Historical GIS template: Boston 1775

By Charlie Frye, Esri Chief Cartographer

This post, is to announce the release of a map template for historical GIS called Historical GIS:  Boston 1775. If you’ve never given historical GIS a second, or a first thought, you might find the contents interesting and maybe even applicable to your work. Consider that the vast majority of GIS data is historical, even if it’s only a few minutes old.

Genealogy and history have been hobbies of mine for years now, and I’ve since developed an interest in colonial U.S. history– in particular, the U.S. Revolutionary War. For me, GIS and mapping provided an obvious way to make sense of the history I found fascinating. As such, I found it more than a little ironic that relatively few of the historically-inclined geographers I’ve met had turned to GIS much less demonstrated GIS-based methods as a sound basis for scholarly historical inquiry. But, I’ve been happy enough to take that opportunity to blaze a trail.

That trail formally began over two years ago when I began to show some of my historical “work” to historians and historical geographers. I got a good reception, constructive criticism, and encouragement. In particular, I was encouraged to share what I had done with others because all too often historical GIS projects in various universities were not communicated. This is an invitation to the dozens of you I know who are doing historical GIS to do the same on the Map Templates Resource Center.

One of the projects I undertook was to create a GIS of Boston in 1775, using only maps published from that period. I eventually included some later source material of reliable historical character to flush out locations for specific or notorious events, structures, and so on. My goal was to create an inventory and therefore as complete a picture as possible of Boston’s environs in 1775. Not only that, I wanted to be able to cite every feature, making it possible to create a map that was in essence a spatial argument for what I think was in Boston in the year 1775.

Using the database model in this template, I think it is now quite possible for anyone with the time and interest to construct a historical GIS of any city at any time. Granted, adaptations would be necessary, but I don’t think the excuses, that made historical research to this point apt to not include maps, hold any longer.

As added encouragement, publishing your work as a template will very likely improve the scholarship of your map research and content. I mostly cleaned up the database and map for this template over a year ago when I presented this work at the Boston Association of American Geographers Conference—in doing so, I found and fixed a number of my own miscues. So revisiting my map and database allowed me to improve the quality of both.

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9 Comments

  1. josh5000 says:

    Charlie – This is really an impressive effort. The value of GIS in historical modeling will certainly get a big boost from your pioneering work in creating this template. I have ancestors that lived in the Town of Roxbury in colonial days. This makes me want to dig up the volumes of research my father did on the place and time to see if I can add anything to what you’ve done in the Boston model.

  2. proc says:

    Charlie – This is really an impressive effort. The value of GIS in historical modeling will certainly get a big boost from your pioneering work in creating this template. I have ancestors that lived in the Town of Roxbury in colonial days. This makes me want to dig up the volumes of research my father did on the place and time to see if I can add anything to what you’ve done in the Boston model.

  3. cfrye says:

    At least half the maps I used showed Roxbury and many of them showed buildings–the data I have has a few leading into Roxbury. I would be happy to append anything you do and republish–one of my longer term intents was to expand this database to include all of Paul Revere’s ride (and all the other riders on the night of April 18, 1775).

  4. hansenpech1972 says:

    What are the fonts that you used? Thanks

  5. cfrye says:

    I’ve used several fonts in the various editions of this map. Originally, I used Zapf Chancery, but once the map was done and worth sharing, I found that I did not have rights to redistribute that font, and since it was not so common, I decided to find something I could redistribute. I searched around and found a basic 18th Century font that could be redistributed and used that. The only issue with that font was that it had ligatures (which I liked for giving the map more of a period look), but it required about 10 minutes worth of finds & replaces in the data and graphics in order to swap characters.

    I’ve been working on another version that uses Adobe Caslon Pro (which is more common, and therefore not something that would need to be distributed).

  6. fuxx0010 says:

    Charlie, I am very grateful for the work you did. It is great resource for a faculty research project I am supporting. I however find the layers not overlaying correctly with esri basemaps (e.g. the street basemap) and the orthophotos I downloaded. Is it meant to be used with other GIS data?
    Thank you.

    • cfrye says:

      The data were not designed to match or mash-up with web services. In part it was due to the work being started prior to the time when online mapping was an expected outcome, and in part to the complexities of aligning the various scanned maps that were used as sources to be certain of the locations for various named features. That said, the data in this template were modernized such that they were georeferenced to the NAD_1983 geographic coordinate system. However, specific alignment to known present day locations should not be expected because many of the locations were digitized relative one another based on Lieutenant Thomas Hyde Page’s maps from 1777. I made some attempts to better align that to modern landmarks using the Spatial Adjustment tools in ArcGIS, but generally found that it wasn’t possible to do exact re-positioning of vertices without badly skewing Page’s depictions of Boston.