GIS and the Mapping of Enslaved Movement: The Matrix of Risk

I’m a geographer, and that means I use GIS, an organized collection of computer hardware, software, and infrastructure. Using GIS, I map fugitivity in the Great Dismal Swamp, which involves acquiring, storing, analyzing, and digitizing geographic and related data. Whether digitizing a map, labeling features, or shapefile drawing, one single foundational principle animates GIS: simplification.

Simplification, a term used alongside generalization, is an adjustment to landscape features based on the limits of time, methods and materials available when collecting geographic data (Bolstad, 2019, 54). Yet, as I use this tool to amplify the struggles of the enslaved in their journeys to freedom, this principle runs counter to the ethics of care at the heart of my research.

The work of “simplifying” or manipulating the shape of a polyline, “smoothing” a landscape feature to satisfy cartographic aesthetics, or defining ambiguous map features that could not be properly identified because landforms were no longer recognized forces me to rethink the design of spatial models. This rethinking underscores how approaches to representing historical landscapes are laden with power—these structures of power include the unsaid dispossession of Native ancestral land, colonialist motivations for creating historical maps, and antebellum extractivist designs, such as draining wetlands to expand cash crop monoculture to further exploit wilderness landscapes.

Such practices grate against the politics of my work. After all, I believed my role as a historical geographer was to “concretize” the phenomenon of enslaved fugitivity, not “simplify” it. To simplify something is to rid it of complexity. A need to show clearly the obstacles enslaved people faced to flee bondage drives what I do using GIS. However, the values underlying traditional GIS workflows lean toward simplification and generalization. On occasion, they omit specifics to prioritize functionality of GIS software because spatial analysis tasks cannot be done with approximate representations of landscape. The availability of spatial data constrains authentic depictions of the world. High density images often “tax the storage or display processing capabilities of personal computers, so the data itself is modified into manageable pieces for access and display” (Bolstad, 2019, 155). This has implications for the precision and accuracy of landscape rendering.

These challenges compelled me to never forget that the documents that aided my research investigation—advertisements of enslaved freedom seekers, antebellum maps of roads and waterways, and legal codes circumscribing Black peoples’ mobility—were part of a nineteenth-century apparatus that ordered the social arrangement of antebellum spaces. For example, the name “Perquimans,” one of the counties within my study area, is a phrase meaning “land of beautiful women” in an Alqonquian language spoken by the Yeopim and Weapemeoc tribes who lived in the area before being dispossessed. From the name of the county to the system of bondage and its attendant legal codes controlling enslaved movement, the historical antecedents of the archive that I drew on for evidence were rooted in colonial violence. “The brutality of black codes,” as Jessica Marie Johnson reminds, “created a devastating archive.” As such, my reliance on seemingly “neutral” data such as maps to reveal enslaved peoples’ journey to freedom increased my own tensions in attempting to represent historical landscapes of domination utilizing workflows required for on-screen digitization.

The initial phase of this project focuses on a group of enslaved runaways from the eastern portion of North Carolina in Perquimans County who escaped from slavery in 1829. After gleaning person and place names from runaway slave advertisements as well as ground-truthing (the practice of confirming the attributes of a location that previously was analyzed at a distance via GIS) the spatial arrangement of the Perquimans County area, I made a trip to the Perquimans County Register to review deed and canal maps from the period to cross-reference the information, substantiating map locations. What followed was extensive hand-annotating that identified sites within the area where enslaved people could be apprehended. These sites were the dwellings of documented slave patrol militia who served from 1820 to 1830. My goal was to determine the range of difficulty for enslaved runaways to move from one place to another in their search for freedom, using quantitative GIS methods.

A Framework for Building a Spatial Model of Fugitivity

As early as the 1950s, geographers rooted in quantitative methods identified how the impact of movement was integral to understanding the theoretical foundations of geography as a field (Hägerstrand, 1970; Harvey, 1973). Studies of mobility in the field of human geography remain a central focus of practitioners today (Cook, 2018) and profoundly shape my research forays.

Tim Cresswell’s (2010) work outlines how mobility approaches compel analysis of movement flows and their antecedents. He acknowledges the ways that routes are meaningful and laden with power. In my own work I seek to amplify how enslaved people harnessed the power of networks and navigational literacy to move within punitive landscapes. Jason King has written about Black mobility and the implications of moving in societies still grappling with inequitable institutions, ultimately finding that race determines one’s mobility in the world (Adey, 2017). Katherine McKittrick’s (2006) work has remained forceful in reconsidering the nature of relationships enslaved people had to the environments around them. She identifies a common misconception: that Black people historically were ungeographic. McKittrick’s use of the term ungeographic refers to how attitudes within unequal institutions in society have incorrectly deemed the environmental meanings inscribed on Black people’s lives as philosophically undeveloped. Such assumptions are rooted in biases stemming from the isolation and immobility forced on Black people from slavery and Jim Crow to modern-day segregation.

My work seeks to provide evidence of the genealogies and practices of enslaved people’s navigational literacy, extending McKittrick’s analysis by suggesting that enslaved people (as well as those descended from enslaved people) are fundamentally geographic. Reconstructing lost geographies shifts the narrative of enslaved placemaking from earlier attempts to silence or obscure enslaved people’s sense of place.

My research into enslaved peoples’ movement as they sought liberation considers how critical innovative approaches using GIS draw our attention to new pathways of digital mapping: How can the practice of digital mapping within a critical lens produce new cartographies for spaces of possibility? How can spatial narratives restore the tarnished lineages of cultural geographies obscured from history?

I hope to highlight the ethical responsibilities of critically engaged mapping that harnesses the power of imagining cultural recovery of landscape as a means of redress from historical obscurity. As long as cultural narratives are obscured from history, the realities of meaning inscribed within cultural geographies are lost. My work ultimately seeks to challenge the matrix of colonial epistemic power underlying traditional foundations of how we construct spatial constructions of communities.


Adey, P. (2017) Mobility, key ideas in geography (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Bolstad, P. (2019) GIS fundamentals: A first text on geographic information systems. XanEdu.

Cresswell, T. (2010) Towards a politics of mobility. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(1), 17-31. 

Hägerstrand, T. (1970) What About People in Regional Science? Papers of the Regional Science Association, 24, 6.

Harvey, D. (1973) Social justice and the city. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Johnson, J. M. (2018) Markup bodies: Black [life] studies and slavery [death] studies at the digital crossroads. Social Text, 36(4).

McKittrick, K. (2006) Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. University of Minnesota Press.

Newby, E. A Map of The Roads and Country Between Edenton and Norfolk with the Dismal Swamp and Great Park Canals etc. North Carolina Maps.

Pavlovskaya, M. (2018) Critical GIS as a tool for social transformation. Canadian Geographer, 62(1), 40–54.

Perquimans County (1829) State of North Carolina Archives Division. Record of Slaves and Free Negroes.

*Cover image: Habitation clusters of Slave Patrol Militia in Perquimans County, North Carolina, 1820–1830.

[*Cover image description: A map of Perquimans County, North Carolina. Most of the map shows land mass in gray, with the Perquimans River in blue in the bottom-left corner. A series of dark blue patches stretches across the top third of the map, representing the locations of slave patrol militia from 1820–30.]