GIS is often used to help us understand the world as it is, or was in the past, or model what it could be like in the future. But it can also be used to explore what could have been. Take the case of North Dakota and South Dakota. These two states were carved out of the Dakota Territory in 1889. President Harrison did not want to show favoritism when he signed the documents in terms of which state was admitted first, so they are listed alphabetically, with North Dakota listed as the 39th state and South Dakota listed as the 40th state. In many ways, the manner in which the two states were divided, by an east-west line near the 46th Parallel, made sense. Yet what if the territory had not been divided into North Dakota and South Dakota yet as East Dakota and West Dakota?
Several geographers over the years have speculated about the physical and cultural ‘divide’ that persists to this day. Many residents of the two states use the term “East River” to refer to lands east of the Missouri River, and “West River” to refer to lands west of the Missouri River. To me, this is the perfect lesson whose value is enhanced with the use of GIS, and specifically, the creation of data within ArcGIS desktop and the serving and sharing of that data on ArcGIS Online.
Using ArcGIS desktop, I created my two states using county lines that followed the Missouri River. What to do about the Bismarck? I left Mandan, on the west bank of the Missouri, in WD, in part because when one departs Bismarck on I-94, it really does feel like one is entering the “west”. Northwest of Bismarck, where the river turns west, I included the counties in northwestern North Dakota as part of West Dakota. The reason is that I considered that they have more physical and cultural characteristics in common with the west than the east. I highly enjoyed my next task: Selecting my two capital cities: Rapid City, “WD” and Sioux Falls, “ED”. I considered Fargo for the ED capital but settled on Sioux Falls for several reasons. Thus, Sioux Falls, ED is like Cheyenne, WY: Tucked into the corner of a vast territory. After my work in ArcGIS desktop, I shared my states on ArcGIS Online so others can use it as part of an educational lesson.
East Dakota has 79 counties. Its population rose from 637,720 in 1900 to 979,147 in 1950 to 1,119,642 by 2010. West Dakota has 40 counties. Only 65,604 lived there in 1900, in large part the miners who were still combing the Black Hills) but by 1950 it still only contained 289,571, and in 2010, 367,229 lived there. Thus, my East and West states are more lopsided in population than are the north and south states. Interestingly, over the past few years, my West Dakota is growing more rapidly than East Dakota with the expansion of the energy sector near Williston.
This activity, anchored squarely in the “what if”, helps students think spatially about physical geography, cultural geography, and history.
What sorts of “what if” scenarios can you create with a GIS?