Mapping the spread of American slavery

[A revised version of this post was published at Smithsonian.com.]

In September of 1861, the U.S. Coast Survey published a large map, just under three feet square, titled a “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States.” Based on the population statistics gathered in the 1860 census, and certified by the superintendent of the Census Office, the map depicted the percentage of the population enslaved in each county.

U.S. Coast Survey, Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States (Washington, DC: Henry S. Graham, 1861). Image from the Library of Congress.

The map showed at a glance the large-scale patterns of slavery in the American South: the concentrations of slavery in eastern Virginia, in South Carolina, and most of all along the Mississippi. It also repaid closer examination, since each county was labeled with the exact percentage enslaved. The map of slavery was one of many thematic maps produced in the nineteenth century United States. As Susan Schulten has shown, this particular map was used by the federal government during the Civil War, and it was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s.1

A detail from the U.S. Coast Survey map of slavery, showing the Mississippi River and delta.

Though such thematic maps, in particular of slavery, have their origins in the nineteenth century, the technique is useful for historians. As I see it, one of the main problems for the historians’ method today is the problem of scale. How can we understand the past at different chronological and geographical scales? How can we move intelligibly between looking at individuals and looking at the Atlantic World, between studying a moment and studying several centuries?2 Maps can help, especially interactive web maps that make it possible to zoom in and out, to represent more than one subject of interest, and to set representations of the past in motion in order to show change over time.

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