Resolving the Polynymy of Place: or How to Create a Gazetteer of Colonized Landscapes

Katherine Mary Faull (, Bucknell University, United States of America y Diane Katherine Jakacki (, Bucknell University, United States of America

In working with British colonial records and German church manuscripts of colonized and missionized landscapes in the North American mid-Atlantic, the authors have grappled with the problem of polynymy in their attempt to create a gazetteer of places. As Presner and Shepard (2016) have argued, unlike conventional positivistic approaches to mapping, DH and geohumanities have developed a rich vocabulary with which to describe and analyze the human perception of place. Whether through “deep maps” that recount the stories of place and experience or through the multiple layers of temporally inflected information, the spatial turn has revealed the need to see the practice of mapping as “arguments or propositions that betray a state of knowledge.” (Presner and Shepard 2016, 207). However, whereas there are sophisticated models of temporal-spatial mapping now available to DHers working with historical materials, to date little critical attention has been paid to the place/person variable. The work of Ann Knowles (and her students) has paved the way for sophisticated representations of the experience of place (Knowles 2008; 2015). In her arguments for a nonpositivistic geo-practice within the humanities, Knowles has opened up the field to the “fuzzy data” of critical humanistic inquiry. Privileging design over data, Knowles’ prize-winning visualizations of the Holocaust challenge us to reconsider in sophisticated ways the experience of landscapes. (Knowles 2014 ) On a similar path, as Presner and Shepard conclude, virtual reality and gaming allow for an experiential and avatar-based investigation of dynamic, embodied, albeit presentist, multiple perspectives of place. Students at Bucknell have already produced sophisticated critical cartographical visualizations of the Susquehanna river in the Colonial period that draw in part on Knowles’ perspectives. This paper will explore the problem of creating a gazetteer of colonized landscapes, specifically those of the mid-Atlantic in the 18th century, in which the name of a place (toponym) changes depending on the person or political entity who is describing that place. In colonized landscapes, there can be multiple names for one place. Maps of this period are veritable palimpsests of conquests and defeats; and travel diaries, mission records and letters contain accounts of human experience of places that are multiply identified. The task is made more complicated still when one factors time into the equation: when competing spatial identities persist across generations. Using the case study of the research project “Moravian Lives” we will ask how we can create a gazetteer of places using authority IDs, when that very authority is itself the product of apolitical-historical struggle. “Moravian Lives” is an international collaborative DH project that aims to make available to the scholarly and lay community the vast corpus of life writings of members of the Moravian Church from the mid-18th century to today ( Facing the simultaneity of multiple names for a place, can we create a system of “triples” that satisfactorily reflects the multiple perspectives and presence or absence of agency of those who name place? Drawing on the substantial cultural-historical GIS of the Susquehanna river produced by Faull and a team of Bucknell staff and students that supported the Department of the Interior designation of the Susquehanna River as a National Historic Water Trail in 2012, the Moravian Lives gazetteer aims to provide the most comprehensive place-name resource for researchers in many fields. The construction of an historical gazetteer for Moravian Lives involves complexities that arise from not only the naming of places but also how their spatial identities reflect respective, concurrent relationships to those places by Native American peoples, Moravian missionaries,and colonial representatives. There are multiple names for a single place as well as multiple understandings of place names, and these differences depend on who it was who did the naming. An example of this challenge is 18th-century Shamokin in Pennsylvania. Shamokin was at that point an Iroquois settlement at the confluence of the north and west branches of the Susquehanna River, encompassing the shores of both branches and an island at the river’s fork. To Shikellamy, an Oneida emissary of the Six Nations of the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee, who oversaw the Algonquin-speaking nations of the Lenni Lenape, Shawnee, and Mahican in Iroquoia (present-day Pennsylvania and New York), and who lived in the town in the 1740s, “Shamokin” would have constituted the whole area of the rivers’ confluence. To Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravian Church who visited Shikellamy in 1742, “Shamokin” represented an opportunity for Moravian missionaries offered to them by Shikellamy in the form of space for a blacksmith’s shop and mission. While the location of that mission was small, it loomed large in Zinzendorf’s interest in founding “Heiden-Collegia”, or colleges of the “heathen”, in Pennsylvania. To Conrad Weiser, a German settler and negotiator between the colonial government in Philadelphia and the Indian nations, and who worked with Shikellamy on several treaties between the Iroquois and the Colonial government, “Shamokin” would have represented a strategic and ultimately military outpost that would become the site of Fort Augusta during the French and Indian War. These “Shamokins” co-existed, with Native American, Moravian, and Colonial inhabitants and visitors relating to it in discrete yet overlapping ways. One byproduct of our work on the gazetteer could thus be the proposition of authority lists to the OCLC’s VIAF council, thereby introducing and linking our information where there is currently no match. In compiling a gazetteer we realize that there is already a VIAF authority ID for Shamokin that is recognized by the Library of Congress/NACO but refers to another (modern) place called Shamokin some 18 miles to the east. (Shamokin, PA VIAF ID: 146606881 (Geographic). We cannot therefore “re-mint” an authority name for these Shamokins. Furthermore, a part of the 18th century Shamokin is now Sunbury (the site of Fort Augusta and Shikellamy’s grave) also has its own VIAF ID, (3 Sunbury, PA VIAF ID: 123181256 (Geographic) but, for the historical and cultural studies scholar, it might be inaccurate, misleading, and in some ways irresponsible to equate Sunbury with or consider it as a variant for the historic Shamokin. How can we recognize spatial multivalence (or “polynymy”) in the Moravian Lives gazetteer? How does the scholar act responsibly while acknowledging their own potential complicity in political-historical renegotiations and multiple cultural understandings of place? In effect, must we not push back at the idea of *an* authority, and work toward a system that recognizes and synchronizes multiple authorities? We propose a two-phased approach to developing the Moravian Lives gazetteer, which will expand geographically to places beyond North America and will need to resolve polynymic complexities in Central Europe, the Arctic areas of Greenland and Newfoundland, the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia. The first phase involves “stabilizing” all of the place names without giving primacy to any one of them. Each would be assigned a unique HTTP URI offering information about each toponym pertinent to its own cultural relationships and link to its siblings. In this way we can push back against the need to choose one authority (whether it be restoring an indigenous name or opting among European ones) and demonstrate that these names are not “same as” or “variants” of the others. This, in turn, allows us to reflect upon colonial places in a much more nuanced way that takes into account geographical features and proximity (viz. ‘Peace huts on the Susquehanna’, ‘an der Höhle bei Bethel’). It also enriches the companion personography under development for Moravian Lives. In the visualization already available thro ugh Moravian Lives, each person is associated with place using a single-point Google location (see Figs. 2 and 3); but by integrating the cultural historical mapping already completed for the Susquehanna river project, we can now connect these people with better suited vector data referencing each unique place’s footprint or range at the same time acknowledging that our identification involves a consideration of certainty (or “fuzziness”) by the editor. Through this process, we will strengthen the interlinking of temporo-spatial data within the Moravian Lives project, weaving together the text-based gazetteer with the mapped data. The second phase is to submit our set of authority files to the OCLC and its VIAF council through a member advocate (such as the Moravian Archives). Our work will then be reviewed, assessed against existing identified geographic places in the VIAF database, and where appropriate we hope that new VIAF IDs will be minted. In this way we will make these places discoverable to other researchers considering similarly complex cultural landscapes.

Appendix A

  1. Faull, Katherine. ““Digital Lives: Reading Moravian Memoirs in the Age of the Internet” Short paper, DH 2017. Montreal, Canada.
  2. ---. “Charting the Colonial Backcountry: Joseph Shippen’s Map of the Susquehanna River.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 136, No. 4, 2012, 461-465.
  3. ---. “Writing a Moravian Memoir: The Intersection of History and Autobiography” in Life Writing and Lebenslauf: Pillars of an Invisible Church, eds. Christer Ahlberger and Per van Wachtenfeld, Artos Publishers, 2017.
  4. Grumet, Robert. Manhattan to Minisink. American Indian Place Names in Greater New York and Vicinity. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
  5. Horsman, Stuart. “The Politics of Toponyms in the Pamir Mountains.” Area, vol. 38, no. 3, 2006, pp. 279–291. JSTOR,
  6. Jakacki, Diane and Janelle Jenstad. “Mapping Toponyms in Early Modern Plays with the Map of Early Modern London and Internet Shakespeare Editions Projects.” Early Modern Studies and the Digital Turn. Laura Estill, Diane Jakacki, Michael Ullyot, eds. Malden, MA: ITER. 2016
  7. Meredyk, Steffany, Bethany Dunn, under the supervision of Katherine Faull. “A Corridor of Fear: Stories along the Susquehanna River, 1754-1768”. Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. 2013. Stable URL:
  8. Knowles, Ann. “Inductive Visualization: A Humanistic Alternative to GIS” (2015). GeoHumanities 1(2), pp. 233-265. DOI 10.1080/2373566X.2015.1108831.
  9. ---. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (2008), edited by Knowles, digital supplement edited by Amy Hillier. Redlands, Cal.: ESRI Press Knowles, Ann, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, eds. Geographies of the Holocaust. Bloomington, IN: U of Indiana Press. 2014.
  10. Moravian Lives project website:
  11. Oetelaar, Gerald A., and David Meyer. “Movement and Native American Landscapes: A Comparative Approach.” Plains Anthropologist, vol. 51, no. 199, 2006, pp. 355–374. OCLC Virtual International Authority File webpage:
  12. Presner, Todd and David Shepard, “Mapping the Geospatial Turn” in A New Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016) 201-212.
  13. Radding, Lisa, and John Western. “What's In A Name? Linguistics, Geography, And Toponyms.” Geographical Review, vol. 100, no. 3, 2010, pp. 394–412. JSTOR,