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The Birth of Boston

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

The Birth of Boston project is a partnership between faculty and graduate students in Northeastern’s History department, working closely with the Massachusetts Historical Society on using materials from their collections to investigate how historical narratives and data can be located geographically. The project is exploring mechanisms for linking multiple archival datasets and considering methods for curating and representing historical and biographical data.

The Birth of Boston team, Chris Parsons, Molly Nebiolo, and Matthew Bowser, has created a prototype interactive map of Boston in 1648 that allows users to click on land parcels to learn about each inhabitant that lived there. The map includes information on names, birth and death dates, occupations, family members, and events associated with the residents of each parcel. The goal is to also include information such as religious, political, and economic ties, wells and fortifications, religious and political institutions such as churches, and economic sites such as markets and docks. All of this information will be presented through an ArcGIS website that permits users to toggle between separate layers and, as a result, visualize the social history of Boston’s diverse communities.

This project has built off of pioneering efforts to reconstruct the social history of Boston by the amateur historians Samuel C. Clough and Anne Haven Thwing, both of whom worked in the early decades of the twentieth century. Clough, a trained surveyor, worked for decades on a topographical history of Boston that remained unfinished when he died in 1949. Thwing produced an index of approximately 50,000 residents who lived in Boston during its first two centuries. Their projects have been partially digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society (where the Thwing and Clough collections reside) and the New England Genealogical Society. In the next phase, the project team will use the North End as a model for completing the entire city of Boston and expanding the project’s scope to include materials not covered by Thwing and Clough, including indigenous spatial histories and more of Boston’s African American communities. In the long term, the project plans to develop public-facing walking tours and other pedagogical materials that will widen the project’s reach and use.

Principal Investigators
Chris Parsons, Faculty, History; Molly Nebiolo, PhD Candidate, History; Matt Bowser, PhD, History

Publications and Conferences

Nebiolo wrote about the project in “From Straw to Bricks: The Benefits of Thinking Locally for Building Digital Projects” for Hastac here.

The prototype map for “The Birth of Boston” can be found at the Boston Research Center website here.

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