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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mapping Cotton 1862-ish

It’s been a challenge finding time to post during the first week of classes, and I’m sure this post’s lateness will not detract from its less-than-greatness.

I’m part of the pecha kucha roundtable on “the Spatial Turn” at least in part because I attended an Arc-GIS course with Ryan Cordell at DHSI in 2011. My goal in that course was to learn enough about Arc-GIS to try out using it to work with documents associated with a set of European itineraries from 1862. Previously, I had worked with a technical liaison from our campus’s Library and Information Services to map some information associated with a woman’s journal from the 1870s. I presented preliminary results from that work at Harvard a few years ago, and I’ll be talking about that project again as part of a series on Digital Humanities for the undergraduate honors program at the University of Kansas in spring 2013.

My interest in mapping the sources of raw cotton in the U.S. South and their destinations for processing in New England in 1840 and 1850 arises from efforts to further contextualize one of those itineraries. My presentation at NEASA will focus on work in progress as I explore effects of the U.S. Civil War on the cotton industry in New England for a paper I will present at a conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society in spring 2013.

One of the account books among the primary sources we are researching in the Wheaton College Digital History Project documents the operation of a mill that produced cotton batting in Norton, Massachusetts, in the late 1840s. This account book documents the geographical sources of the raw cotton used in the mill, including Apalachicola, Florida, as well as New Orleans. It also refers to the broker from whom the raw cotton was purchased, William J. King of Providence, Rhode Island, who traded on the New York exchange.

The cotton industry shifted in Norton in the 1840s as the wealth of the Wheaton family was transferred from one generation to the next. I am interested in exploring ways in which this microhistorical set of events at the level of family and town might open up questions at the state and national level during a significant period in the economic and political development of the nation.

At the most basic level, mapping of the cotton production has shown correlations with the expansion of slavery for the decades preceding the U.S. Civil War. And last year, Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1861 map of “The Cotton Kingdom” was featured in historian Susan Schulten’s contribution to the “Disunion” blog in the New York Times. Might there be scholarly benefit in examining geospatial information about the sources and destinations of raw and processed cotton at a more granular level?

Kathryn Tomasek
Wheaton College
Norton, Massachusetts

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