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19th century Street View – Using panoramic maps to teach historical thinking

If you were to ask your students;

What is a map?

what would they say?

I think many would start with describing the map apps on their mobile devices. And I would probably agree. Google Maps and the new Apple Maps do a great job of getting us from one place to another. Who doesn’t love Street View? We don’t even need to ask for directions anymore. It’s all right there on our phone.

But maps are more than just things that share directions. They can do so much more:  they tell intriguing stories about the people who made them, how they lived, what was important to them, what they knew, and what they didn’t know. Maps can be used to persuade, advertise, influence and our kids need practice in making sense of them.

Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps, understands what a good map can do:

Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory or the fantastic landscape of dreams.

We need to help our kids see beyond the limited vision of their mobile apps to visualizing the “jagged terrain” and “distant vistas” of really cool maps. We need to help our kids understand and make sense of these stories. One easy way to do this is to introduce the really cool panoramic maps of the 1800s. These maps were the Street View of the 19th century. And they are great for sucking kids into fun discussions about history.

Start by having students brainstorm a list entitled “What can maps tell us?” and post it on the wall. Then use some of the following map analysis activities. After each activity, ask the question again and add to the list.

Start with the basics. Search and select the map of a small town such as Delphi, Indiana; a mid-size location such as Lexington, Kentucky, or Buffalo, New York; or a large city such as Chicago, Illinois, or San Francisco, California, and examine the urban landscape. Your kids will see stores, houses, industrial plants, harbors filled with ships, trains in motion, parks and city thoroughfares filled with pedestrians, buggies, automobiles, all created by the mapmakers.

  • How are the different cities the same? Different?
  • Why might some cities be more industrialized than others?
  • What mood or feeling are mapmakers trying to convey in maps?

Use city maps specific to your area and use compelling questions such as:

Why would anyone want to move to Great Bend, Kansas?

Why does anyone move anywhere? What motivates people to move?

Are big cities better to move to than small towns? Why?

The map of Great Bend in 1882 lends itself to questions about westward movement and the railroad:

  • What does the map of Great Bend suggest about the role of the railroad in this town? How might the railroad have affected the growth and identity of Great Bend?
  • Who published this map and what does this suggest about the town? Does the map give us clues about who laid out the town? Would that matter?
  • Does the map suggest anything about the relationship between Native Americans and westward expansion?
  • How might Native Americans have responded to the development of towns such as Great Bend?

The map of Kansas City in 1895 focuses on the area around the meat packing and river area:

  • What is located along the waterways that are depicted in the maps? Businesses, warehouses, factories, mills, churches, schools, houses?
  • What is the relationship between the rivers, the roads, and railways of these towns?
  • What do these maps suggest about the purposes that the river & railroads served in Kansas City?
  • What aspects of Kansas City and its citizens were dependent upon the waterways? Would Kansas City have survived in this location if it were not for the river? What else might have made Kansas City viable?
  • How did the addition of a railroad changed the uses and importance of the river?
  • What might have been the daily routine of a railroad conductor in the Midwest or that of a steamboat pilot on the Missouri and Kansas Rivers?
  • Did other forms of transportation exist in Kansas City?

Other map activities could include the Library of Congress Zoom Into Maps site and the cool activity  Maps and Mapmakers: Seeing What’s on the Map. Use the questions from the Teachers Guide to Analyzing Maps to help facilitate whole-class analysis. Help kids record their responses using the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Maps do more than just tell us where to go. They can also help us understand where we’ve been.

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