Through the Digital Looking-Glass: Digital Humanities and “Vast Early America”

Friday, January 5, 2018: 11:10 AM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Bryan Rindfleisch, Marquette University
Over the past year, historians of Colonial America (1491-1800) have collectively embarked on a new mission: to redefine our conceptions of the past as “#VastEarlyAmerica.” While scholars continue to debate in print and social media what that means exactly and what it portends for the future, this is an opportune if not critical time to explore what digital humanities can contribute to that conversation. Therefore, this project integrates digital technologies with documentary evidence to demonstrate the myriad and ordinary ways in which the peoples of Early America – Native American, African, and European – intersected and interacted with one another throughout the eighteenth-century. In particular, I examine the web of relationships that suffused the American South and encompassed the Creek and Cherokee Indians, Irish immigrants, English and Scottish traders, British and Spanish imperial agents, African slaves, and merchants in continental Europe; all of whom congregated at the Silver Bluff plantation in colonial South Carolina and Georgia. By deploying mapping software, network analysis visualization tools, and GIS technology, we can trace the movements of these peoples to and from Silver Bluff, the frequency with which they moved or did not from that place, who’s travels or residency coincided with others (a “who’s interacting with who” type of situation), the continental and transatlantic dimensions of that space and people who gathered there, and other such insights. Then, alongside written sources, we can illustrate how these disparate peoples invested their own particular meanings into Silver Bluff, which can then speak to the multitude of kinship, economic, political, socio-cultural, and religious interactions that unfolded at that place. Altogether, the integration of digital humanities with documentary evidence can do more than simply visualize or complement our narratives of the past, but enhance how we actually do history or understand and write about the past.
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