How Historians Can Use Maps

I’ve always considered maps to be useful resources no matter what historical period I happen to be studying at any given time. I like being able to place events because doing so provides me with another perspective. Focusing on the “where” of an event, along with the “who” and “what,” contributes to my understanding of it. Maps can tell us how close the nearest river was, what cities were close by, and other factual details that a visual representation of a geographic space can. As historians, we try to include more information, such as the “how” and “why” of events. These attributes aren’t usually found in a standard geographical map. By considering the context of the map, we can start filling in these holes.

Think about an old railroad map that marks the stops of a particular line. One inference from looking at the map is that the cities were most likely chosen because of their population, as railroad companies wanted to sell tickets where people would buy them. However, looking at historical data is necessary to test this theory, as well as other sources. This might be a good use of GIS, which could pull in historical census data to create a new map. A time-lapse map could even be created to reflect how those train stations changed over time, as well as the local population. This is just one facet of how maps can aid historians in “doing history.”

While I’m still absorbing the readings from this week, I am looking forward to creating our own maps in class. With such an abundance of maps everywhere we turn (Google maps, Metro maps, campus maps, etc.), I think historians can benefit from employing more maps in their research. In the past, I’ve usually been drawn to maps for their artistic qualities, but now I am starting to realize the power that maps hold. Who decides what gets put on a map vs. what doesn’t? Throughout history (mostly after 1500) maps have been created for a wide range of uses. From identifying land ownership to public transportation, maps have been a source of understanding space and time. The information we can get from maps can only improve our scholarship.
ETA: This week I’ve commented on Erin’s blog post on early maps.

3 thoughts on “How Historians Can Use Maps

  1. RE your observations about railroads: sometimes, you can work the clues backwards in time as well. For example, I was once looking at a plat map for Bentley, Illinois (pop. 35) at the local historical society. When I commented on the odd shape of the town boundaries, one of the of volunteers explained the boundary had been shaped to include the land around the railroad line so that related businesses would fall within city jurisdiction (taxes, regulation). You can take a look at it here:,-91.1103639,15z

    The railroads disappeared decades ago, but the track beds are often still discernible. The towns that relied upon the railroads shrank significantly and the grain elevators that still operate there send their goods by truck to much larger elevators located along existing rail and barge termini. The presence of a small grain elevator in a town may also be a clue to a pre-existing railroad line.

    1. That’s a great point, Kim! The shape of the town boundaries is definitely interesting, and makes sense that the extended part was following a rail line. Thanks for your input!

  2. Your comment about “focusing on the where of an event…” made me think about something from this week’s readings, this whole idea of space vs place. How are they different and how are they created and understood? I’m not having an easy time understanding it. If a PLACE is defined by its physical nature (across the street, next to the thing) then a SPACE has its meaning ascribed to it by society. Right? Like, for example, a bar. The place is right next door. The space is where people can relax and engage in casual banter.

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