Using the Geographic Perspective to Enrich History

By Sarah Bednarz

Geography and history are complementary subjects best taught together within the social studies curriculum. It is part of the collected wisdom of teachers that one cannot teach history without geography or geography without history. But what exactly is the nature of the relationship? What are the key concepts in geography that contribute to the teaching of history? And, what strategies can teachers use most effectively to link them together?

This article uses two standards from Geography for Life:
National Geography Standards 1994
1 to examine the relationship between geography and history. It presents a framework of four questions that focus on using geography to interpret the past. And it explores one strategy for developing history lessons that are well-grounded in geography in order to create memorable learning experiences.

Going Beyond Where "I teach geography when I teach history; I make sure my students know the locations of all the places we are studying." This statement represents one common understanding of the relationship between geography and history. It focuses on location, or where an event happens. The same understanding comes into play when teachers in my state discuss the sequencing of high school world geography and world history courses: "Of course, geography should be taught first so students know where places are when we study them in history."
The location of places is an essential component of the geographic perspective. Geographers, like historians, understand that all events have causes and consequences that depend partly upon where the action occurs. To a geographer, however, location is more than just where; it is also why and how and so what. The geographer looks not only at where things are located, but why and how they got there, and what difference location makes.

Geography is a rich and complex discipline with two key perspectives: (1) the spatial perspective, which centers on location and an understanding of what may be called whereness; and (2) the ecological perspective, which considers how humans interact with their physical environment. "The discipline of geography brings together the physical and human dimensions of the world in the study of people, places, and environments."2 It studies the patterns produced by human and physical phenomena on Earth's surface, and the processes that shape these patterns. This is in contrast to the historical perspective, which is temporal, and views human events primarily in terms of a chronological framework.

The geographic perspective is not strongly represented in the modern social studies curriculum. This is because most social studies teachers receive their training in history, and have little or no background in geography. Geography is typically defined as the physical environment (i.e., landforms and climates) and viewed as the backdrop before which history unfolds. Yet, more often than not, geography intrudes into the drama of historical change, rather than merely providing an arena for history.3

Linking Geography and History
What are the links between geography and history? The answer involves three assumptions:

In other words, the rationale for history (studying the past to understand the present) requires knowing geography: today's geography and the geography of different places at different times in the past.
Here are two examples of using the geographic perspective to understand history.

Consider the Battle of Bunker Hill as portrayed in John Trumbull's famous painting, which appears in a number of U.S. history textbooks (Illustration 1). Typically, the teaching emphasis is placed on the events leading up to the battle, the generals and soldiers, the number of colonists and Redcoats killed, and the aftermath of this early skirmish in the American Revolution. This is not the whole story; the geographic context is also a significant and fascinating part of the event. Look into the background of this painting to find British ships and the seaport of Boston, which was under British control. Then examine the map of the Charlestown peninsula, which the colonists fortified during the night of June 16, 1775 (Illustration 2).

The Battle of Bunker Hill was, of course, actually fought on Breed's Hill. Both hills are drumlins-oval-shaped, steep-sided and smooth-topped glacial deposits. Their strategic position overlooking Boston Harbor posed a threat of bombardment which the British sought to counter. The map of the battle site explains the difficulty faced by the British, who charged the hill three times. The colonists were adjured to hold their fire against the Redcoats until they could "see the whites of their eyes." As the British readied their third and final charge, the colonists retreated, leaving the British to claim victory-but at a cost in dead and wounded far greater than that suffered by the colonists.

Some interesting questions to examine further are:

The Erie Canal is another rich subject for demonstrating how geographic context can shape historic decision making. Its builders took advantage of the best natural pass through the Appalachian Mountains to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes (Illustration 4, p. 143). Running in a northeasterly direction, the parallel ridges of the Appalachian chain formed an impediment to westward trade and traffic during the early days of the republic. The Erie Canal connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes by following the path of the Mohawk River westward across New York State. The canal extended from Troy on the Hudson westward to Buffalo on Lake Erie.

One interesting question for students to consider is why the canal builders did not choose the shortest possible route to the Great Lakes, which would have been from Lake Oneida along the Oswego River to Lake Ontario. What was the major disadvantage of choosing this connection?

The Erie Canal was significant in creating the largest trade area in North America (Illustration 5, p. 143). This region was served by the single seaport of New York. This unique geographic situation presented New York City with a notable economic advantage, which quickly led it to become (and remain) the preeminent commercial center of North America.

The Erie Canal triggered a flurry of investment in transportation, and an expansion of the young economy of the United States. Other states and cities (notably, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington) sought their own routes across the Appalachians. Schemes to extend waterways and roads to connect the Great Lakes with the Ohio and Mississippi river systems were planned and carried out.4 The true importance of the Erie Canal as an impetus to economic growth and regional integration in the early nineteenth century cannot be understood unless this geographic context is fully explained.

Geography for Life
The team of geographers, teachers, and others who developed the National Geography Standards sought to emphasize the link between geography and history. Two of the document's 18 standards focus on this relationship, and explain ways the past can be understood through geography. How is this accomplished?
Standard 4 appears under the essential element "Places and Regions," which states: "The identities and lives of individuals and peoples are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions."5 This standard describes the geographically informed person as knowing and understanding "the physical and human characteristics of places." Although this standard does not mention history explicitly, it suggests that one approach to the past is observing places and how they change:

Places change over time as both physical and human processes operate to modify the Earth's surface. Few places remain unchanged for long and these changes have a wide range of consequences... Places change in size and complexity and in economic, political, and cultural importance as networks of relationships between places are altered through population expansion, the rise and fall of empires, changes in climate and other physical systems, and changes in transportation and communication technologies.6
Using this standard as a guide, a teacher might focus attention on a single place and how it has changed over time. For example, students might explore life in one city on the Silk Road in Central Asia at century intervals. They could examine the forces and processes-such as human migrations and conquests, changes in transportation and other technologies, and economic needs and wants-that drove historical change. Alternatively, the study of a general historical movement can be enhanced through the examination of change in one place at one time. A case study of change in an English village during the period of enclosure or the early Industrial Revolution could help students understand the effects of technological development and advancing global commerce on people in one place.

Standard 17 makes explicit the link between geography and history. This standard is included under the essential element "Uses of Geography," which states: "Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time-that is, Earth as it was, is, and might be."7 This standard describes the geographically informed person as knowing and understanding "how to apply geography to interpret the past." It keys on three themes-change, perception, and linkage-that build in complexity and level of abstract thinking in grades 4, 8, and 12 (Figure 1).

A Framework of Questions
Teachers can help students recreate the geography of the past in order to understand not only where an event occurred, but why and how, and with what effect (so what). The following framework of four questions is intended as a guideline for the development of curriculum and learning activities that are grounded in both geography and history (Figure 2 summarizes the framework).

A Strategy to Combine Perspectives
Using maps to discover patterns and relationships is one strategy for bringing the geographic perspective to bear on history. Consider the geographic context of the Civil War as revealed by the following map series.10
The first map shows the distribution of plantations with 100 or more slaves in the South in 1860 (Illustration 7). It depicts three concentrations of large-scale plantations: in the Mississippi and Red River Valleys of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas; in a belt running across the middle of Alabama; and along the coast of South Carolina. It also shows vast areas of the South with few or no such large-scale plantations. In fact, the majority of Southerners were small-scale farmers with correspondingly smaller, or no, slave holdings.

The second map shows landforms of the South (Illustration 8). A comparison of it with the map of large-scale plantations shows that they flourished on the flat, fertile land found in river valleys, in the region of Alabama known as the Black Belt, and along the Sea Island coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Much of the South had relatively infertile soil unsuited to cotton or other large-scale agriculture, or quickly robbed of its fertility by intense cultivation. Southern farmers constantly sought new land, pushing the cotton/slave agricultural complex further north and west.

The third map shows the states of the Confederacy and, in the inset, a map of the county-by-county vote on secession (Illustration 9). Compare the secession map with the map of large-scale plantations. It is clear that there was a close correspondence between large-scale plantations and a vote pro-secession. What the comparison does not make clear is why the vote differed in areas of smaller-scale farming. Discovering what factors-environmental and other-influenced the vote for secession throughout the South would be a complex but interesting follow up to this exercise.

This article has been addressed to all social studies teachers, since it is within the social studies that both history and geography are taught. In my experience, however, most social studies teachers are primarily teachers of history. I hope the message of this article is clear: we are ignoring an important part of history if we do not include geography as part of our teaching repertoire. The geographic perspective can enrich the study of history by helping students to grasp the significance of location, the inevitability of change, and the importance of human perceptions at given times in the past. Helping students to become more informed geographically means teaching better history and preparing better citizens.

1. Geography Education Standards Project, Geography for Life: Geography National Standards 1994 (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1994).
2. Geography for Life, 18.
3. Richard Dennis, "History and Geography: At the Intersection of Time and Space," Engaging the Past: The Uses of History Across the Social Sciences, ed. Eric H. Monkkonen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994). Dennis is citing Dodgshon, "Review of E. D. Genovese and L. Hochberg, Geographic Perspectives in History," Journal of Historical Geography 16 (1990): 375-377.
4. D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: Continental America, 1800-1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
5. Geography for Life, 34
6. Ibid., 69.
7. Ibid., 35.
8. R. J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, and David M. Smith, eds., The Dictionary of Human Geography (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1994), 457.
9. Sheldon M. Stern, "The Problem of Presentism," Common Knowledge 8 (Winter/Spring 1995): 6-7.
10. Philip J. Gersmehl, Activities and Readings in the Geography of the United States (Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers, 1994). These maps are part of the ARGUS curriculum materials and are available from the Association of American Geographers, 1710 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 10009.

Sarah Bednarz is on the faculty of the Department of Geography at Texas A University, College Station, Texas.