Atlas of Historical County Boundaries,
My career has been centered on historical cartography and the use of maps in history. After earning a B.A. in history at Northeastern University, Boston, Mass., in 1966 I enrolled in the history doctoral program at Clark University, Worcester, Mass. One of my fields was the historical geography of Western Europe before 1500, but my concentration was in American history. After earning an M.A. but before completing my dissertation, I took a job at The Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, as a research assistant (later assistant editor) on the project that produced the Atlas of Early American History.
When preparation of the atlas concluded in 1975, I began an experimental follow-up undertaking called the Historical County Boundary Data File Project. The goal was to compile a cartographic data file of historical county lines in America since 1788, and we accomplished that for fourteen states before work came to an end in 1982. In 1986 the Newberry decided to complete the compilation of historical counties, and I designed the current project, the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, to compile all changes in all U.S. counties from the 1600s to 2000 and to disseminate the results both in books and, ultimately, in cartographic data files. My principal job since 1987 has been editor of the county-boundaries project.
Presently I spend 80% of my time on county boundaries and 20% as managing editor of another Newberry project, The Encyclopedia of Chicago History. I have also served the library in a variety of administrative positions, most recently (autumn 1998) as Acting Director of Research and Education.
Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Ed. John H. Long. 18 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993- . (editor, joint author) 2 vols. in press, total of 40 vols. projected.
The Settling of North America. Ed. Helen Hornbeck Tanner et al. New York: Macmillan, 1995. (joint editor and author)
Historical Atlas and Chronology of County Boundaries, 1788-1980. Ed. John H. Long. 5 vols. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. (editor, joint author)
Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760-1790. Ed. Lester J. Cappon, Barbara Bartz Petchenik, and John H. Long. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. (joint editor and author)
As the director of the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries Project I work with a staff of two research associates and three research assistants, all part time. In addition to administration, publicity and dissemination of results, fundraising, and editing, I am supposed to contribute to the research and compilation of historical changes in county jurisdictions. I get to spend too little time on the research.
We concentrate on counties for three reasons. First, they (or their equivalents) cover all the territory in the fifty United States. Second counties function as geographic units for gathering and aggregating census data, as state legislative districts, and as building blocks of congressional districts; as institutions they also operate the judicial system, provide governmental services, and collect and maintain records of births, marriages, deaths, etc. Third, the average number of boundary changes per county in the U.S. is 4.5. County-based social and political statistics from the past cannot be accurately evaluated or used appropriately unless a researcher can know the history of the counties (geographical units) where those statistics were gathered.
The county-boundaries project does not gather or handle historical statistics. (In anticipation of the use of our data to map social statistics, we do create for each state a table of all censuses—colonial or territorial and state, as well as federal—and an outline map for each census that produced mappable statistics.) Our goal is to compile reliable, detailed information for those researchers who seek records of past events or who wish to analyze and employ county-based historical data. In essence, the purpose of the project is to provide intellectual infrastructure.
Except in a few unusual cases, state governments create and change county boundaries. Each state’s session laws are the primary, authoritative sources for mapping those lines. Any comprehensive law library in the U.S. has all the primary legal sources we need, so research requires no expensive travel and compilation can be centralized. We plot historical boundary lines from verbal descriptions in the laws. When necessary, we can supplement the legal sources with a letter or telephone call to a county official or with the Newberry’s superb holdings in state and local history and its map collection.
The Atlas has been disseminated only in book form so far, a result of the relatively crude software and high cost of computer cartography when the project commenced in the late 1980s. We have nearly replaced manual methods with full computerization and already have compiled the evolution of New Jersey’s counties in ArcView. By the end of the year, we should have produced, in addition to the printed books, a set of historical GIS files for one or more states. I estimate that we will complete the compilation of all fifty states around 2004.