html lang="en"> St. John's Micro-History Mapping Project

St. John's Micro History Mapping Project

Christina Ross

Project Overview

This project was created as the final assignment for HIST 3907, a course on Data Mining and Visualization, taught by Professor Shawn Graham, at Carleton University. The course tasked students with learning a variety of data mining skills, culminating in the creation and presentation of a term project that visually represented historical data in a digital form. The project is my attempt at doing so.

The St. John's Micro-History Mapping Project provides an in-depth look at some of the places and people mentioned in a small selection of the Morning Chronicle, a St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, newspaper which ran from 1862-1881. The four papers used in this project span the period of 30th August, 1865-2nd September, 1865. Each location on the map marks the site of a physical location or address mentioned in these papers, and I have engaged in lengthy historical research in order to procure further information about each of these sites, and any names which are associated with them in the newspapers. Each point on the map is a clickable link with opens into a more detailed discussion of the information I have found about the sites and persons mentioned.


The intention behind this project was to provide a deeper context and background to the sometimes scant information found in these newspapers. This intention is based on my belief that newspapers--as a method of recording historical information--provide a very specific and rather shallow array of information, that in many instances is not significant or even understandable to a reader removed from the social or historical context of the newspapers. Newspapers recount information that is intended for readers who know something about the society and time in which the newspaper was created. This means that a certain amount of place- and time-specific knowledge on the part of the reader is assumed by the editor(s) and author(s), and so a newspaper read by someone who is removed from the original geographic or temporal context may not make much sense.

The format of a newspaper is intended to present a large amount of data as quickly and efficiently as possible, and is a very specific and in some ways limited method of presenting information. As records of historical data, newspapers provide only a 'bare-bones' type of data, neglecting to provide an adequate amount of background information on a particular topic, because they assume that the reader already has a certain amount of knowledge of the subject. Once they are removed from the geographic and/or temporal context in which they were created, newspapers can quickly become an obsolete type of historical document, unless they are read by someone who already has a strong understanding of their context. That is not to say that the content itself is actually obsolete, but the format can make it seem so. This project is in part an attempt to separate content from format, and in doing so, to demonstrate how particular ways in which historical data are formatted or recorded can greatly determine the ways in which that information is perceived, and the assumed or actual usefulness of that data over time.

Finally, this project is an attempt to bring to life--in some small way--a time and place which was no less important to those living in it, even if the document which recorded those places, events and persons can no longer do them justice. The study of history is, after all, part of what we call the 'humanities', and so this project is an attempt to bring some humanity and a deeper context to a collection of historical newspapers that may otherwise have lost the sense of connection to real people and real places over time.

Format and Materials

The choice of Newfoundland for this project stems from my own interest in Maritime history in general and of that province in particular. My choice of St. John's and of the Morning Chronicle—as opposed to other locations and other papers--is based on certain criteria that I decided upon early on in the project. Initially, I considered smaller, rural communities, assuming that newspapers from such areas would include a greater focus on local events, such as births, deaths, marriage and social events, and a lesser focus on politics and commerce. However, I discovered that newspapers from smaller rural communities tended to cover a much larger geographical area (that is, not just the community in which the paper was created), and so this would have actually broadened the geographical scope of the project, and been counter-productive to the primary purpose of this project, which was to create a sense of the important places and events that were taking place in the lives of the people within a particular community. Another necessary requirement was that of a community on which a significant number of historical documents could be found, and this seemed more likely in a larger urban area, and given the time period within which I intended to focus my project, this necessarily led me to consider St. John's, the capital and largest city in Newfoundland. The choice of a location (St. John's) and a time period (19th century) diminished my choices significantly. Finally, I needed a paper that mentioned a number of specific street addresses or physical locations. During a perusal of a digital archive of historical newspapers, I came upon the Morning Chronicle, which fulfilled all of my criteria. The rest, as they say, is history.

The overlaid 1893 map was chosen initially because I could not locate a map of 1865 and because the map in question was the closest I could find to 1865. However, it also provided some additional information that I could not find from any other sources, because it shows not just streets, but also the location of some buildings. It was from this map that I was able to pinpoint the exact (rather than approximate) location of the Market-House, information I could find nowhere else.

While the 1893 map does not match the year of the newspapers used in this project, I believe it may be a fair representation of some areas of the downtown in 1865, for the following reason: the Great Fire of 1892—to this day the worst fire in St. John's history—occurred just one year prior to the creation of this map, and destroyed almost all of the downtown core. St. John's was plagued by fire throughout the 19th century, with the two largest and most destructive being those of 1846 and 1892, after which large-scale rebuilding programs took place in the downtown area. Given that rebuilding an entire downtown core takes far more than one year, I would suggest that this map might be a fair representation of St. John's during the time between the two great fires, including the year 1865.

The seven mapped locations represent a broad selection of the advertisements and notices placed within the newspapers, and have been chosen based on a particular criteria. My initial criteria for choosing locations was simply whether or not a notice (by which I mean any type of article or advertisement in the newspapers) included an actual street address or a physical location but no address (such as the “Fishermen's hall” or the “City Stove Establishment”). While these criteria seemed realistic at the beginning of my research, I quickly realized that while a surprising array of historical information could be found for some sites, that was not the case with many others, and if I could not provide any additional geographic or historical information on a site, there was little reason to include it. This realization changed my initial selection criteria from the mere inclusion of a street address or a physical location to notices which included one of the original criteria but on which additional information could also be found, and this necessary change in criteria due to lack of information meant the exclusion of many sites that I had originally hoped to include.

The sites included offer a good selection of the notices in the papers, and cover a wide variety of events, including a real estate rental, personal tutoring, a public auction, merchant sales, a dance, a lecture on Irish music, and the editorial introduction of the newspaper in question. Locations in the notices include a private rural property/farm, an urban personal residence, the commercial chambers, the city market, a community hall, and the headquarters of the newspaper's editor and publisher. One obvious omission from this list is any site of religious worship or religious affinity. This is particularly odd, given the large number of churches and religiously-affiliated schools that can be seen on the map of the downtown, but there was no mention of any such sites in the papers. One possible reason for this is that the editor of the paper in question was known for his disapproval of matters of religion in politics, and so might have been disinclined to advertise events of a religious nature.

Another note on the selection of the sites is that two of the notices in question have a women's name associated with them. Given that in four days-worth of newspapers, which included dozens of men's names, there were only four obviously feminine names, I felt it pertinent to include what information I could find on the women in question, rather than additional information on even more males, most of whom seemed to be merchants or politicians, and who thus represented a very particular demographic of St. John's society.

Names and places that were intentionally omitted, and not because I could find little to no information on them, were any places or persons mentioned in association with the shipping news articles (such as the various outports, and ships and their captains), and many names that was obviously someone not living in St. John's or the surrounding area. These included (for example) European politicians and names associated with businesses outside of St. John's or Newfoundland. This choice was made on the basis that the project is focused on a very specific geographic area, and inclusion of places in other parts of the province or even outside of the province did not fit the intention of the project. Jersey cottage is the one exception to this rule, and is located outside of the city of St. John's. However, it was one of the few mentions of rural property in the paper, and the fact that it was advertised only by its name suggested that the property must have been well-known in the city, and it is thus a good example of what I have intended to convey with this project, which is that newspapers are designed to be read by people who already know what's going on in the place they live, but that information is so easily lost once the reader is removed from the social, temporal, or geographic context. Clearly, readers of the Morning Chronicle were expected to know where and what Jersey Cottage was, or else more information would have presumably been given in the advertisement for it.

In some cases, I could not find the exact location of a site. Many sites which included a street number are no longer extant, and so I have used the modern location of the street address in question, and thus provided an approximate, rather than exact location, as one would assume that the division of streets into numbered units has probably changed somewhat since the 1800s. The locations of 16 Cochrane St., 199 Water St., and the Commercial Sale-Room are all approximate, and are based on the modern location of those street numbers or--in the case of the Commercial Sale-Room--references to particular area of the city. The location of the Market House, the Fisherman's Hall, and Jersey Cottage are exact, and the Office of the Morning Chronicle is exact to within one intersection; that is, its location on the corner of two streets is exact, but exactly which corner of the streets in question is unknown.

Method and Research

One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that the entirety of my research was done online. I had not intended this in the first place, or rather, I did not think that a sufficient amount of information would be readily available only through online sources. I was extremely surprised, and pleased, at the amount of historical documents that have been transcribed or digitized and made available online. Given that the subject of my research was extremely specific (St. John's, the capital of a small colony of the British empire, in the year of 1865), I find it rather amazing. The amount of digitized information on the places and people of this time and place was rather remarkably, and allowed me to locate a significant amount of information on the subject(s) in a relatively short frame of time.

The research for this project demonstrates some of the benefits of using digital tools in scholarly research. Of course, such tools depend upon the availability of digitized content, and so can skew one's perception of the amount the information that might be readily available outside of a digitized format. On the other hand, using digital software and digital research methods allowed me to quickly locate and to digitally 'skim' a tremendous amount of digitized text in such a way as to quickly locate any relevant information, and to minimize time spent on reading through information not relevant to my topic.

The entirety of my research on the locations and persons relevant to this project was done using random and targeted Google searches for keywords based on the place and person names that I had selected from the historical newspapers. Once presented with a page of potential search results, I was able to quickly discard sites that did not contain relevant information, which I did using the 'CTRL F' keyboard search function, which before this project I had not known existed (I had also not known that by pressing the 'PrntScr' button, I could take a snapshot of the computer screen, and this proved invaluable for the inclusion of images in the project). The ability to quickly search websites for relevant keywords using this function was invaluable to my research, and allowed me to locate minute pieces of information that I might otherwise have missed had I had to read through multiple pages of text. I am convinced, in fact, that the research done for this project would not have been possible without the use of digital technology, or at least, it could have been done, but would have taken so much longer that the nature of the project might have been outside the scope of a four-month undergraduate project. Much of the information I used was from digitally-archived sources from Maritime universities and libraries, and had they not been digitized, the information might not have been available to me without travelling to the East coast or going through the tedious process of contacting every institution and arranging for a hard copy of the information to be sent to me, if such a thing were even possible. Finally, I might simply not have known about the existence of some of the information without access to digitized copies, for in order to find relevant information during research, one usually has to already have some sense of what to look for, and where to look for it, and that was certainly not the case in this project. My initial expectations of the amount of information I would find online were very low, and my earliest sojourn into online research for this project was a shot in the dark which turned up a goldmine (to use a confusing combination of analogies).

Limitations and Challenges

This project does not cover as many sites as I would have liked. I began with the intention to research and include far more sites, but for the reasons outlined above, as well as due to a sheer lack of time, I ended up with a much smaller number. This is a project for an undergraduate class, and so there was a deadline to meet, and each additional site requires quite an extensive amount of research and time. I had until very recently decided to include four additional sites, but realized that I could find so little information on them that their inclusion would have added little value to the project, beyond providing more points on the map.

I had originally intended this project to be focused on notices of birth, death, marriage and social events, and so it is ironic that the newspaper in question contained few of these. There were zero birth or marriage notices, and of the two obituaries in the newspapers, one did not list a location of any sort (as the person in question had retired to England after living in St. John's and died there), and I could find no information on the other, although it did include a general area of the city as the location of the man's residence.

During the first phase of my research, after I had hammered out the basic structure of the project, I discovered an enormous amount of biographical information about a number of people mentioned in the papers. Early on I had gone through the papers, and taken down every name in them, excluding those which were obviously foreign, such as European politicians or merchants from the United States. After this, I proceeded to do an enormous amount of research on each of these names, and found a significant amount of information. Having done so, however, I realized that the structure of my project required that each name be connected to a notice which contained a street address of physical location and on which I could find additional geographic information in order to actual map these locations, and this combination was unfortunately rare. Many of the merchants advertising in the papers seem to have been rather prominent citizens, some in fact having had secondary careers as local politicians. Sadly, I found a large amount of biographical information on a number of these men that could not be used and that ended up being excluded from the final project, due to the necessity of every individual being associated with a specific geographic location that could be mapped, which in many cases was impossible.

The digital technology used in this project was often a challenge for me. I have rarely edited html documents, and so even minor changes to the pre-existing code required additional research and a certain amount of experimentation and setbacks. Even tasks that are now easy for me—such as negotiating the rather confusing structure of Github—presented a real challenge to me throughout the development of this project.

The most disappointing aspect of the project was the focus on commerce and politics in the newspapers themselves. Perhaps naively, I assumed that a newspaper from the 19th century would include a greater number of information on social and personal events (like deaths, births, and social functions) and be less focused on advertisements. The huge amount of commercial advertisements in the newspapers came as a shock to me; it seems to rival even the amount found in newspapers of the 21st century. The strong focus on commerce within the newspapers was certainly a challenge in doing the kind of project I had intended, which was to move away from a focus on male-dominated politics and economics. But given that the vast majority of the names in the newspapers were males who were merchants, politicians, or both, this was impossible, and my belief that an older newspaper might have less of a focus on such things was naive, and perhaps even slightly patronizing.


One of the most important things I have learned in the development of this project—outside of the obvious technical skills that were required for its creation—is about the nature of digital research. Not being a huge lover of computers and digital technology in general, I have often looked down upon the idea of using digital methods in the humanities. While at heart, I still prefer the apparently old-fashioned means of researching and writing history, this project has made me realize that the question is not necessary whether books are better than computers, for example, but that digital and traditional methods of historical research allow one to analyze historical data in very different, but equally valuable ways. As I have stated, I do not believe that this project would have been feasible for the scope of this course had it not been focused on digital history, and this is due to the way that I have been able to research and locate relevant information remarkably quickly using digital technology and methodology, without which the project would have required a staggering number of hours spent skimming through documents in search of a relevant keyword. In this way, I feel that I have gained some appreciation for the digital humanities, and can see how they provide new and unique ways in which historical information can be represented and understood.

I feel that the research and visual representation I had done is at least adequate, if not exceptional, and I am aware that some of my research has actually filled in small holes that were missing from some of historical documents that I used. For example, my own research into Jersey Cottage has significantly diminished the possible time-frame is which it is speculated the house was built: according to the writers of the document which chronicled the history of Jersey Cottage, the possible date of construction is anywhere from 1850-1880. The fact that the property was being advertised for rental in the Morning Chronicle of 1865 means that it must have been built before 1865, and had the authors of the report used historical newspapers in their research, they would have discovered this fact. In this way, I feel that my research has been potentially useful in filling in some of the small gaps in the historical record.

Overall, I am tremendously satisfied with this project and believe that it has, at least in a limited (or micro?) way, fulfilled my intention of creating a sense of real people and real places, and of giving a deeper context and meaning to the scant and context-free information within a collection of historical newspapers. My research into the 'newsworthy' events, people and places of a four-day period in St. John's in 1865 have provided a brief, if limited glimpse into some aspects of community life during this time, and in doing so, I hope to have breathed some life into a historical document, the format of which belies the significance of its content.