Grant Proposal

Contested Place-Names: Re-described Geographies of the Atlantic World


            The project aims to create the most extensive database solely related to place-names of the Atlantic World in the age of colonialism. During an era where colonial powers and individuals attempted to redraw and rename landscapes along Atlantic coasts, maps rarely appeared the same even when drawn by mapmakers of the same nationalities.  This project seeks to create a database of the various names given to geographic areas along the Atlantic Ocean from the late sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries. It will look from an Atlantic History perspective to show how these same processes and discontinuities are both part of global and local histories. This is an ambitious large-scale project because of its long-term and global view so it would require a fairly large budget and would be fairly focused in its goals. The ultimate goal of the project is to historicize place-names of the Atlantic world, to demonstrate the socially constructed and the contested nature of geographical names. This idea results from the frustration that often can come from looking at maps, both of places and time periods one is familiar with or unfamiliar with. Often people approach these documents as records of how people understood geography, society, and governance at a particular time but without the context of other similar or dissimilar maps made at this same time. The Contested Place-Names project seeks to bring together these many sources in a way that clearly reveals the changing and contested nature of geographic names. It can both be used as a tool to understand confusing inconsistencies in historical documents and as a way to complicate histories and raise new research questions. 

Literature Review

            While the specific mapping of place-names along the Atlantic Coast is a project that has not yet been done, other digital history projects have previously mapped place names, mapped chronological records of the Atlantic World, and mapped contested land claims.

            Prior to Contested Place-Names, other projects have also sought to map place-names through digital maps. Most of these examples focus on sites within Europe. Among this group, Columbia University’s Place Name Map maps place-names mentioned in medieval Icelandic sagas. While the plots are mostly concentrated in Iceland, Norway, and Britain, several outliers appear in Greenland, Turkey, and Egypt. The dots are color coded by the sagas in which they appear and search options allow users to narrow the search toward certain types of water, land, or social features such as “fjords”, “glaciers”, or “farm towns”. The site uses GIS, data mining services, and OpenStreetMap to map the historical information.

            Another interactive place-name map of the British Isles displays hundreds of data points about Gaelic place-names around Loch Torridon in Scotland. Each dot brings up a series of metadata, but perhaps most interestingly a source name that it is called today, a standardized spelling, the meaning of the term, and a physical description of the land. Although unclear who the creators of the resource are, the site is sponsored and advertised by Bord Na Gaidhlig, an organization that seeks to promote and develop the Gaelic language in Scotland. Another British map backed by a large institution appears in the online exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, supported by both the British Museum and BP. Under the title “Old Norse Origins” users are invited to explore a map and discover Norse place-names in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. On the site one could for instance click on a dot along the coast named “Redcar” and find that the term translates to “Red marsh”. Because of the great stretch of land being considered here the site represents a large-scale effort to identify Norse origins in place-names of the British Isles.

            Other sources also work first as search engines of place-names that bring up maps and descriptive information for place-names typed in. Examples of this type of place-name resource are the government of Western Australia and the government of Queensland, Australia’s Place Names databases. Each allows users to type in a known place-name into the search bar, which pulls up a series of data including a historical narrative of the origins of the word. These databases play a clear governmental role, although the extensive documentation of local history makes it also a historical tool. Another example from England, the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham’s Key to English Place Names, also only allows access by directly searching place-name words.

            Having become a fairly common idea, these place-name databases provide important historical contexts for current geographical and topographical names, although the majority existing place-name sites have focused exclusively on sites in Western Europe. This may be partly due to the existence of organizations such as the Scottish Place-Name Society that circulate information to its members to encourage the creation of more place-name databases and calls for the recruitment of volunteers for the ongoing projects. However, at the same time each of these examples, while created with similar goals in mind, are organized in various ways and on different computer programs demonstrating the independent nature of each. For examples of more regionally relevant online resources, other types of digital projects have demonstrated ways to map the coastal Atlantic World and continental North America.

            A site currently in progress called Use and Occupancy Mapping (UOM) seeks to visualize the use and occupancy of Syilx/Okanagan territory in what is today governed by British Columbia. Through this project the Okanagan Nation hopes to document the mark of indigenous land titles, natural resources, and language and culture on the territory through a variety of place-names and other markings. Several preliminary photographs of the database display icons place topographical features, ecological characteristics, and human-occupied sites. The information for this project is gathered through questionnaires and is visually logged into the database with the hopes of being used later to support the rights and interested of the Okanagan Nation as decision-making and education tools. Once launched, this project looks to be an extensive and in-depth resource, although clearly geographically focused. 

            Another site with also a strong focus on Canadian land called Native-Lands displays the locations of indigenous lands in North America and Australia mostly but also parts of Central and South America. While openly un-academic, the site reaches a popular audience in widespread way. Beyond simply mapping contested land claims, this site importantly reveals the nature of historical Euro-American claims upon which current governments and settlements today are based. The source does not include names such as “Massachusetts” or “the United States of America” and rather expects users to rely on the landscape to locate familiar places and to determine the Native people of that land.

            Another digital history project supported by NEH, Voyages: TransatlanticSlave Trade Database, focuses less on place-names and more on movement, but it offers a model for database design and geographical focus. Looking at historical records from a transatlantic perspective, this resource demonstrates the possibilities for taking a broader approach to mapping historical movement over time. The database presents information related to 35,000 transatlantic slave-trading voyages and 90,000 African individuals between 1520 and 1866. This large-scale collection of information represents a variety of regions and eras, as it maps the global movement of people because of the slave trade over the course of four centuries.In addition to visually showing movement and distance, the project includes names and estimates of populations transported on ships. As a digital resourceit allows people to explore routes and compare size and frequency of movement across regions in an individual interactive way. Additionally, as an online resource people can access this information from anywhere with Internet and therefore are not reliant on expensive travel to multiple distant archives to calculate these numbers. Similarly, this project hopes to provide a large-scale look at the process of colonial mapmaking in the Atlantic World. Additionally, Voyages serves as a model for the layout of this project, as it is comprised of various search options that lead to tables of historical data collected from the sources.

            Each of these projects, in addition to many other similar place-name, transatlantic slavery, and Native land projects, represent necessary work for making historical geographies understandable and accessible to a modern-day public audience. Using a range of designs and interactive features, these examples display different options for presenting large-scale historical data through maps. The projects mainly influencing Contested Place-Names each represent ambitious tasks for collecting large amounts of records and implementing them into maps with several search and organization options for exploring the patterns. However, because none of these resources, within their own scope, present mapped data of changing place-names that result from colonization of the Atlantic World, this project seeks to fill this gap. Building off of previous projects, this proposed digital history project would combine the geographical scope of “Voyages”, the goals of Native-Land, and the content of the European place-name projects to produce a database for critically exploring the contested place-names of coastal geographies.

Project Narrative

            This project seeks to use data from historical maps of the Atlantic World, as drawn by colonizers, to demonstrate the long and disunited process through which colonial naming of places happens. The goal of the database is to demonstrate the unnatural nature of adding foreign names to already inhabited stretches of land. Because of the nature of colonization and the resulting conflicts among intra-colonial and native land claims, the database will show frequent changes of linguistic naming. Especially among European names for colonies and settlements, the places will also often depict the influence of other places across empires, revealing the movement of people to and from these spaces during these periods of colonization. In browsing through the changing and conflicting names for the same stretches of land, the database will illustrate the socially-constructed nature of colonial property-making. At times, the results will show words that are consistent with or connected to indigenous names, and at others they will display names that are totally unrelated to Native terms. This will at various times and places show both the impact and persistence of indigenous land on European-claimed colonial lands and a conscious disregard for indigenous names and habitation.

            The technical design of the database will involve a function searching and organizing data by region, date, or other criteria. By hovering over the named sites on the interactive map, windows will appear that reveal historical descriptions of the sites, as well as other Native names associated with these lands. The project is envisioned as a digital map, where one could click on points along the coast or search a known name which would pull up a list of names documented in reference to that location. For example, typing in the phrase “New Jersey” could bring up a chronological list including the names Nieuw Nederland, Nva Sverige, Nova Caesaria, New Jarsey, West Jersey and East Jersey, and the Jerseys. In each box’s list of different names, the names would appear in different colors, each of which could indicate the frequency and distribution of each name appearing in the entered data. A major complication of the project will likely result from the difficulty of matching names and points on maps that are drawn from different estimates of geographical size and location. Because of these errors that are inevitably part of maps, the program in which the cartographic data will be entered must be designed to pair similar words and shapes together to ensure that the measured count of names us an accurate number. Contested Place-Names will be a searchable database, creating networks of place-names both within a specific location and across Atlantic coasts. The ability to search all results for a place-name will be useful for recognizing if multiple places shared the same names, especially when the same or similar groups of people rename multiple places. Another useful function of this project would be the ability to categorize and search maps based on their creators. With this function one could, for example, see how English mapmakers tended to describe a set of locations in comparison to Dutch mapmakers. In addition to visualizing locations along a map, names will be organized by year and by spellings.

            Beyond displaying the historical and colonial contexts of the Atlantic World, a major goal of the Contested Place-Names: Re-described Geographies of the Atlantic World project is to create a digital pool of data that can be used by researchers, students, inhabitants of these regions, genealogists, and other interested parties. In particular, this site offers a research tool to professional or recreational researchers hoping to locate places they have seen or heard referenced. One can imagine this tool being especially useful for genealogists as they search their family histories in regions of the past with which they are less familiar. For these groups of people the project offers a practical solution to frequent struggles of understanding the Atlantic World that come from the contested nature of place-names.

            In addition, this digital project can serve wider audiences by offering a new outlook on colonial history that regard place-names as examples of political and social claims rather than as universally agreed-upon facts. The place-based nature of the project could be of interest to a general public because of the fairly universal nature of its subject. One way in which this resource can be used for educational purposes is its ability to serve as a helpful tool for lessons on geography. In browsing through the changing and conflicting names for the same stretches of land, the database can act as a teaching tool to illustrate the socially constructed nature of colonial place-making. In classroom, library, and at-home settings, students can play with the search features to consider maps through the perspectives of different social and colonial backgrounds. Local inhabitants or descendants of these mapped regions may especially find the site interesting, as they search the named maps and descriptions to learn more about the history of the landscape in which they or their families have lived. Overall, this project will be designed to serve a variety of purposes to a general audiences while still communicating a clear set of goals.

            While maps provide people today with a view into certain geographical, political, and social perspectives from earlier periods, their production also requires the possession of uncommon resources and skills, which greatly limits the perspectives represented. To address the fact that maps along cannot capture what places are called the project can also create a more open feature that allows individuals and organizations to upload documents or narrations preserved orally that also refer to these places. I envision the crowd sourced aspect of the website being something one could open by clicking on the hyperlinked location-names. In addition, to keep the focus of the project clear, each of these images and writings will highlight the specific words identifying the term used for the place. To ensure that this project includes various voices and perspectives on these lands, there will also include functions for imputing alternative names, editing listed ones, and leaving comments for each geographic site. 

            Because of the contentious nature of these historical maps and disagreements over colonial and Native lands, the site will present this history as a set of data from the perspective of mapmakers and will add additional interpretive text for context. Rather than treated as absolute truths, maps will be seen as mediums through which people, and colonizers particularly, communicated and documented their land claims and their understandings of Atlantic geography. However, because the expectation is that users will not be able to comment on every site along the Atlantic coasts, because of the large time commitment involved of users, the crowd sources section may be relatively incomplete. Therefore, the project will seek to also apply descriptions that expand the contextual narrative of these sites along the Atlantic coast, adding especially indigenous names and perspectives for these places.

            Because of the inherently broad and expansive nature of the Contested Plac-Names project, it must be designed with set limitations for the scope of its content and reach. Therefore, the project will be interested primarily in cartographic sources to limit the historical medium being observed. Of course other sources exist that could similarly communicate much of the same information, such as letter, land deeds and surveys, oral history, and the physical landscapes themselves. However, this project limits its list of place-names to just those that appear on maps to ensure a narrower focus. By collecting and organizing this large yet singular group of data, the project opens up the possibility for future digital history projects to take up the task of collecting place-names of the Atlantic World from other sources of documentation and knowledge.

            In order to limit the scope of this project and make it ambitious within reason, the project will be focused in certain respects. First, the project’s primary purpose will be to observe changing and contested names through maps rather than other sources. This will allow for the project to be expanded in a second phase so that it doesn’t stay static. Second, the project will remain focused on coastal regions, both in terms of human habitation and environmental features, rather than the whole of the relevant regions. Lastly, the project will focus more on making available the compiled lists of names, rather than displaying the digitized maps themselves. The images will only be accessible from the word list itself, which will also ensure that the original archive sites are still the primary site for viewing these materials. 

            The most important characteristic of the Contested Place-Names project is its digital format, which allows the growth, usability, and dissemination of digital projects. Through a digital format the project could present a visual way of observing and searching named landscapes chronologically. On the Internet the chronological lists of names could also be more accessible from a variety of locations and could allow for more interactive ways of categorizing and ordering changing landscape names. The placement of this data on a website allows for the archiving and preservation of the place-names, allowing them to be reused later. Additionally, as an online resource the information presented through mapping and visualization of data can be accessed from any location around the world, spreading its audience and the possibilities for its usage. The interactive features for ordering and categorizing place-names allows new ways for observing, searching, navigating, and manipulating colonial place-names of Atlantic geography. 


            This project is seeking an award of $100,000 for the technical design of the operating system and interface, as well as the initial application of data into the program. In its initial phase the Prototyping Grant would allow the project to begin implementing its plans into a preliminary model and begin the process of gathering data. The proposed sum of money would allow the project to invest in the technical equipment necessary, hire the appropriate digital media professionals and humanities scholars, and create systems for a sustained digital system. 

            The plan for this project is structured into a series of tasks, each tackling a different priority of the database. First, a program and useable interface that allows for the storage, presentation, and manipulation of data that will be later collected from analog maps. Likely, this part of the process will be most costly, as outside digital media professionals will need to be hired for the initial design and possibly again later to respond to any problems or needed upgrades with the system. The goal is to make the interface easily navigable and interactive to encourage active exploration of the site and its data visualization. 

            The second task necessary to the completion of the project is the initial gathering of data. In order for the resource to provide sufficient evidence to make accurate conclusions and display reliable patterns, enough data must be included within the dataset. Therefore, this part of the work plan must be begun fairly early to ensure that the database represents a significant number of maps before it becomes available for use or viewing of a public audience. This step in the project schedule will require contacting archives to gather maps from which to record information about the recorded names environmental structures like mountains as well as human-inhabited sites like colonies, towns, ports, forts, and other Indigenous settlements. These identified places will be later placed into the database at once to ensure the efficiency of the process.

            After enough data has been collected from archives regarding these place-names, staff working on the project will begin to digitize any maps allowed by the participating archives and to input specific data into the program. The data of utmost concern during this phase of the project includes temporal, geographic, and later linguistic characteristics of words. Therefore, this task involves taking note of names of places, years in which the maps were created, the individuals and origins of the maps’ creators, and the coordinates of the identified locations. Collecting such categories of information will allow both for sufficient metadata to map, categorize, and compare these place-names as well as additional information for citing and locating these sources of information on the back-end of the database.

            With the security of the above descriptive information for sites depicted in the maps, the project will then move on to group entered items together and to implement functions for searching the database. By creating searchable categories based on the geography and production inherent in maps of the Atlantic world, users of the site will be able to explore various perspectives, interests, and differences of land claims represented in maps utilized by various colonial powers. Additionally, connecting place-names by these characteristics will enable researchers or local persons entering the site with specific research questions or inquiries to save time in relying on their visual identification of the site in question to locate the information being sought. This stage of the project will likely be less costly than earlier steps as the function for searching data will have already been created and the categorizing itself will be rather routine and systematic. Therefore, additional technologies should not need to be purchased nor additional contractors or scholars hired.

            Lastly, the project will need to add a linked feature to each location that would allow for the crowd-sourced end of the database for discussions and feedback relating to the place-named recorded for each site. Having an option for users of the site to input scholarly or local knowledge regarding the historical or contemporary context of a location and its place-names could greatly strengthen the accuracy of the information being conveyed throughout the site. This feature can be seen as a check on the authority of the maps and the interpreters of these materials to demonstrate the limits of this data, the historical contexts surrounding them, and the contradictory views for the land claims represented within the database. For this aspect of the program all that is needed is comment features that will allow text, attached images, or the inclusion of links. This last step is not expected to require great expense because it will largely consist of simply activating an already-designed feature at each data point.

             In addition to these essential tasks, a procedure is also needed for ensuring that the data added to the site and the resulting maps, tables, images, texts, and comments require a preservation plan. Without these materials and metadata backed up the site could lose its information, connected categories, or visual organization. As this project is largely inspired by Voyages, the transatlantic slave trade database, it also must pay attention to some of the struggles with this former project. The database had been at risk of losing its entire database as the code in which the site was written was becoming abandoned by the evolving operating system. With recognition of this danger posed to digital programs, this project aims to apply systems of digital preservation early in its design and throughout its production. While several hundred thousand dollars may be needed later for the continued preservation of the project data, it will initially be housed on University of Massachusetts servers and preserved in an offsite location for additional protection over the course of the next few years.

            If the project secures financial support, the following work plan will be followed to ensure that each task is followed and structured in an orderly manner. See proposed work plan below:

December-April, 2019Design a central program and interface for the site, and begin putting in place a system for digital preservation.
March-May, 2019Visit archives to gather samplings of maps and to research indigenous names for these lands and waters.
July-October, 2019Begin to digitize maps and input data into program.
October, 2019Create searchable categories based on the collected data and add features for crowdsourcing additional information.
November, 2019Website will be launched to the public.