In the July 27th edition of the New York Times, Patricia Cohen writes, "Now historians have a new tool that can help. Advanced technology similar to Google Earth, MapQuest and the GPS systems used in millions of cars has made it possible to recreate a vanished landscape." Historians, literary theorists, archaeologists and others are using computer software called Geographic Information Systems, which displays and analyzes information related to a physical location, to re-examine places like the villages around Salem, Massachusetts at the time of the witch trials, the Dust Bowl that helped cause the Great Depression, and battlefields of the Civil War. They’ve even located the taverns where the fictional characters in Shakespeare’s plays went to drink.
One of the most contested wars in history is the Civil War, with both sides still arguing over its causes. The new mapping software can help resolve these issues by revealing, for example, what General Robert E. Lee could actually SEE that made him decide to issue a series of orders which eventually caused the Confederate Army to lose that war 150 years ago. Cohen quotes geographer Kelly Knowles as saying, "Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know. It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible."
Lee, like all military leaders of that time (who did not have planes or helicopters), would have relied mostly on what he could see from ground level, which made small differences in elevation strategically important. Cohen quotes Knowles as saying, "Lee probably could not have possibly seen the massive federal forces building up on the eastern side of the battlefield on Day 2 during the famous attack on Little Round Top. He had to make decisions with really inadequate information."
Historian Geoff Cunfer has used these techniques to help explain why farmers created the Dust Bowl. He found that the extensive plowing that led to it was only used in some areas, and that even lightly plowed fields in some parts of the South suffered from dust storms–in fact, these were a regular occurrence in the 19th century that were "unreported and unpublicized," so farmers had no warning that would have made them change their farming methods.
And how does this new mapping system help explain the Salem witch trials? Historian Benjamin Ray had always wondered why witchcraft charges spread so rapidly and widely in 1692 from Salem across 25 communities, while previous incidents had remained small and localized. Cohen writes, "When he plotted the accusations on a digital map that showed a progression over time, it struck him immediately."
Historian David Bodenhamer agrees. Cohen quotes him as saying that the value of the new mapping system is that it "allows you to ask new questions: Why is it that something developed here and not somewhere else, what is it about the context of this place?" Using traditional research methods, Ray figured out that the Salem authorities failed to contain the hysteria that time because they let people make accusations without posting a bond (which had always been done in the past) and also allowed accusers to be interviewed in groups, as well as allowing "spectral evidence" (evidence only visible to the accuser) to be enough for a conviction.
But the mapping technology explains why the paranoia spread so rapidly. Cohen quotes him as saying, "The eye is a very good sorter of patterns. It looked like a kind of epidemic, almost a disease."
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