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Colonial History in the Age of Digital Humanities

Robert Englebert

Well before digital humanities was a hot commodity and seemingly a must for every grant application, I was cutting my teeth as a grad student and inadvertently became involved in digital history. Working for my PhD supervisor, Nicole St-Onge, at the University of Ottawa, I helped manage a team that digitized over 35,000 fur-trade contracts of indentured servants who were hired in Montreal between the 1730s and 1830s. The Voyageur Contract Database project (VCD), while far from fully comprehensive, quickly became the largest collection of its kind for the fur trade. After my PhD, I continued on as assistant director of the project, helping to build and clean up what had become a very large database from my post at the University of Saskatchewan. One of the project partners, Saint-Boniface Historical Society, migrated the core data to an online platform on its website so that researchers, genealogists, and other interested parties could use this resource (http://shsb.mb.ca/en/Voyageurs_database).


When the VCD first began databases were all the rage, even if the power of the technology was rarely exploited to full effect. Whether it was a simple Excel file, Filemaker Pro, Access, or some other program, the idea of capturing data en masse offered the tantalizing prospect of going beyond the limits of traditional empirical methods. Most New France historians are familiar with PRDH and Parchemin, two powerful databases that have revolutionized the way researchers do their work. Similarly, the ability to store and sort data has had a profound effect on approaches to a number of historical topics, most notably the transatlantic slave trade. In addition to databases, the age of the digital archive has drastically changed the nature of historical research. The number of archival collections and historical documents online has grown so quickly that it is not even possible to mention all of the pertinent websites for early Canadian and North-American colonial history. And yet at the same time, we know that despite this exponential growth only a fraction of archival material has made it to the Web.[1]

Even as we grapple with ever more sources, websites, databases, etc., new approaches are gaining ascendancy in the world of digital humanities. Historical GIS has become the mainstay of environmental history, while text mining is changing the way many scholars approach their research.[2] Like all methodologies and technologies, however, there are limits to what they can and cannot do. For example, text mining is mostly limited to print sources and the use of HGIS is somewhat dependent on certain types of historical cartographic, demographic, and environmental data. Still, with all of the new developments over the last couple of decades, it begs the question of whether colonial-era history can be done without a thorough consideration of new methodologies tied to digital humanities?

For over a decade I have been working away on eighteenth century fur trade and socio-economic history, reconstructing the commercial and family networks of mostly French-Canadian merchants and voyageurs. These networks spanned large portions of North America, from Quebec City and Montreal, to Detroit, Michilimackinac, Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and New Orleans. At its peak the trade routes reached as far as the Athabasca region of northern Alberta and Santa Fe in the southwest. Despite using databases and quantitative methods, my PhD was mostly an empirical study with technology helping in data collection and organization. In other words, while technology assisted in my ability to collect and organize material, it was not one of the driving forces behind my historical analysis. It simply allowed me to employ empirical methods to larger datasets.

It was only recently, while reading an article by Thomas Peace on historical Social Network Analysis (SNA), that it became clear that technology could indeed drive my analysis, opening new questions and ways of examining the past.[3] I realized that what I had been doing empirically was essentially rudimentary social network analysis in colonial history.

Most fur trade history has traditionally dealt with complex networks of French, British, Anglo-American, and Indigenous peoples, showing glimpses of complex socioeconomic interactions. In many cases the historiography of the fur trade does an excellent job of exploiting these networks of trade, kinship, and social interaction to good effect. One can think of the groundbreaking work of scholars like Jennifer Brown, Sylvia Van Kirk, and Jacqueline Peterson on the role of women in the fur trade and the nature of métis/Métis history.[4] Scholars such as Tanis Thorne, Heather Devine, Lucy Murphy, and Susan Sleeper-Smith, built upon this early historiography, examining a multitude of social relationships through Catholic networks, relationship and marriage structures, and complex genealogies.[5]

Yet despite the excellent work of these and other scholars, it always seemed that one was looking at a few strands of a larger spider’s web. It was like a never-ending horizon, with the rest of the world just out of view. More recently, a number of scholars have begun employing SNA to expand our historical gaze and reorient our approach to colonial history. For example, Robert Michael Morrissey’s work on Indigenous networks at Kaskaskia used SNA to question entrenched notions of “Frenchification” derived from the regularly employed example Marie Rouensa-8canic8e in the Illinois Country.[6] PhD candidate Émilie Pigeon worked with Nicole St-Onge and Brenda Macdougall, exploiting SNA to trace relationships in Métis buffalo-hunting brigades and provide a window onto the role of women in binding hunting kin groups together.[7]

For my own work, SNA brings a new way of thinking about old historiographical questions. For instance, one can begin to rethink some of Dale Miquelon’s early assertions about French-Canadian trade and merchant capital under the British regime and to reassess José Igartua’s work on the fate of the Montreal merchants.[8] Using SNA my work investigates the interrelationship between Montreal merchants and what Jay Gitlin has recently referred to as the bourgeois frontier – a French Creole Corridor from Detroit to New Orleans that lasted from the end of the French regime until the early nineteenth century.[9] It shows not only the continuity of old French networks of communication and exchange, but also allows for a better understanding of how those networks changed as a result of shifting geopolitical and demographic realities throughout the second half of the eighteenth century.

The following shows a very simple and quick mockup of family relations and correspondence for merchant Gabriel Cerré (1734-1805). The idea of course would be to link these to other merchants, voyageurs, families, etc. to show the full effect of such networks.


Robert Englebert, Social Network Analysis of Gabriel Cerré (1734-1805)


Digital humanities offer the tantalizing prospect of working data regarding French-Canadian merchants and voyageurs – collected and sorted in databases – through SNA and displaying the results in relational diagrams. Moreover, using HGIS, the spatial component of those relationships can be mapped. These technologies and methodologies offer an opportunity to understand mobile colonial networks of communication and exchange, which had hitherto been difficult to capture and depict.

Some might ask whether these exciting new approaches to colonial history might in fact signal the end of traditional empiricism. I think that would be to overstate the foundational aspect that empirical methodology plays for most of us. Instead, I have come to think of these newer approaches as additional tools for effectively carrying out the historian’s craft. It does beg the question, however, of whether one can, or to what extent one can conduct North-American colonial history without due consideration of these new tools in the age of digital humanities.

Robert Englebert teaches in the Department of History, University of Saskatchewan. You can find him on Twitter @englebert_r.

[1] It will be interesting to see what happens to online archives as money dries up for bulk digitization projects. While far from conclusive, it seems like this may already be starting.

[2] Anne Kelly Knowles and Digital supplement edited by Amy Hillier, eds., Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2008); Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, eds., Historical GIS Research in Canada (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014).

[3] Thomas Peace, “Six Degrees to Phillip Buckner? An Accessible Introduction to Network Analysis and Its Possibilities for Atlantic Canadian History,” Acadiensis 44, no. 1 (2015): 123–44.

[4] Jennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980); Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980); Jacqueline Peterson, The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985); Jacqueline Peterson, “Prelude to Red River: A Social Portrait of the Great Lakes Métis,” Ethnohistory 25, no. 1 (1978): 41–67.

[5] Tanis C. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations: French and Indians on the Lower Missouri (Columbia, MO, and London: University of Missouri Press, 1996); Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (Amherst: Universty of Massachusetts Press, 2001); Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, Gathering of Rivers: Indians, Métis and Mining in the Western Great Lakes, 1737-1832 (Lincoln, NE, and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); Heather Devine, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660-1990 (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2004).

[6] Robert Michael Morrissey, “Kaskaskia Social Network: Kinship and Assimilation in the French-Illinois Borderlands, 1695-1735,” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 1 (2013): 103–46.

[7] Brenda Macdougall and Nicole St-Onge, “Rooted in Mobility: Metis Buffalo-Hunting Brigades,” Manitoba History 71 (Winter 2013): 16–27.

[8] Dale Miquelon, “The Baby Family in the Trade of Canada, 1750-1820” (MA Thesis, Carleton University, 1966); José Igartua, “A Change in Climate: The Conquest and the Marchands of Montreal,” Historical Papers / Communications Historiques 9, no. 1 (1974): 115–34.

[9] Jay Gitlin, The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Latest Comments

  1. José Igartua says:

    Interesting application of network analysis. I did rudimentary graphs of the family and business connections of Montreal merchants in my dissertation, The Merchants and Négociants of Montreal, 1750-1775: A Study in Socio-Economic History, Michigan State University, 1974. I’m far from home and don’t have the exact page references handy. Network analysis was in vogue among sociologists in the 1970s. See the various Social Science History Association annual programs for some examples.

    • Robert Englebert says:

      Thanks for the comment. I took quite a bit of inspiration from your dissertation and articles for my own dissertation work. It has been a while since I have looked at the graphs, but l should definitely go back to them. I was aware of the some of the network analysis focus among sociologist of the 1970s, but it is interesting to see how some of those ideas are coming back now and being taken in different directions as technology makes things somewhat more accessible.

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