerfield” is what digital public history should be. As he notes, the website erases some of the issues that we public historians face with limited space for exhibitions: the Web allows us to go in-depth, as we would in a book, while presenting the story graphically and in digestible chunks, as we would in an exhibition. Rather than the “taste” that history exhibitions are supposed to provide (hoping visitors will then go buy the book in the gift shop), the website allows both for tastes and for in-depth looking.

The website also brings this story to many more people. The book, while widely available, has presumably not reached a large audience. It is not available online through the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–creator of the website–nor Historic Deerfield (although a companion book is), and it ranks number 896,523 on Amazon.com. I was unable to find visitation numbers for the website, but I think I’m safe in assuming many more people have seen it than have read the book. Even if visitors to the website chose to ignore other perspectives, they were at least presented with them–and with a memorable, educational, generally neat website, at that.

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