Digital Project Reflection: Washington on the Frontier

Here it is!

Washington on the Frontier now takes users from Washington’s first foray into the wilderness of the Ohio country in 1753 to his retirement from leadership of the Virginia Regiment in 1758. Each stop on the journey is marked by a map point. Each map point, which selected or reached by clicking through, displays an image relevant to the events that occurred at that map point, a title including the year, and between 100 and 120 words of text describing the events. There are seventeen map points and one introductory page, for a total of eighteen “slides.” Individual reading speeds will impact the time it takes to read through the entire StoryMap but the feedback I have received indicates that it does not take an onerous amount of time to read through everything.

The one issue I was unable to resolve to my satisfaction was the text background: the limits of the StoryMapJS program mean that my options for the background on which the text is displayed are 1) nothing, which sometimes makes portions of the text difficult to read against the map; 2) an image, which made it more difficult to read the text and sometimes cut off too much of the map; or 3) color, which proved difficult to adjust to a satisfactory hue that would allow the text to be clearly read while not interfering with the layout of the rest of the page.

The majority of my difficulties came from locating good images and from writing the text: I tried to avoid writing text that would involve significant scrolling, as that would break the alignment of the image and the text with the map point. This meant I had to work to condense large amounts of information into a very small amount of words. The result is that some of the entries are missing details which I would have preferred to leave in had the space been available. However, the core historical facts are all present and the narrative still holds together.

The StoryMapJS program is relatively intuitive and easy to use, but I have encountered some issues. For one, the program works best when the points on the map are all in a relatively linear formation, rather than bouncing around from place to place. This meant that I had to cut some elements of Washington’s story from the presentation because their inclusion would disrupt the flow of the StoryMap. For instance, Washington traveled to Boston in 1757 to meet with Lord Loudon, the British commander-in-chief in North America. Such a tangent away from the line between Lake Eire and the Virginia coast formed by the majority of the map points. In the end I decided to err on the side of streamlining the process from the technical aspect and cut the Boston journey from the map. The oftentimes competing imperatives created by the technical limitations of the digital tool and the full richness of the historical account being presented via that tool were on full display during the creation of Washington on the Frontier.

The StoryMapJS program offers the chance to do interesting digital history projects in a format that is easy for users to navigate. The spatial component allows for presentations that help users understand history as not just happening over time, but also over space.

Digital Project Draft: Young Washington on the Frontier

My StoryMap project is titled “Young Washington on the Frontier.” It walks visitors through Washington’s early 20s, from his commission as an officer in the Virginia militia and travel into the frontier of colonial North America in 1753 to his resignation from the Virginia militia after the successful conclusion of the Forbes Campaign in 1758.

The points in the StoryMap have been set up, though a few more might be added. Images have been found for most of the points, but image research continues to fill in the remaining gaps and determine sourcing for some images. The text in the points is still in the first draft stage.

The project in its current form does not do a lot of education. However, once the text has been fully completed, the StoryMap will walk visitors through Washington’s early military career and the pivotal role he played in the French and Indian War – the conflict that set the stage for American independence. Visitors will get to see Washington’s journeys not just as words on a page, but in a visual format that emphasizes the immense distances that George Washington had traveled when he was still in the beginnings of his adult life. Visitors will also learn information about Washington that they likely had not known, since Washington tends to emerge fully-formed onto the scene of American history with his appointment to command of the Continental Army in 1775.

What remains to be done:

  • Complete image research – this will require some additional searching for relevant and usable images but the majority of the StoryMap points have images associated with them.
  • Complete text writing – this will take slightly longer. The text in its current form is a very rough draft. However, I have a full outline for the text that simply needs to be converted from bullet-points to full sentences. This will take some time but I’m confident it can be finished with a few days of concentrated effort.

Digital Project Proposal: StoryMap-ing Young George Washington

In the most generally known narrative of American history, George Washington appears on the stage of world events fully formed. Washington strides into history as the tall, dignified adult who assumes command of the Continental Army and directs the victorious war for American independence. This same imposing figure then guides the newly launched state of ship safely through its first years of operation as President, before relinquishing power in the ultimate gesture of republican virtue and retiring to Mount Vernon. With the exception of the story of the cherry tree, perhaps now more famous as a tall tale than as historical truth, Washington’s youth is essentially nonexistent. The Father of the Country is always that, the older, mature figure in the room – never the young son.

But decades before Washington showed up to the Continental Congress to take the offered position as military leader of the fight against the British empire, his early 20s were spent acting as an agent of that same empire. In 1753, when he was only 21, Washington embarked on a harrowing frontier journey to attempt to force a diplomatic resolution to a long-running dispute between Britain and France over the poorly mapped, sparsely settled Ohio River Valley. A year later, at age 22, Washington was a colonel of militia charged with forcibly evicting the French from a fort at the site of modern-day Pittsburgh – a mission which sparked a world war and created the conditions that would spark the American Revolution two decades later. Washington’s younger years are little known to the general public, despite their fantastic and adventure-filled nature.

For my digital project, I propose to bring those adventures to life in a digital visual medium. Specifically, I would use the StoryMap program developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab. StoryMap allows users to create narratives using location, images, and movement. By using points dropped onto a map in a certain order, a StoryMap moves a viewer through the story spatially, not just temporally. Each point contains both text and images, providing snapshots of connected moments in history.

I would propose to use StoryMap to retrace Washington’s early 20s on the colonial frontier, specifically immediately prior to and during the French and Indian War. This would move viewers through portions of modern-day Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, as Washington traveled on land and water across a space where imperial ambition, colonial expansion, and Native American relations collided to form a crucible of massive historic significance. In this project I will be able to draw on my previous experience using StoryMap, but deliver a better-quality project by using the practices we have been discussing in class. I will also be able to draw on my knowledge of the time period, which is my historical focus. The end result will be an easily accessible and understandable digital presentation that will help more people learn about the incredible story of Young George Washington.