ENRICHING OUR HISTORY WITH GIS: THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT TRIALS
As Halloween 2015 approaches, I thought I would take the blog in a little different direction this week. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. The author being interviewed, Emerson W. Baker, provided some great background information about the politics and the geography of the Salem, Massachusetts region in the late 17th century. Well, being the amateur historian and map geek that I am, I went in search of a period map that would provide me with a frame of reference for what the author was discussing. What I found was pretty interesting…
It seems that in the late 1990’s, the University of Virginia undertook a project to collect data from primary records about the people and events surrounding the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials. The researchers’ ultimate goal was to create a GIS database of social demographic and geospatial information that could provide a better context for understanding the events that transpired. Presumably, the database would aid in the analysis of relationships between the accused and accusers, based on: age, gender, wealth, family and other factors. After all, it is a popular belief among many historians that most, if not all, of the accusations were motivated as much by personal scores, as they were puritan religious fervor.
This disappointing part of my findings was that I was unable to determine if the Salem Witchcraft GIS project was ever completed. The (rather antiquated) website shows solid progress through the beginning of 2000, and then it abruptly stops. I searched around for additional references, but was unable to find anything definitive. There is however, a flash-based, animated timeline that walks through the events that transpired during the first month of the ordeal.
So, while it appears that this particular initiative may have fizzled, the concept offers a great example of how GIS has the potential to reveal new information about a subject that was thought to have been thoroughly explored. If I learn anymore about this project, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Hope you have a safe and happy Halloween!