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!