Analyzing Textual Data with Voyant Tools

The second half of this assignment for my Visualizing Historical Research class is a textual analysis of a book that pertains to my research, using a program called Voyant Tools. Voyant Tools is a web-app that uses interactive analytical tools to facilitate a more efficient reading of groups of text. By showing the frequency of the use of certain words as well as where they appear in the text, one can gather a general idea of what a corpus is about without having to read everything from cover to cover. I wanted to analyze a text I have not yet read, and that would further my understanding of Niagara’s economic history. The book that I chose to analyze is titled The correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe: with allied documents relating to his administration of the government of Upper Canada.

John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791-1796, and this book reveals much of his influential work as the British administrative foundations of the Niagara region took shape. It is a collection of primary sources from 1789-1793, compiled by Canadian historian Ernest Cruikshank in 1923. Cruikshank was A Brigadier General in World War I, influential in the establishment of Ontario’s Bureau of Archives, and originally from Fort Erie. Placed in charge of the province’s military documents for a few years, but never formally trained as an historian, he wrote a number of brief histories about the Niagara region during the Loyalist era. Cruikshank’s archival expertise is evident in this work, as he selected particular letters either written by or addressed to Simcoe, to be included in the corpus.

By downloading the full text, copy and pasting it into Voyant Tools and clicking “Reveal”, this is the resulting initial output. In the following paragraphs, I will explain my analysis of this text using Voyant Tools.

1. Cirrus & Terms

Below, you can see the word cloud that Voyant Tools has created based on the words in this text. The more frequently a word appears in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud. Digital humanists Geoffrey Rockwell and Stefan Sinclair, the creators of Voyant Tools, describe the Cirrus tool as follows:

“One gets the impression of a birds-eye view of all the important words. Words appear next to other words serendipitously, which can rightly or wrongly suggest combinations to explore. The word cloud provides a different visual synthesis of the information. It has different affordances for interpretation.” [1]

So what does this visualization tell us about Simcoe’s correspondence? Well, the word “simcoe” is the most frequently used term in this corpus. This is not surprising, considering the text we are working with, so we can move on to other words. To maximize the efficiency of this tool, one of my suggestions for best practice is to switch the view from “Cirrus” to “Terms.” This lists the terms in order from most used to least used.

A few of the terms that immediately stand out to me are the terms “Indians”(#4) and “Indian” (#16). The words clearly hold value to Simcoe; he is either writing about Indigenous peoples or he is receiving information about them. The frequency of the word alone does not tell us their meaning in context, but some assumptions that could be made are that:

  1. Lt. Governor Simcoe is discussing land agreements. The American Revolution had ended less than a decade prior, and the British government ceded traditional lands of their Six Nations allies, mainly the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca nations, to the new United States. As white Loyalist families were resettled in the Niagara region and elsewhere in British North America, Simcoe and British officials also tried to resettle their Indigenous allies into new regions around Upper Canada.
  2. Lt. Governor Simcoe is discussing military alliances. Although the British were not at war between 1789-1793, Simcoe might have thought it wise to discuss the strategic benefits of placating specific Indigenous people groups in order to further their military alliances.

Another best practice that I suggest for using Voyant Tools is to look for the names of people and places as a way of determining a few key themes from the text. Thus, I typed in some of the names of individuals that pertain to my study. The name “Hamilton” appears a total of 83 times, but considering the popularity of this surname, I cannot assume that all mentions are with specific reference to Robert Hamilton the Niagara merchant. Alternatively, “Robert Hamilton” appears 14 times throughout the corpus. Similarly, the name “Richard Cartwright,” one of Kingston’s most prominent merchants, appears 14 times, and the full name of Detroit merchant “John Askin” appears 59 times. This is good news for me, since I now know that there are references to some of the individuals that were heavily involved in the economic development of Niagara during the Loyalist era.

Some of the most common places mentioned in this text include: Detroit(289), Quebec(231), Britain(208), Niagara(207), America(125), Erie(125), Ohio(99), Philadelphia(95), Kingston(81), and Ontario(58). What stands out to me here is the emphasis on the southwestern peninsula of Upper Canada, the doubly frequent mention of Lake Erie compared to Lake Ontario, and the prevalence of American cities like Detroit and Ohio. Lt. Governor Simcoe was a staunch British patriot who at one point had tried to make London the capital of Upper Canada, and was interested in facilitating trade towards the interior regions of the continent in the ultimate goal of colonial expansion. [2] The frequent mention of these central locations further substantiates their importance to Simcoe.

2. Contexts

While the Cirrus and Terms tool can show the frequency of word usage, they do not reveal the contexts in which these terms are used. In this way, the Voyant Tools’ Contexts pane takes textual analyses to the next level. By viewing certain words in their contexts we can determine their meaning within the corpus. For example, the words “Indian” and “Indians” actually hold very different meaning when contextualizing them. “Indian” is often used as a reference to government roles like an Indian Agent, the Indian department or the Superintendent of Indian affairs. This shows the intended use of the word as a reference to a British institution, rather than an example of actions by or references to Indigenous peoples.

The term “Indians,” however, holds a much different meaning. The term clearly incites fear for a few individuals. For example we read:
“of fighting in which the indians Excell [sic]”
“expert & more savage than the indians themselves”
“the Wabash or other hostile indians”

At times we see mentions of violence towards them:
“he will get the indians out of the way”
“of awing and curbing the indians in that corner”
“hope we shall give the indians a thorough drubbing this summer”

The term is also often used in the context of British paternalism:
“distribution of Presents to the indians”
“deficiency of Presents for the indians in Public stores”
“British officers in furnishing the indians with arms & ammunition”

Due to the disjointed format of the text, we are seeing divided opinions about Indigenous peoples. One particularly intriguing sentence was written to Lt. Gov. Simcoe by none other than Robert Hamilton as he discussed the impact of the American Revolution on colonial trade as a new national border was created and both European settlers and Indigenous peoples were shifted into new territories. Suggesting what was likely an unpopular opinion at the time, he writes:

“In extending their Territory in this quarter, some degree of moderation and justice has been shown in the purchase of the lands from the Native Indians, however inadequate the sum paid may be to the value.” [3]

In a similar vein the word “women” is only mentioned 21 times throughout the text, and the Contexts tool reveals that this is almost always conjunction with “and children.” In this particular analysis, showing the context of certain words demonstrates the official attitudes towards particular groups in society. The mention of Indigenous peoples and women reveal their relative value to the colonial administration, and how they are made useful in the bigger picture of expanding empire.

In addition to Voyant’s Contexts, is a site that holds hundreds of web tools for similar textual analyses. If you are not satisfied with the Voyant Tools version of contextual visualization, TAPoR 3.0 lists a number of alternate tools such as KWIC (Key Word in Context) and concordance TAPoRware that perform similar functions in detecting specific words anywhere in an HTML document. The concordance is not a new concept, as Rockwell & Sinclair discuss in their book Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities. The concordance is actually one of the innovations that influenced the development of their tools, as “its roots reach back to the Bible.” [4] They argue that context analyses developed by focusing on keywords as opposed to the earlier focus on key concepts, which was popularized by biblical indexation.

3. Bubblelines & Trends

Bubblelines is a useful comparison tool that visualizes the frequency of use of certain terms throughout a corpus, also showing the places in the text where they are mentioned. Bubblelines does not work well with corpora that have multiple documents because there are too many trends to accurately chart, so considering the fact that this text is a compilation of letters written by different individuals, this tool is not the best choice for analyzing this specific type of text.

Click “Separate Lines for Terms” to see a better output.

The results are similarly skewed in the Trends tool. As a best practice, I suggest using tools like Bubblelines and Trends only when analyzing one or two specific sources.


Voyant Tools has other options that could be used to explore this text, but so far I have learned that Lt. Governor Simcoe is focused on establishing trade networks in the southwestern regions of Upper Canada, whilst also managing the sensitive relationships between British officials, Loyalist immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and their new American neighbours. By doing this distant reading, one gathers a general sense of how Simcoe and those writing to him felt about certain groups of people. Many of these authors did not fully respect Indigenous people as human beings, but rather saw them as tools of empire or impediments to progress.

Voyant Tools can also be used to compare two or more texts. This means that this analysis could go a step further by comparing this text with, for example, a compilation of primary sources from the succeeding Lt. Governor of Upper Canada Peter Hunter who served from 1799-1805, or Francis Gore who served from 1806-1811. This is, of course, assuming that such compilations even exist. One could compare their correspondence with Simcoe’s, exploring what was important to the British government at different times, what legislation was implemented, who held power in colonial relationships, and how society was being formed from the “top down.” Voyant Tools provide useful visualization techniques for digital humanists. While the traditional close reading of a book holds its own value, it is important to recognize alternative forms of scholarly interpretation. Why not choose a text and try it yourself?

[1] Geoffrey Rockwell and Stefan Sinclair, Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016), 35.
[2] Mary Beacock Fryer and Christopher Dracott, John Graves Simcoe 1752-1806: A Biography, (Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1998), 120.
[3] Ernest A. Cruikshank, The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe: With Allied Documents Relating to his Administration of the Government of Upper Canada, vol 1, (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1923), 98, accessed from the Internet Archive,
[4] Rockwell & Sinclair, Hermeneutica, 47.

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