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September / October 2003

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Mapping the History of Maine

Image courtesy of Historical Atlas of Maine project

Mapping the History of Maine
New historical atlas uses traditional and high-tech tools to provide a unique perspective on the past


Salt of the earth
Throughout history, most salt marshes along the Eastern Seaboard have been transformed by human activity, according to historian Kimberly Sebold, whose research has focused on the coastal wetlands.

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The Abenaki peoples called it Owascoag, the land of much grass. In these expansive salt marshes estuary ecosystems as important to the Maine coast as the rainforests are to South America the Native Americans found an abundance of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other natural resources.

The earliest European settlers quickly learned the value of the coastal wetlands as a source of food for themselves and their domestic animals. Even before forested areas could be cleared for pastures, settlers grazed livestock and harvested salt hay in the marshes. Well into the 19th century, salt hay remained important to farmers' subsistence and increasingly became a source of income for entrepreneurial salt marsh owners.

Today, many of Maine's salt marshes remain as microcosms of wetlands history. Through the years and their different landowners, places like Scarborough Marsh, the largest in the state, underwent large-scale diking to increase agricultural productivity, and some filling in to expedite early development. But unlike highly developed areas like the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware coast regions, most of Scarborough Marsh did not succumb to economic pressures. Today, its 3,000 acres are overseen by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as part of the Scarborough Wildlife Management Area.

The role of salt marshes in the state's history soon will be highlighted in the Historical Atlas of Maine, an upcoming 240-page volume culminating a seven-year research project built on rigorous historical and geographic scholarship. In full-color, two-page plates, the atlas details the environmental, economic, social and cultural interactions that shaped the state and region, from deglaciation 14,000 years ago to the 21st century.

Drawing on a range of academic disciplines, the atlas incorporates new ways of thinking about human history. The perspectives are presented visually through a diverse combination of traditional, age-old methods (historical records, drawings, charts and photographs) and new digital technologies (three-dimensional computer-generated maps and satellite imagery). In these respects, the atlas will differ radically from all previous historical atlases of Maine or works on Maine history. The multi-year research project that is bringing the atlas to fruition also is unprecedented.

"We hope to bring together insights from a variety of approaches history, ecology, geology, politics, marine sciences, ethnography, among other fields in a way that will make the presentation in each and every plate truly interdisciplinary," says historian and University of Maine professor Richard Judd, one of the project's leaders. "This is something no historical atlas to date has accomplished. We see the Historical Atlas of Maine as offering a template for future state, regional and even national historical atlases."

Earlier this year, UMaine was awarded a two-year, $293,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue the atlas project's research and design. More funding is needed in order for the volume to be published in 2006 by the University of Maine Press. The project started with $160,000 in seed money from the Maine legislature in 1999, followed by $100,000 from the University of Maine System.

"The NEH grant, the largest (humanities grant) to the University of Maine in recent years, is national recognition of the quality of scholarly research and cartographic design contained in the atlas," says Stephen Hornsby, a geographer on the project and director of UMaine's Canadian-American Center.

The Historical Atlas of Maine is designed to interest a variety of readers. It is expected to appeal to a popular audience with an interest in Maine and its history. In addition, the atlas will have a primary role in education, including use by school and college students learning about the culture, history and geography of Maine. Teaching modules based on the atlas are being developed for K-12 teachers.

Following print production of the atlas, researchers hope to develop an interactive CD and Web-based plate modules.

"This is a project requiring a huge amount of time, money and commitment, but the potential is enormous," Hornsby says. "It makes an important point about how we can contribute to the understanding of Maine and its people. We have a strong sense of place in Maine and this will reinforce it."

The Historical Atlas of Maine project began in 1998 with the formation of a steering committee at UMaine, led by Professor of English Burton Hatlen. Joining him in the initial planning process were six other university scholars: Hornsby, Judd, Northeast regional and Canadian studies expert Jacques Ferland, Quaternary studies scientist George Jacobson, cultural and New England historian Martha McNamara, and 19th-century U.S. historian Marli Weiner. The cartographer on the project is Mike Hermann.

More than 70 historians from throughout Maine are contributing their scholarship to the project. Their wide-ranging expertise provides the social, economic and demographic information, as well as the history of cross-border connections with Canada. Much of the research in the atlas has never previously been published.

"Cartographically, we're illustrating Maine at a level of detail that is unprecedented in previous works," Hermann says. "We're using Macintosh computers to design, produce and publish the entire atlas. We're designing with detailed GIS data to visualize history within the unique geography that defines Maine and its people."

To date, 40 of the 100 atlas plates, each defining a key development in Maine history, are approaching completion. The plates will focus on such chapters in history as cultural change in the colonial era, patterns of land ownership, religious history and French-Canadian migration.

Maine's new atlas is modeled after three successful historical atlases published in recent years: the Historical Atlas of Canada, the National Geographic Society's Historical Atlas of the United States, and the New Zealand Historical Atlas. At the heart of such volumes is the presentation of information about the past using images, such as photographs, drawings, historical maps, three-dimensional renderings, topographical and other maps, charts and graphs, and satellite imagery.

The Historical Atlas of Maine begins with an ecological and cultural examination of the state, and its regional, national and international context. It will bring into focus Maine's history as a borderlands region and will illuminate the perspectives of women, and those of cultural, religious and ethnic minorities. In particular, it will emphasize the continuing role of the Native American community in Maine.

"The atlas will be a way of defining the culture and history of the region," says Hatlen. "In school and through the media, we learn to think of Maine as the northeastern-most appendage of the U.S. However, the cultural, ethnographic, economic and religious links to Canada, particularly Quebec and New Brunswick, are strong. Even the landscapes are similar. Maine is not at the end of the road in the U.S. but rather in the middle of a region. The future of Maine depends on such regional thinking."

by Chris Smith
September-October, 2003

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