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Department of History Chair Awarded Public Scholar Fellowship

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Susan Schulten will use funding to complete book about America and maps

Old Map

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a Public Scholar Fellowship to Susan Schulten, professor in and chair of the University of Denver’s Department of History. As part of her fellowship, Schulten received $50,400 in funding to support time away from teaching so that she can complete her book “A History of America in 100 Maps.” This is the second year of funding for this particular fellowship, which was created to broaden the audience for the humanities beyond universities.

Schulten’s book, which uses 100 maps to illuminate American history from 1492 to the present, explains why maps were made, why they mattered and how they help us understand the past. It will be published in 2018 by the University of Chicago Press in a joint publication with the British Library. Schulten will take time off in fall 2017 and winter 2018 to finish the book and may take a second trip to London to research additional maps.

Prof. Susan Schulten
Prof. Susan Schulten

The interest in old maps, Schulten says, exploded in the early 1900s — a time when people had access to disposable income and the interest in antiquities was on the rise. Today, old maps still have a healthy trade value, selling for anywhere from $10 to $10 million — the latter amount being what the Library of Congress paid for Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 world map that “named” America.

“I have long been interested in the history of cartography and the way people used maps to make sense of their circumstances,” Schulten says. “Old maps are among the most compelling windows into the past. As a historian, I’m always searching for clues to the way that people in the past lived their lives.”

Old maps, she adds, capture the struggles of discovery and the effort to chart terrain. Centuries later, they also would be used to organize information, consider spatial relationships and to convince others of something, such as settling an argument having to do with land or space.

Schulten’s book is organized into eight chronological chapters, each featuring a set of maps and a 1,500-word essay that frames the major themes of each era.

The chapters include:

  • 1507-1580: Contact and European discovery
  • 1580-1683: Settlement and conflict
  • 1680-1783: Imperial and indigenous rivalries
  • 1783-1837: A tentative nation
  • 1835-1860: Movement, mobility, and inequality
  • 1860-1910: War and reconstruction, south and west
  • 1875-1945: Stewardship at home and abroad
  • 1950-2000: Maps for a mass society

In her project proposal, Schulten explained how she would recast five centuries of American history through maps, primarily focusing on the area that became the United States. She says most of the maps in her book are drawn from the British Library.

“Beginning with one of the first maps to identify the New World, the library houses a wealth of unseen treasures that have tremendous potential to connect with readers” she says. “By asking how they were made — and explaining why they mattered — I reframe the history of America in a way that is both imaginative and visually engaging.”

She also discusses General William Sherman’s commissioning of several maps during the Civil War — one of which she calls “innovative” for the way it labeled not only rivers and roads, but population, livestock, crops and more.

Schulten is the author of The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950” and “Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America,” and is a coauthor of the forthcoming “Constructing the American Past: A Sourcebook of a People’s History.”