Navigating the Historiography Part 2

Okay, another round of secondary sources, here we go.

Last month I was working through some of the more traditional economic histories of early Canada that most Canadian history buffs are familiar with (Innis and Creighton). This month, I’ve read some more recent work that puts the focus on regional studies. In the process, I learned the importance of understanding history in a more localized context, and not always viewing the past with a broad lens.

Two of the authors discuss similar histories, focused on rural nineteenth century Nova Scotia, and one author provides a gendered approach to this subject which has been traditionally dominated by studies of men.

Bittermann, Rusty. “The Hierarchy of the Soil: Land and Labour in a 19th Century Cape Breton Community” Acadiensis 18, no. 1 (1988): 33-55.

Morgan, Cecilia. Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Samson, Daniel. The Spirit of Industry and Improvement: Liberal Government and Rural-Industrial Society, Nova Scotia, 1790-1862. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2008

Rusty Bittermann and Daniel Samson study the history of rural Nova Scotia, and each tackle topics of power dynamics in society, examining how farmers responded to industrialization, capitalism, shifts in labour and demographics in the mid 1800s. (Danny Samson also happens to be my supervisor… which made our discussions about these books easier in some ways, and harder in other ways, haha). Bittermann argues that the settlement of Middle River, NS experienced differentiation of wealth and influence over time. The initial distribution of resources to colonists created divisions that just became deeper throughout the 19th century. As people born into slightly more privileged circumstances put that wealth into investing in resources like land, tools, and labour, they created assets that could be passed onto future generations, therefore entrenching the wealth disparity (p. 34). Samson argues that the development of rural economies in Nova Scotia is slightly more nuanced, seeing farmers not as proletarians succumbing to the inescapable confines of capitalism, but as men and women who occasionally achieved success by other means. In this book we see examples of both successful farmers and poorer “backlanders” making choices that allowed for improvement within society (agricultural, educational, etc.), therefore suggesting that social stratification was fluid rather than entrenched.

These arguments have clear ties to my own research of 18th and 19th century Niagara, and showed me that these types of regional studies hold lot of potential for valuable discovery. Did the same social stratifications exist between farmers in Niagara? Did wealth disparities become entrenched or was equality easier to obtain? How did geographical features like the “Black Swamp” on the south shore of Lake Ontario (see map above) affect settlement patterns and subsequent crop growth? In a similar vein, how did merchants interact with farmers, and what was the role of paternalism in their relationship over this short but turbulent time period? Doing these readings has brought up a lot of new, but important questions that I hope to answer as I begin looking through primary sources.

Cecilia Morgan’s book provides an interesting look at Upper Canada from a more socio-political standpoint, dismissing the traditional argument that men and women of the nineteenth century operated only within their own public and private spheres of life. She examines gender roles throughout the century, arguing that masculinity could be defined both at home and in the workplace, and that females exerted influence in public places like temperance parades and church bazaars. She relies heavily on newspaper accounts for evidence, which I thought was a fascinating avenue of understanding the politics, religion, and social standards in this time period. I am currently TA-ing a Post-Confederation Canada history course at Brock where just this past week the students completed an assignment that forced them to think about the ways in which newspapers can prove useful to historians… well here’s another good example!

Thanks for reading!

Navigating the Historiography Part I

It’s time for another update! Since my last post, I’ve been spending most of my time on MA course material and TA responsibilities, leaving little room for thesis work. Still, I managed to make a little headway in my background reading.

Understanding the scholarship regarding the development of colonial Upper Canada has been an interesting process. A solid understanding of how historians have interpreted this era is critical for creating thoughtful research questions, and the more I read the more I grasp the general arguments about its early economic and political growth. My Zotero “Must Read” collection still vastly outnumbers my “Have Read” collection, but hey… one book at a time.

For anyone studying Canadian history, Harold Innis and Donald Creighton will undoubtedly come up at some point in the conversation. These men have provided some of the most fundamental arguments about the economic development of Canada with their examination of the fur trade and the movement of staple products like cod, timber, and wheat from the 17th century onward. I’ve learned the basics of their “staples thesis” and “Laurentian thesis” in the past, but have never actually read their books! Thus, I read the following:
(Craig is influential as well, and a little more recent)

Innis, Harold A., and Arthur J. Ray. 2017. The Fur Trade in Canada : An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. The Canada 150 Collection. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2017

Creighton, Donald, and Donald Creighton. 2002. The Empire of the St. Lawrence : A Study in Commerce and Politics. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Craig, Gerald M. 1963. Upper Canada : The Formative Years 1784-1841. The Canadian Centenary Series: V. 7. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1963.

Innis’ book was originally published in 1930, Creighton’s in 1937, and Craig’s in 1963. Historians generally will take information that was published almost a century ago with a grain of salt. That being said, the advanced age of these texts does not mean that their scholarship is invalid. On the contrary, I found these books to be extremely useful in my understanding of the early Upper and Lower Canadian economy, as they situate the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes in the broader context of a trans-Atlantic trade system. Innis argues in his “staples thesis” that Canada developed the way it did because of the lateral movement of staple products from the continent over to Britain, forming a cultural connection that impacted the building of socio-political and industrial structures in Canada. According to Creighton, it was specifically the St. Lawrence river system that facilitated this British merchant class monopoly on the market economy via staple exports. For more information, see Dr. Daniel MacFarlane’s excellent present-day analysis of the Laurentian thesis.

These three authors also discuss the relationship between Canada and the United States. With the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the American Revolution ended and a border was created, resulting in major consequences for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence trade system. The fact that Niagara is a border region holds exciting potential as I look into the relationship between the two nations during this period of transition. The authors also discuss the political relationship between the merchant class and the growing agricultural communities in Niagara after 1800. The class struggle that culminated in the 1837-38 Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions was seeded in the polarization of merchant and farming classes as the second generation of Loyalists matured. As I comprise my geospatial database of merchants, trade routes, and commodities, I am interested to see how my results align with these standard theories.

Next on the agenda is to read some more recent studies from the 1980s and 90s. I expect to see some revisions!


Ontario’s Bureau of Archives Reports

Happy New Year!

With one week of vacation left before school starts again, I spent some time looking through the very first reports ever made by Ontario’s provincial archives.

The Archives of Ontario were officially founded in Toronto in 1903 and originally titled the Bureau of Archives. The Bureau was first stationed in the Ontario Legislative Building, and now exist in their own site on Toronto’s York University campus. The first head archivist, a man named Alexander Fraser, was met with the enormous task of inventorying the items in the province’s collection, and deciding on a vision for their future preservation. The Bureau of Archives initially produced one report every year, detailing the inventories of documents in their possession, and even including full-texts of major collections.

The focus of these early reports was largely upon the late 18th and early 19th century formation of Upper Canada. The Legislative Assembly journals documented in the 1909 Sixth Report of the Bureau of Archives only record the years 1792-1804 (the first three parliaments), and the 1910 Seventh Report of the Bureau of Archives contains only Legislative Council records from 1792-1819. Clearly it took time to organize the collections and the archives eventually grew to include much more material. For my purposes however, these first reports are wonderful sources of information since I am working between the approximate dates of 1775-1822.

I came across some fascinating files, one example which I will post here. This image is from the 1904 Second Report of the Bureau of Archives Part I. In 1783, a Commission was assembled to “enquire into the Losses and Services of all such Persons who have suffered in their Rights, Properties, and Professions, during the late unhappy dissentions in America, in consequence of their Loyalty to his Majesty and Attachment to the British Government” (p. 13). It looks like their first wave of 2,063 claimants listed a total of almost £10 million (close to $50 million) in wartime losses. Can you imagine having this job??

Inkedwar losses_LI

In addition to Commission reports, the Bureau Reports include a variety of documents such as the meeting minutes of the first Land Boards, Government Proclamations, interactions with the Huron people, proceedings of the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, maps, personal collections, and other sundries. These Reports from 1903-1920 can be read here on the Internet Archive… you don’t even have to leave your house!

There is so much primary source information to work through here, but after looking through the Reports as well as scouring every inch of the Archives’ website, I now have a better idea of what is available online, what I can access via Interloan at Brock, and what I’ll actually need to go there for in person. Knowing where to look for specific information on shipping ports, shop locations, trade routes, merchant families, commodity production and consumption, and laws and regulations surrounding trade is time consuming, but vital to the foundations of my spatial project. These reports are just one avenue of data collection that I am excited to explore further.


Making Progress with ArcGIS Pro

Hi again!

Just thought I’d give a quick update on how my GIS training has been going. It’s getting towards the end of the Fall semester here, and I’ve been busy writing papers and grading essays, but there’s still been time to squeeze in a GIS tutorial here and there. ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro website has a number of tutorials available to teach users the basics of this new software. Since I already have the program downloaded onto my laptop, I am able to do these practice runs from anywhere, which is super handy. I go to this website here: 

There are a number of different tutorials to choose from. So far, I’ve learned how to navigate maps, add data to a project, import an ArcMap document, convert a map to a scene, and symbolize layers. 

This was a fun one. “Adding Data to a Project” allowed me to visualize how flooding might affect the city of Wellington, New Zealand, based on its current topography:

I don’t know how long each of these are supposed to take… but one will usually take me about 45 minutes to complete. Using this software is like learning a new language… it’s not similar to anything I’ve ever had to do before. I have to click on every single tab, pane, and layer to see what it does, and I have to read about every single function that ArcGIS Pro is able to perform. Historians are trained to be quick readers. When you have to read about a book a week per class, you learn to find those main arguments, and skim over the less pertinent information. (Otherwise you’ll never get anything else done!) Learning GIS is a completely different process. There is no big picture approach to understanding the program… it’s a step-by-step learning process and there is no “skimming” allowed. I am hoping that eventually the process becomes quicker and easier, since right now I look like my 87 year old grandfather when he tries to type an email.

Sharon from Brock’s MDGL just sent over a particularly interesting tutorial entitled “Quantitative mapping for ArcGIS Pro” which is a little more in line with the type of work that I will be doing in the upcoming months. This tutorial explains how to use statistical data, in this case local census data, to map the housing and education profiles of the population of St. Catharines. I will be working with similar types of quantitative data, so this one looks to be very useful.

In addition to tutorials, I’ve been doing a lot of reading over the past few months in order to get a better idea of how historical GIS can expand the potential of analysis for this project. Here’s just a few books and articles that I’ve read so far:

Bonnell, Jennifer and Marcel Fortin, eds. Historical GIS Research in Canada. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014.

Gregory, Ian and Alistair Geddes. Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Heasley, Lynne. “Shifting Boundaries on a Wisconsin Landscape: Can GIS Help Historians Tell a Complicated Story?” Human Ecology 31, no. 2 (2003): 183–213.

Knowles, A.K., and A. Hiller. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. Redlands, California: ESRI Press, 2008.

Novak, Mathew J., and Jason A. Gilliland. “Trading Places: A Historical Geography of Retailing in London, Canada.” Social Science History 35, no. 4 (2011): 543–7

Wood, Justin. “‘How Green Is My Valley?’ Desktop Geographic Information Systems as a Community-Based Participatory Mapping Tool.” Area 37, no. 2 (2005): 159–70

Digital historians argue that historical GIS was once a creative appendage to research, but it is now directly driving analyses of the past! (Gregory & Geddes, 2014) The investigative capabilities of GIS detect patterns that historical narratives alone cannot, providing a variety of angles for analyzing Niagara’s merchandising networks.

That’s it for now. Back to grading…

A Bumpy Start

So the past two weeks have held the typical grad school workload of reading, applying for grants, reading, TA-ing, reading, writing papers, and of course… more reading. I have been trying to gain  an understanding of the general layout of the historiography of colonial Canadian economics up until this point. This process is clearly going to take a while, but through all this reading I’ve already picked up a few themes and made a few connections where I think my research will make a contribution. Here’s just a handful of the books I’ve read since my last blog post:

Clarke, John. Land, Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

J. K. Johnson. Becoming Prominent: Leadership in Upper Canada, 1791-1841. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.

McCalla, Douglas. Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

McCalla, Douglas. Planting the Province: the economic history of Upper Canada, 1784-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Samson, Daniel., ed. Contested Countryside: Rural Workers and Modern Society in Atlantic Canada, 1800-1950. Acadiensis, 1994.

Wilson, Bruce. The Enterprises of Robert Hamilton: a study of wealth and influence in early Upper Canada, 1776-1812. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983.

Much of this research was propelled by the deadlines for SSHRC and OGS applications for funding next year. To be honest, working through all of this material was difficult. It was an information overload, and I had a hard time piecing together the authors’ arguments.  I took notes and extracted what I felt was pertinent, but was left with multiple sets of separate notes with no comprehension of how they related to one another.

Thanks to the past four years of university, I knew it was possible to power through this mental block. I just needed to take a step back and start over, assembling one theme at a time. Eventually, a few major arguments became clear and I’ve since gained a basic level of understanding from these Canadian historians. This GIS-driven project is fundamentally about merchant networks, but situates itself within Canadian historiographical arguments about power dynamics in burgeoning colonial societies. I’m excited by the fact that Niagara was a strategic location for the British due to its place within the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes network.

This study also aligns itself with discourse on the “staples thesis” (economic development being driven by staples like wheat, fish, and furs), promoted by Harold Innis in the 1930s, since Niagara was a region that produced materials for both local and national consumption. Debates surrounding the significance of rural consumption have arisen in the past few decades to counter staples theorists’ claims (McCalla, 1993 and Clarke, 2001). The manner by which early local development occurred in Niagara fits into these larger conversations, and due to its significant location on the American border includes transnational, military, and fur trade dimensions. The relationships between the existing merchant elite and the authorities designated by an overseas government are also ripe for further exploration.

This was me on Tuesday, when everything finally clicked:

My advice for other students experiencing mental blocks:

1) Don’t give up! Try another approach, different scenery, take a walk, read something completely different for a while, take some time to recharge, but don’t quit.
2) Ask for help! My supervisor is the one who suggested I take a break and read something else. Guidance in these ways is crucial to your success, and you won’t get as far on your own, no matter how independent you think you are (this is coming from someone whose actual first words were “do it myself”). Don’t be afraid to ask for help- collaboration is key!

My First GIS Tutorial

Hello again!

Just thought I’d give you a quick overview of the ArcGIS Pro workshop that I attended yesterday afternoon. It was my first experience with the new software, and I think it went pretty well!

Wednesday, Nov 14th was global GIS day. According to its website, “GIS Day provides an international forum for users of geographic information systems (GIS) technology to demonstrate real-world applications that are making a difference in our society.” Of course, Brock University’s Map, Data & GIS Library participated in this event, offering up some free food, games & prizes, a chance to watch some Esri scholarship contest presentations, and a helpful ArcGIS workshop.

The workshop was lead by the library’s Geospatial Data Cooridnator Sharon Janzen, who led us through a tutorial that aimed to give users a basic idea of what ArcGIS is capable of doing. My initial thoughts are that this is something that I can probably get the hang of… but there is a lot to learn. The software is fairly intuitive, but you really need to know what is available in order to fully maximize the potential of its features. The user interface is similar to what you’d see in Microsoft Word or Excel since it is a ribbon-based application, providing the familiar tabs and tools along the top of the screen. We went through one of the tutorials available on Brock’s MDGL website, and were given the task of choosing a new location for a Starbucks in St. Catharines based on variables like the current locations of coffee shops in the city, and the median average income of each community. You can have a look at the tutorial here.

In order to do this, we were taught the basics of inserting databases, geocoding, adding new data from ArcGIS Online, adjusting symbology, and creating heat maps. One hour later, we each had a finished project that looked something like this:

During the tutorial, I was constantly trying to figure out how these features can apply to my project. The creation of a database with statistics concerning 18th and 19th century merchant activity is going to be a time consuming process, but slightly easier now that I’ve seen examples of data sets that were used in this tutorial. In addition, I will be able to play around with georeferenced historical maps of Niagara that already exist, thanks to the MDGL. Things are slowly beginning to make more sense. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about how this software is going to help present my historical information.

Thanks Sharon!

Introductory Post


I have never blogged before and am not quite sure how to begin… so here goes nothing!

I have decided to start my introduction with a brief overview of how I got to be in this position of beginning a blog, two months into my Master’s degree. This way, you get a feel for who I am and where I currently stand in the world of historical scholarship. Much has happened to get me to this point, but I will aim to be as succinct as possible.

So how did I get the idea to do this specific Niagara-based historical GIS project? A large part began with my work at the 230-year-old Nelles Manor Museum located in Grimsby, Ontario. The non-profit historic site opened to the public in May of 2016 where after completing the second year of my undergrad I was employed as the summer student through the federal Canada Summer Jobs program, and eventually worked my way up to the position of Museum Manager by the summer of 2018, volunteering my time there during every off-season. These experiences quickly taught me about the intricacies of museum life as well as the joys of engaging with local history. I often found myself realizing that the Loyalist settlers at the Forty (Grimsby) were not that different from you and I.

I was given another nudge during the fourth year of my undergrad. I have since completed my Bachelor’s degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario with a major in history and a minor in political science. In the second semester of my fourth year, I completed a directed research project in connection with the Town of Lincoln Museum & Cultural Centre. From January-April 2018, I digitized a ledger from a local farmer and miller named Michael Rittenhouse, who lived during the early 1800s in what is now the town of Beamsville. If you’d like to read more about the project, you can click the link here. This project was short and relatively simple, but it was the first time that I could could connect my university experience with my love for local history, andactually share the results with people beyond my classmates and professors.

I now knew that I wanted to continue pursuing knowledge in the colonial history of Niagara, in some capacity. My work/volunteering at Nelles Manor laid the foundation, and the Rittenhouse project was the final push that sent me to apply for my Master’s at Brock with a vague idea about wanting to learn more about how and why Niagara developed the way it did during the “Loyalist Era.” The Loyalist Era, wherein hundreds of families crossed the border post-American Revolution and entered into Upper Canada, is rich with economic and social development patterns that have been documented through merchant records, ledgers, diaries, enlistment records, administrative papers, etc. At a time when the British empire was struggling to hold onto the allegiances of its subjects in the North American continent, Niagara became a refuge and a new beginning for those who opposed the views of the American rebels. Now the next question for me was…. what exactly is this project going to be about?

With a little head scratching and a lot of guidance from my supervisor Daniel Samson, we came up with the idea of not only pursuing a local project, but incorporating a spatial dimension. When doing a project like this, it made sense to pick a topic that incorporated multiple dimensions of space and time. I had always intended on making my research available to the public, and mapping trade networks in an interactive, layered GIS project seemed like the perfect way to do this. 

I began my MA thesis work in September of 2018 and am currently enrolled in a course that is meant to guide me in the use spatial tools for mapping these patterns. The months of September and October were spent reading about the theory behind historical GIS, spatial history, and the value of digital tools for the humanities. Now that I have a good grasp of the potential that HGIS provides, I am confident that my particular thesis will be perfect for presenting this type of visual analysis. The next months will be spent doing what I believe will be the more difficult hands-on aspect of GIS tutorials.

Like most students of the humanities, I chose to study history because I am naturally NOT great with technology. However, today I have figured out how to set up a blog and if I’ve made it this far I might as well keep going! Haha. Creating a database from the statistics found in primary sources will be tricky, but I am excited to get started. The bigger challenge that is facing me right now I think is to understand how to use the ArcGIS software. I’m going to Brock’s GIS lab early next week for my first tutorial. Wish me luck!