On the Edge of Civilization: The Life of a Frontier Emigrant

Historical archaeology, defined as “the study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind some other form of historical evidence” (Society for Historical Archaeology https://sha.org/), has the benefit of textual resources to enhance our understanding and interpretation of artifacts.  For the Steamboat Bertrand collection, documents such as journals provide invaluable insight into the daily life of frontier men and women.  While many of these are hard to find published and accessible, some do exist, such as Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford.  This diary chronicles the life of eighteen-year-old Indiana native Mollie Dorsey from her family move to Nebraska through her marriage and settlement in Denver, Colorado in the 1860s.  Her story begins in 1857 when she, along with her parents and eight siblings, board a steamboat bound for Nebraska territory, where her uncles are already settled.  Though aboard a different ship, Mollie’s account of her journey provides us with a sense of what the Bertrand passengers likely experienced until their trip was interrupted. Mollie writes of the diversity among the crowd of voyagers and of their diversions while aboard.  Aside from listening to the “creole porter” sing, Mollie engages in conversation with several male passengers and finds a friend among the women on board (7).  Her bold attitude shines throughout the text and, upon moving into a male-dominated community, quickly becomes the object of several amorous attentions. Despite being thrust into a home “away from the advantages of the world,” Mollie and her family quickly adapt to rural life and struggle to maintain both physical and abstract ideals connected to middle class values (32).  However, hard times, isolation, and impermanence prevent the accumulation of many middle-class goods, especially furniture.  Instead, Mollie frequently focuses on the “sanctuary of domestic happiness,” or home (33).  Home, to Mollie, is tied to people rather than a place, which makes her constitution well suited for nomadic life on the Western frontier.  Mollie’s confessions provide understanding of the values and motivations held by emigrants during the nineteenth century.  Research like this will enhance the analysis and presentation of domestic artifacts from the Bertrand collection.

For further reading:

Sanford, Mollie Dorsey

1915 Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866.

Fuzzy Places and Ambiguous Data

-by Gabi Kirilloff

The types of visualizations that GIS enable can help us trace threads and commonalities through a subtle reworking of our visual perspective. Maps and graphs can help us see old data in a new light. This ability is something that I associate with the application of digital methodologies to literary studies overall. However, a potential pitfall often accompanies these benefits, namely, that maps and other types of visualizations have the potential to obscure the acts of interpretation that are taking place behind the scenes. As Johanna Drucker writes:

…graphical tools [such as GIS] are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity.

Drucker is not opposing the use of maps altogether, rather she is pointing out the ways in which visualizations, much like other critical tools, include acts of interpretation that aren’t always visible. Sometimes the scholar drives these acts of interpretation. Sometimes technical constraints mandate interpretive decisions. However, what make a map different from say a journal article or even TEI encoding, is the degree to which the map can appear to present an unbiased (and non-interpretive) “truth.”

I’ve been considering these issues a lot in my own work; I’m attempting to create a series of interactive maps that showcase the places that the American author Willa Cather writes about in her novels. For example, the following is a portion of a map of the places Cather mentions in her novel, My Ántonia


 Countries and states that Cather mentions are indicated with orange coloring, while cities are indicated with a purple dot. The size of the dot corresponds to frequency of mentions. Seems simple enough. The intended goal of this and other maps is to explore the relationship between Cather’s writing about place and her first hand experience of place. Maps of Cather’s travels and maps of the places that she mentions in her letters would also be available, and would for example, spark questions such as: does Cather frequently write about the places she traveled to? What types of places does Cather write about that she never experienced? When Cather writes letters to specific people, does she tend to talk about specific places?

In order to make my research more straightforward, I decided early on to focus on the “real” concrete places that Cather mentions (excluding, for example, fictional places that are based on real locations). Further, because of the nature of the tools I am using to extract this information from Cather’s writing (I am using the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer, which can extract proper place names from a text.), I decided to only examine her use of proper geographic places names. So for example, “It was raining in New York city” would be extracted and counted while “It was raining in the big apple” would not.

These decisions, made partially because of technical constraints, have deeply theoretical implications. They are themselves interpretive acts that call into questions the very use of the term “place” in my research. The above map then, far from displaying all of the “places” Cather references in My Ántonia, is really displaying something far more specific: all of Cather’s reference to real geographic locations, in which the reference takes the form of a proper place name. If you think about it, these are two very different things. The inclusion of dialect, cultural references, and physical description are all ways that an author may write about a place without ever using a proper place name. This is not to say that the specific references to place that I am extracted are insignificant, only that it’s important to keep in mind the constraints of the methodologies I’ve chosen.

 I’ve run into a couple issues that have further pushed me to think about exactly what I mean by “place.” I’ve been wondering how I should represent geographic locations that have “fuzzy” boundaries. For example, the Stanford NER will extract “the South” as a place reference. However, the implied meaning of this location varies based on context; “the South” in Sapphira and the Slave Girl (a novel set in Virginia) may mean something different than “the South” in Shadows on the Rock (a novel set in Quebec). Even if the implied place was consistent, what are the boundaries of “the South,” and what did this geographic region mean to Cather? As visualizations, maps are not especially amenable to displaying these types of ambiguities.

Another problem that I’ve run into has to do with place names that are used to describe an object, rather than necessarily signify the place in question. I’m not extracting the adjectival forms of place names (e.g. French), but I do end up extracting place names that function like adjectives. “Panama hat,” “India ink,” and “Lombardy Poplars” to name just a few. There are also place names tied up with people: e.g. “Our lady of Guadalupe.” I find these instances pretty fascinating because they raise some interesting questions about what constitutes a reference to, or an understanding of, a place. My first instinct is to say that of course “Panama hat” isn’t a reference to a place – these two words together become something entirely different, something more idiomatic. But it’s not so easy to draw that type of line. For example, are the distinctions between “Jamaican rum,” “Jamaica rum” (this one is in my corpus), and “rum from Jamaica” meaningful? Should one more of these count as a reference to Jamaica but not the others?

Part of me resists the idea of removing these types of references, since in a way the inclusion of the place in such phrases offers us an indication of the rich relationship that these objects have with specific geographic locations and cultures. Take for example, the following from The Song of the Lark, “The bed was very wide, and the mattress thin and hard. Over the fat pillows were “shams” embroidered in Turkey red…” After looking this up, I found out that Turkey redis a color that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. The dye originated in Turkey. When Cather makes such a reference, there is no way to know what knowledge she had access to: did she know the history of this term? Did she know that it referred to the country of Turkey? However, the same could be true of many of her more concrete references as well. A character in O Pioneers! quotes the Bible, and this quote includes a reference to Lebanon. Given that this is a quote from another text, should this be considered a place reference? It may not be Cather’s words but she did choose to include them.

I think that these examples help to highlight the ambiguous, complicated, and fuzzy nature of humanities data. Which brings to mind Drucker’s rejection of the term “data” altogether in favor of the term “capta,” “which is ‘taken’ actively while data is assumed to be a ‘given’ able to be recorded and observed.” This point offers a useful reminder of the active and interpretative nature of my work and it has certainly given me something to think about as I slog through “Bokhara carpets,” “Malaga grapes,” and “Moselle wine.”

GIS as a Phenomenological Bridge-An Example

-by Christy Hyman

GIS can be a phenomenological bridge between experience and measurable qualities within cartographic data. This quote captures the alterity of experience (as it relates to enslaved people) within landscapes of domination during the antebellum era: “You cannot talk about space as it relates to Black people—to African people—without talking about movement or moving through space. And once you talk about moving through space as it relates to Africans, then you must confront the forces that prohibit or restrict that moving.”***quote is M.NourbeSe Philip, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time.” Fuse Magazine, 1998. Found in Jessica M. Johnson’s blog “Afrx Wonders Diaspora Hypertext.

With this idea in mind we can assess the GIS task of georeferencing maps for instances in unearthing the past:

We find a point location-find it in real world space

Create control points, Add map data

*Assess that at this point this is unknown spatial reference*

Zoom in

Right click white space

Turn on georeferencing tool

Match it to a base map in ArcGIS;download map data

Zoom in realworld map of counties…make new layer file

Add basemap–imagery

*Widest perspective is best; Look for extant location on both maps (Gatesville, NC in this case)

Screenshot (26)–(geocoding finds Gatesville)

Turn on auto adjust;View link file- real world coordinates-residual tells quality of the point;Then rectify.

Now an old map has real world data


I can then map out flight paths of enslaved people with point distances indicated from enslaved runaway maps. This is an example of the lived experienced being brought out by the GIS. Because the terrain, the cost paths(politically and geographically) tell us many things about living and surviving freedom-making in the slave regime.

Modeling the Past

Kami Ahrens


Recent developments in technology have sparked new methods for preserving and presenting the past.  High-ranking institutions such as the Smithsonian Instituted have integrated photogrammetric modeling as part of their online collections.  Inspired by these, and similar, efforts, my project endeavors to increase access to and awareness of the Steamboat Bertrand collection, located at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Valley, Iowa.  Using photogrammetric modeling and an open source digital host, I will arrange representative artifacts into a digital exhibit which explores concepts of domesticity on the nineteenth century frontier.

But what is photogrammetric modeling? A theoretically simple process that can quickly become complex.  This form of modeling consists of photographic sequences of an object or landscape that are then entered into a pre-fabricated program such as Agisoft Photoscan.  The program then aligns the photos, ideally in a sphere, which serve as the data set for a point cloud, wireframe, and eventually 3D mesh.  The digital product can be hosted online or incorporated into various formats of digital projects (see Sketchfab for examples).  The models have innumerable benefits, from preservation of the artifact to public engagement.


However, as I have learned, creating models is never a smooth process.  Taking good data is the most important step, but there may be inherent qualities within an object that do not lend themselves to the process.  For example, glass bottles are generally avoided as photogrammetry candidates because the software has trouble recognizing a transparent object.  Reflectivity also creates an issue and generally results in misalignment or incorrect texturing of a model.  Working through some of these problems, however, is all part of the learning experience.  However, it will direct my artifact selection choices, leaving some objects such as the hundreds of bottles from the Bertrand to remain digitally preserved in photographs alone.

How did passive voice become so passive?

-Jonathan Cheng

The intended purpose of this blog is to provide a space for the other fellows and I to relate our research interests to a larger audience. My research currently entails applying computer science methods to investigate the broad literary trends of what we now call passive voice. Many of the terms in that statement merit some unpacking and my hope for this introductory post is to anecdotally parse some of those terms.

There are many fabulous blogs detailing the various text mining approaches to digitized literary collections (Alan Liu, Matthew Jockers, Ted Underwood, Steve Ramsay, too many to list here). They all go to wonderful lengths to detail some of the advantages and problems that come with digital text analysis, so I will refrain from being redundant here. It might be sufficient to say that literary scholars are very gifted interpreters when operating on the scale of a single, tens, or a hundred texts, but have yet to formulate a set of questions to properly investigate digital collections that exceed this scale.

This is not to say that projects operating at the former scale of literary analysis are somehow not doing enough. Some of the most cogent literary interventions result from noticing subtle applications of a stylistic trope. A literary scholar might, for example, take note of how castles are depicted from Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1798) to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). They then might derive a great deal of insight regarding Britain’s changing perceptions of property from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

That sort of historical insight is possible due to the kind of interpretive questions that emerge when reading two texts for stylistic contrast. One might, and rightly so, raise questions such as, “What is the significance of Radcliffe’s crumbling abbey as the setting of the protagonist’s cultivation? Furthermore, what is the historical significance given that Austen’s novel contrastingly depicts a satirically modest and decidedly boring estate?” Literary studies, as a discipline, is familiar with asking questions on this scale in order to accentuate various humanistic subtleties.

But if one were to ask me the historically sensible follow up questions, “How long did Austen’s depiction of castles remain in vogue? Did Radcliffe’s depictions of Gothic castles remain more prominent in popular fiction despite Austen’s satire? Which setting-style does contemporary fiction inherit and when does it start doing that?” I would have given some vague hypotheses because I do not have a good answer for these kinds of questions.

Answering these sorts of historical questions is generally a challenge for literary scholars to answer. It would require reading the hundreds of thousands of fictional works that comprise the particular literary trajectory (generic, historical, gendered, etc.) before feeling a remote sense of hermeneutic confidence. An amount of fiction worth several lifetimes of reading. These kinds of questions have, for quite some time now, been considered trivially unapproachable and so left, on paper at least, unanswered.

I suspect though that literary scholars have operated on internalized and untested heuristics to these sorts of questions. It is worth asking how that internalization is detrimental to the discipline’s practices and historical formulations, but that will be pursued in a later post. What I wish to express is simply that the discipline has a fundamental, yet fruitful, problem in approaching a set of historical problems precisely because they operate at a scale too robust for close reading.

Furthermore, I would like to posit that text mining methods have already provided a productive avenue worth pursuing. Because digitized collections, such as HathiTrust, provide access to approximately 700,000 eighteenth and nineteenth century volumes, there is an opportunity to render those broader social-linguistic trends while acknowledging the gaps in that corpus. This still requires formulating the right set of questions and then further requires developing programming procedures to extract literary trends, but, at the very least, it is a place to start.

This is only half the story of my research interests though. The latter portion largely concerns the string of events and curiosities that lead to my interest in the passive voice. My interest in this style of writing stems from a curiously sacred notion, though perhaps one undergoing a hallowed burial, that sentences written in passive voice are stylistically gauche. This can largely be seen in sentences that take the object of the sentence and position it as the subject. (E.g. Active: “Tom painted the house.”  Passive: “The house was painted by Tom.”)

Users of early word processing applications may recall the ambiguous green underlining and being advised “Passive Voice (consider revising)”. It is not categorically wrong per se, otherwise it would be underlined in red with the typos, but there is something potentially off. The degree to which one is off is largely a rhetorical problem. In a bureaucratic situation, passive voice might be taken as a very useful tool for being vague about who is responsible.

“Mistakes were made.” (Yes, but by who?)

This attempt to defer blame is commonplace, but you will hardly find someone refer to it as a stylistic faux pas. However, as I read over my seminar papers and see “p.v.” in the margins, I am reminded of my own tendency for verbiage, become preoccupied with the “assertiveness” of my writing, and consequently considered revising. On a pedagogical register, this annotation makes sense. It is much easier for instructors to assess whether a student derived some literary sensitivities from a lecture or seminar if they express them through precise interventions.Yet, as I look at both the passive and active versions of my sentences, it is unclear about how such language structures become so concretely configured with a sense of agency.

It would be shortsighted to label this as solely an issue of clarity or efficiency. Indulging in “Famous Movie Quotes Ruined by the Passive Voice”, each quote makes sense, but clearly there is something playfully awkward about each of these examples. It is out of this awkwardness that I began to wonder when and how passive voice got such a bad rap.

Having read my fair share of Sherlock Holmes, I have to wonder if this was always the case. Holmes is, after all, a detective constantly guided by passive objects — I mean clues. People do not help Holmes figure out the puzzle behind the mystery. “No, your boy had been observed, and that gave me a guide where to look.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles). Literary scholars are not so far removed from these statements, yet somehow we have inherited this notion that this kind of writing counts as “passive” of all things.

In a discipline where we regularly study verbose and passive texts, how do stylistic values form in such a way where passivity is connoted with verboseness and assertiveness with the pithy? Furthermore, can we track a broad historical trajectory that leads to these stylistic values? If so, what historical conditions motivated such preferences?