Mining and mapping oak openings and Native American forest modification using digitized historical documents.

Authors: David Robertson*, State University Of New York, Geneseo, Stephen J Tulowiecki, SUNY Geneseo
Topics: Biogeography, Historical Geography
Keywords: historical ecology, Native Americans, oak openings
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Bonaparte, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Accounts of Native American land-use are commonly cited in historical ecology research, including studies on Native American forest modification prior to European colonization. This use of historical observations, however, is typically anecdotal with researchers citing first-hand accounts of Native American forest alteration to build historical context, supplement statistical or spatial analyses, or enliven discussion. This paper presents a methodology for more rigorous analysis of landscape accounts from historical documents. More specifically, this paper shows how information retrieval strategies can be systematically applied to digitized historical documents to produce mappable data on oak openings and Native American forest modification. The study area is a 16 county region of modern-day western New York, a territory inhabited by the Seneca Iroquois from the ca.16th to 18th centuries. Digitized historical documents used in this analysis (n=120) included county, town and city histories, and travel journals. The information retrieval method used to analyze these documents involved two-steps: 1) development of a text-searching script for extracting paragraphs containing keywords; followed by 2) a ranking and review procedure for identifying relevant historical accounts. A point-radius method was used to map these accounts and convey the positional uncertainty of the data. This study compiled and mapped more than 200 historical accounts of oak openings and Native American forest modification ca. 1800 CE. Their correspondence with known Native American settlement patterns demonstrates the utility of this qualitative data source and methodology in historical ecological research.

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