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Digital humanities grant to support environmental history research

Monday, October 06, 2014

LAWRENCE – As research in the digital humanities continues to flourish, new technologies will increasingly provide interpretations of historical data never before possible. Environmental history represents a unique interdisciplinary field ripe to benefit from the intersection of computing and the humanities. Sara Gregg, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, and Library GIS Specialist Rhonda Houser, KU, will use a Collaborative Research Seed Grant, awarded by the Hall Center for the Humanities, to investigate in an innovative way the environmental effect of the Homestead Acts on the West.

Scholars have provided a narrative history of homesteaders using memoirs, letters, congressional hearings and other pieces of documentation. Few books have provided a synthesis of the homesteading experience, however, and even fewer have attempted to capture the geographical and ecological complexity that confronted prospective homesteaders. This project, titled “Mapping the Landscape of U.S. Homesteading, 1863-1986,” will provide an entirely new environmental understanding of the effect of the Homestead Laws on the landscape of the American West by employing new technology and formerly unmined cartographic and statistical materials.

The various Homestead Acts were intended to provide success and security to millions of Americans by offering free land on Western homesteads. By settling for five years on a plot of land, cultivating agricultural crops, and making improvements, homesteaders could acquire title to at least 160 acres of the public domain. Yet many aspiring homesteaders were financially and practically unprepared for surviving, much less prospering, on their new parcels of land, many of which were located on “some of the most unreliable soils, terrain and watersheds on the continent.”

A lack of technology and limited access to research materials previously confined scholars to understanding this complicated period of history as primarily a social phenomenon or policy initiative. The spatially referenced databases created by the research team will assist in providing a big-picture reinterpretation of the effects of homesteading and Western development that has never before been possible.

Gregg and Houser are collaborating on a Geographical Information System (GIS) raster data set based on original maps of land offered up to homesteaders. The researchers align digitized historical maps in geographic space by assigning latitude and longitude coordinates to locations on the maps. They can then overlay the resulting georeferenced maps with modern environmental data such as topography, soil type, and land management layers. Through this research project, they will continue to refine new methods of working with GIS in historical projects (called hGIS).

The project emerged when Gregg, an environmental historian specializing in the intersection of environmental change with politics and agriculture, discovered a series of maps displaying lands open to settlement as a result of the Enlarged Homestead Acts of 1909-1912.

Gregg realized that a scanned and georeferenced version of the maps would be useful for creating a unified regional map of the lands open to homesteading in 1916. She reached out to Houser, whose skills and training in GIS have proven crucial to guiding the process of digitization and the production of a raster dataset. The seed grant will provide funding for Gregg and Houser’s further collaboration and fund the work of a student assistant majoring in geography whose complementary skills will further enhance the interdisciplinary nature of the project.

Not only will this project shed new light on a key piece of environmental history, Gregg said, but the collaboration will also result in a “comprehensive and expandable measure” of the effect of homesteading across the United States that will translate widely and support additional research for scholars across the globe.

The researchers intend to publicize details of the work in scholarly publications, hoping to both demonstrate the utility of this kind of hGIS work as well as provide new insight to environmental effects of the Homestead Acts.

The Collaborative Research Seed Grant supports the early stages of projects that capitalize on multiple forms of expertise to tackle the most methodologically and theoretically challenging questions faced by humanities scholars. KU’s Research and Graduate Studies provides funding for the seed grant program. For more information on this and other Hall Center competitions, visit hallcenter.ku.edu and click on the Funding link.