‘Loyalist’ project teams up to map history

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Travel back in time and across an ocean with the Loyalist Migrations mapping project, a joint research venture showcasing the power of geographic information systems (GIS) to communicate humanity’s “vastly complex history.”

The story begins in 1783, when the American Revolution shattered British control over the Thirteen Colonies and sparked a migration of approximately 60,000 Loyalists – colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown.

Defeated and exiled, the Loyalists fled to other parts of the British Empire. Thousands of Loyalists travelled north and settled in British North America, present-day Canada. Approximately 1-in-10 Canadians can claim Loyalist heritage, and this migration shaped a significant part of Canada’s early identity.

The Loyalist Migrations project plots the journeys of thousands of these Loyalist families. It’s a collaborative venture between Huron University College History professor Timothy J. Compeau, Western Libraries GIS Specialist Liz Sutherland, Huron Centre for Community History students, and the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada (UELAC).

For Compeau, the Loyalists’ movements represent an opportunity to study the broader patterns of migrations that were underway on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I was fascinated by the story, by the movement of these people,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to visualize this migration?”

The web map is a stunning visualization. Lines span the Atlantic from Britain to the Northeastern United States and then disperse across North America. “Each of these lines represents a family,” Compeau continued. “We can click on one and get a small snippet of a life turned upside down by war and displacement. These are not abstract names and dates: these are stories that still have a life.”

The UELAC provided the family data and genealogy that made this project possible. Their directory of more than 9,000 families who left the United States at the end of the American Revolution provides the foundation for this interactive map.

“This past summer, our Community History research fellow, Tom Lang, meticulously went through the data provided by the UELAC, noting the places of birth, settlement, and death for hundreds of people,” Compeau said. “It’s these events that are plotted on the map.”

Compeau also sees the Loyalists’ movements as part of a broader human migration story. “The intent is to make this a really all-encompassing visualization of all the movement that came out of the American Revolution. Once you’ve visualized data like this, you can begin to look for patterns. As the map fills in, we hope to see new patterns emerge that perhaps weren’t as clear before.”

He added, “This map is a great way of communicating this vastly complex history to the public in a new way. Visualizations can more easily convey the complexity of human migration.”

Sutherland built the project’s interactive web map. It was the first time she had applied GIS data to a field like human migration, and she immediately recognized the potential.

“We’ve created something visual and spatial that can be applied to a lot of different humanities and social science research projects. It’s about more than just people – we could track animals, ideas, anything. This map is proof of what’s possible with this technology.”

For Sutherland and Compeau, Loyalist Migrations is an opportunity to involve the public; it’s a collaborative project that brings together academics, public historians, and community groups to share Canada’s collective history.

“The fact that the Map & Data Centre is here, that we have the resources to support research like this is incredible,” Compeau said. “The resources are here at Western to facilitate this kind of research. It really is amazing.”