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Analyzing Geographic Data Visualizations to Deepen Student Understanding of Late 19th Century Migration

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Examining historical statistical atlases is a useful way for students to practice geographic thinking and data literacy skills while gaining insights into American history.

In the November – December issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features the 130-page Statistical atlas of the United States, based upon the results of the eleventh census of 1890. Compiled by the U.S. Census and other sources, the atlas includes more than 400 unique maps and data charts – data visualizations to use today’s vernacular – as well as explanatory text, covering a broad range of topics including physical geography, population, social and economic statistics. Taken together, the visualizations illustrate how their authors viewed the country during a time of rapidly increasing population, immigration, industrialization, and urbanization.

In the article, students are asked to interpret data on a single subject – population density – displayed in three different formats: bar graph (diagram 8), map (diagram 20), and text (paragraph describing diagram 8). Students compare and contrast these formats, noting how each delivers a unique message. The bar graph, for example, is an excellent way to compare states, but the map – with its six different shades of color – illustrates density variances within states, as well as larger regional patterns.

Next, students interpret multiple visualizations on different subjects, and then consider how analyzing them together tells a larger story.

Diagram 1: Urban and Total Population at Each Census: 1790-1890

Diagram 25: Increase or decrease of the rural population: 1880 to 1890

Diagram 32: Distribution of the foreign born population of the U.S: 1890

Observations may include:

  • Between 1880 and 1890, total population grew in both rural and urban areas, but urban areas grew faster.
  • Diagram 25 and accompanying text indicate increased population density over “much of New England and the Atlantic plain southward as far as North Carolina, and in many of the states of the upper Mississippi Valley,” as well as in “mining regions of Colorado, Nevada, and California.” Otherwise, rural population increased in many surrounding areas.
  • Diagram 25 and Diagram 32 partially correlate: by 1890, many foreign-born inhabitants lived within areas of increased density in northeastern and north central states, but less so in the south.

Through analysis, students are asked to construct understandings regarding how population growth, immigration, and urbanization may have been related in the late 19th century; speculate as to possible reasons for these relationships; and develop questions for further investigation within the atlas. For example:

  • How much population growth arose from immigration vs. native births?
  • Were specific immigrant groups more likely to live in certain areas or have certain occupations?
  • To what extent did increased manufacturing drive migration toward cities?

Visit our “Sources and Strategies” article for more on these strategies. If you use them with your students, let us know what insights they come up with!

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