Understanding Frontiers through MapStorytelling
Professor Roberta Balstad
The famous American historian Frederick Jackson Turner is best known for his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, whose ideas are referred to as the Frontier Thesis. The son of a Census employee Turner was a historian who consulted the maps created by the US Census in the 1890s, and from these maps observed how the line of settlement of the American frontier steadily moved westward. In particular, he was interested in the occupations of the people who inhabited this moving frontier, and he used this data to develop his theory of the role of the frontier in American history. He expounded an evolutionary model wherein the uniquely American character progressively was forged as each generation of pioneers moved 50 to 100 miles west, abandoning older practices, institutions and ideas, and adapting to their new environment.
Many of Turner’s observations and characterizations have been challenged over the years. But, no one can deny the power of this single “StoryLayer” – the line of settlement that Turner interpolated from these US Census maps – and how it animated a narrative that captivated historians, social scientists, and leaders for much of the 20th century. In many ways, Turner was the quintessential MapStoryteller, shining a light on a particular dimension of change over time that made American society think about itself differently. How American exceptionalism evolved, in Turner’s mind, was tied to how society spread across, adapted to, and came to master the American frontier. While the idea of American exceptionalism had been a popular topic since first raised by Alexis de Tocqueville, it was Turner who raised the issue of a society’s dynamics and its very nature evolving as it spread across new geographies over time.
It is important to remember that there are many frontiers. The American Frontier, which Turner helped to popularize, and which was forever immortalized in popular art, literature and classic Westerns (e.g., films), may be one of the most well recognized. But, since the dawn of humanity, societies have moved across the earth, engaging new frontiers which they have forever changed, and which have at the same time reshaped the character of their societies.
Whether Turner’s assessment of the evolving American character was correct or not, his assessment – that its character had evolved as Americans engaged, pushed back, developed and ultimately eliminated the Western frontier – is undeniable. If additional 'StoryLayers’ had been at Turner’s disposal, he would have had a better vantage point from which to make an assessment of this changing character. What was the spatial distribution of different practices, institutions, and ideas as time elapsed? Was the change in some of these truly an artifact of Americanism evolving, as each generation moved 50 or 100 miles west? Or, was wholesale change occurring within American institutions across the country, or specific regions, shaped by larger secular changes brought on by new technologies, national laws, immigration and the like? Turner did not have the luxury of having such data at his disposal.
Since he proposed his thesis, however, scholars have conducted all sorts of archival research developing such data sources. And now, there is a platform with which scholars focused on this, and other frontiers can begin to amass their rich, disparate, sources of historical data in order to better understand how societies have shaped and been shaped by the frontiers that they have faced.
A central thesis of MapStory is that if we are to understand our world, we must understand 'change over time’ as it has been manifested both spatially and temporally – much like Turner taught us. While many have focused on the importance of geography or the value of a historical mind, MapStory offers the opportunity to comprehend such change in powerful new ways, drawing together StoryLayers from experts that have traditionally been balkanized across many different information communities, and using these many StoryLayers to construct stories – MapStories – that embody the narratives that their historic or contemporary analyses have suggested to them.
With MapStory, there is now an opportunity for many academic disciplines, many practitioner communities, and many everyday students and citizens to share their observations of change over time, and to collaboratively put together more sophisticated, thoughtful, and accurate stories about our world.
Frederick Jackson Turner opened our eyes to both the importance and perils of drawing conclusions from spatio-temporal observations of change over time. With MapStory, hopefully we enter a new era of understanding about our world, and the frontiers we face as a global society.
Dr. Roberta Balstad is distinguished historian and social scientist, Chief Editor of the ‘Weather, Climate and Society’ journal of the American Meteorological Society, and emeritus Director of CIESIN within Columbia University’s Earth Institute.