By Marc Parry
Books are the gold standard of historical scholarship. Claudio Saunt, a specialist in early American history, has published three of them. As a sort of epilogue to his latest book, however, the University of Georgia professor decided to try a different approach: What would happen if he distilled more than a century of American Indian history into an interactive digital map?
The result was a lesson in the power of public history, and a case study for a profession grappling with how to encourage and evaluate digital experimentation.
Mr. Saunt’s map, “The Invasion of America,” depicts how the United States captured 1.5 billion acres from indigenous people between 1776 and 1887. With each click on the map’s timeline, viewers can watch as the continent-spanning native territories dwindle to a patchwork of reservations.
It’s a familiar story, one Mr. Saunt has taught for 20 years. But this interactive version managed to reach an audience far greater than any lecture. Since its June debut, “The Invasion of America” has attracted more than 90,000 unique viewers, from as far as the Seychelles and Burkina Faso. Vox, Slate, and The Washington Post have all mentioned it. A YouTube video about it has been viewed nearly 77,000 times.
“At its peak, we had like 300 people a minute getting on there,” Mr. Saunt says of the site.
Mr. Saunt’s map is one slice of a bigger digital-history push emerging out of Georgia’s Center for Virtual History, much of which has yet to be released. The center’s scholars strive to capture the voices of historical actors not traditionally represented in archives, like slaves and American Indians, through projects that map the past and involve the public in analyzing historical data.
The effort, based at eHistory.org, grows out of the research interests and personalities of the center’s co-founders. One is Mr. Saunt, a San Franciscan who recently published West of the Revolution (W.W. Norton), a history of 1776 focused on events beyond the British colonies. The other is Stephen Berry, a Civil War-era historian who can get so animated discussing the 19th-century South that it sometimes seems as if he has forgotten to breathe.