Resolving the Polynymy of Place: or, how to create a gazetteer of colonized landscapes

Katherine Faull, Bucknell University, Diane Jakacki, Bucknell University

Paper delivered at DH 2018 Mexico City June 27-30, 2018


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.

The paper proposes 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.

This paper is published at    All rights reserved.

Resolving the Polynymy of Place: or, How to create a gazetteer of colonized landscapes

Katherine Faull, Bucknell University, Diane Jakacki, Bucknell University
Slide 2. Introduction 

This paper explores the problem of creating a gazetteer of colonized landscapes, specifically those of the North American mid-Atlantic in the 18th century, where the name of a place (toponym) changes depending on the person or political entity who is describing that place. Maps of this period are veritable palimpsests of conquests and defeats.

Slide 3 Mattheus Hehl’s Itinerant Preachers Map

They also are the result of travel diaries, mission records and letters that contain accounts of human experience of places. The task of compiling a historical gazetteer is made more complicated still when one factors time into the equation: that is when competing spatial identities persist across generations.

Slide 4 Naming Mountains

Here a detail of the previous map where the mountains are renamed as they are crossed by German Moravian missionaries.

Slide 5 Moravian Lives Gazetteer 

Using the case study of the research project “Moravian Lives” we ask how we can create a gazetteer of places using authority IDs, when that very authority is itself the product of a political-historical struggle. Facing the problem of polynymy (multiple placenames for one location) how can we satisfactorily reflect the multiple perspectives and presence or absence of agency of those who name place? If one of our objectives is to make our gazetteer ready for linking with other projects, can we use this approach to create a system of “triples” that will align our place names more effectively.

We argue that the addition of a variable that allows for the designation of agency helps to resolve that problem.

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.

  • 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?
  • Must we not push back at the idea of *an* authority, and work toward a system that recognizes and synchronizes multiple authorities?

Slide 6) Moravian Lives Database 

This is the current state of the personography and gazetteer–the metadata of the 60,000 records are in an intraoperable database but not interoperable LOD system, either with the person and place entities in the transcribed memoirs or with a digital cultural heritage infrastructure.

Slide 7 Setting scoped by Period and Place 

In examining models for the creation of digital historical gazetteers we have found the one proposed by Grossner, Janowicz and Kessler to be particularly helpful. In order to prepare a gazetteer for broad data linkage, they adapted Peter Bols’ list of requirements for digital gazetteers to consider the complexities of place over time. They employ the term “Place” in a contextual sense, where geographic space provides the location for events as well as artefacts and Earth features. They then use the term “Period” as related to time spans – “containers”, as they explain, for discrete “events or an interval of time.” Grossner and his co-authors then apply the concept of “geosetting” proffered by Michael Worboys and Kathleen Hornsby to account for the complexities of the spatial-temporal.

As shown in their diagram we can, therefore, see the subject/predicate/object structure in which Setting is scoped by both Period and Place where each has a specific type and name. Setting, therefore, provides Temporal and Spatial Scope, supporting a framework for W3C OWL Time and Geospatial ontologies.

While this historical expansion is incredibly useful for distinguishing place names that change over time, it also reifies placename authority in a linear geographical narrative predicated on socio-political understandings of possession. For example, 17th-century Eurocentric names for the areas that would ultimately comprise Pennsylvania were connected to land claims and treaties among Dutch and English powers, all of which had beginning and end dates, and were defined by particular geometries. The “Setting” model as set forward here does not take into account the complexities of socio-cultural understandings and namings of place – often in concurrent and sometimes competing timespans.

Slide 8 Case Studies 

Slide 9 Shippen’s Shamokin 

An example of this challenge is the town of Shamokin in 18th-century Pennsylvania. From the end of the 17th century to the mid-18th century, Shamokin was known as the capital of the Woodland Indians.  Lying at the confluence of the two branches of the Susquehanna River, intersected by over 11 major paths used by American Indians, it marked the southern limit of Iroquoia and was considered by both the Iroquois and the colonial powers to be a location of great strategic significance.

Slide 10 John Smith’s Quadroque

Before the Iroquois Shamokin, this place was the probable site of “Quadroque,” one of the Susquehannock forts marked on Captain John Smith’s 1612 map of his journeys around the Chesapeake.

Slide 11 Shippen detail

Shamokin encompassed the shores of both branches and an island at the river’s fork for Shikellamy, the 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.

Slide 12 Heiden Collegia

To Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravian Church who visited Shikellamy in 1742, “Shamokin” represented an opportunity to proselytize Christianity to the Iroquois. Shamokin had already loomed large in Zinzendorf’s mind as he planned his  “Heiden-Collegia” in Pennsylvania and New York.

Slide 13 Plan of the Western Front

To Conrad Weiser, Palatinate German settler and negotiator between the colonial government in Philadelphia and the Indian nations, “Shamokin” 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.

A further complication is the existence of present-day Shamokin, founded in the late 18th century, which lies 18 miles to the east of the historic town.

Slide 14 Modification of Grossner’s model 

This is a simplified diagram of “setting” defined by Period and Place

Slide 15 Adding Agent 

Drawing on the recent work of scholars of new gazetteers (Berman et al 2016), we propose a modification of Grossner et al’s model through the inclusion of consideration of the “agent” of an event that occurs within a particular setting (defined by temporal and spatial scope). By including an agent within this model we thus can deepen the “geosemantic” approach to place that recognizes that a place may be the setting for many events of significance, that significance being dependent on the view of the naming agent. Following Doreen Massey’s dictum that “place is the meeting up of histories in space” (Massey 2005) the inclusion of agent, whether a person or an organization, foregrounds the historical aspect of geo-spatial mapping without imposing a hierarchy on the naming authority of that place. Thus, the colonial practice of renaming “unfamiliar” places with familiar names (Paul Carter, “The Road to Botany Bay” and Faull, “Smooth Rocks in a River Archipelago”) can be recorded and presented as a polynymic practice without granting that colonial name primacy.  Pulling on a more metonymic naming practice, the addition of “agent” facilitates the mediation between historical discourse and the spatial world. We reject the suggestion that a historical gazetteer should create a hierarchy of definitions of place, from the mainstream to the marginal (Shaw, 2016) but rather we propose that addition of agent as an entity will allow for the aggregation of naming practices in a metonymic string.

Slide 16 Shamokin Determined as Authority Name 

Shamokin offers us an excellent example of how we can benefit from the modification of “agent” in the Setting model. As demonstrated above, there is no one “Shamokin” in the contact period; however, there are multiple names for the place(s) that constituted the geographical area during that timespan – all connected to people or groups of people who lived in or associated with the space, often at the same or in overlapping periods of time. As we develop the gazetteer we are trying to resist the temptation of claiming a naming authority for ourselves that is, resolving to one authority name that we have determined for digital expediency’s sake. Just as we are conscious of the need to recognize different cultural heritage claims to place names, we are concerned about reifying “variants” or in some way deprecating or subordinating others to one name.

In this case, the names we are working with are Shamokin, Fort Augusta, Otzinachson, Sunbury, and Chenastry. Those names are associated with multiple Native American nations, administrative powers and settlers/colonists, and there is no discrete linear temporal distinction between place names (as Grossner’s model asks).  

Slide 17: Adding Metonym

The concept of creating “metonyms” works well within our project. While we create unique identifiers for each place name within the Moravian Lives taxonomy we can extend our TEI schema to include an attribute of @metonym under the @naming class. Therefore, we can connect these place names so that:

Shamokin is a metonym of Fort Augusta is a metonym of Otzinachson is a metonym of Sunbury, etc.

Slide 18: Considering Existing Unique IDs 

As we create the Moravian Lives entities, we negotiate the difference between place names that need to be “minted” and those that have already been assigned a VIAF, Wikidata, or Geonames ID. So far we have not found such IDs for Otzinachson or Chenastry, so we can establish a Moravian Lives ID and make them unique identifiers on the web (via Wikidata, etc.) Because Fort Augusta already has a Wikidata ID of Q5470761 we can associate our Moravian Lives Fort Augusta with that Fort Augusta via “sameAs”. If we do the same with Sunbury, it has a Geonames ID of 5214814. However, in the Geonames entry Sunbury has an alternative name of “Shamokin” – but without citation or date-range indicator. For the historical and cultural studies scholar, it is inaccurate, misleading, and in some ways, irresponsible then to equate Sunbury with or consider Shamokin to be its variant.  As digital humanities projects move into a phase where historical place data is linked, we want to find ways to resist the givenness of authority names; we believe that the metonymic chain of place names need not be fully recognized but is available to all people.

Slide 19: Polynymous Shamokin 

Once we have established the idea of metonymy, we can return to the idea of “agent” and how it is through these eighteenth-century agents that we can effectively integrate the gazetteer within the larger Moravian Lives project and then more broadly to other DH projects. As outlined above, our agents are individuals and groups of people.

Mme Montour and Colonial/metis traders ~ Chenastry

Shikellamy and Iroquois nation, Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians ~ Shamokin

Conrad Weiser ~ Otzinachson

British Colonial powers ~ Fort Augusta

Northumberland County administrators ~ Sunbury

As we create our Moravian Lives entities and relationships, therefore, we need to be explicit about establishing links between the Moravian Lives gazetteer places and persons and organizations. So we create a bi-directional link between ML Shamokin and Shikellamy, Zinzendorf, Moravians, and Iroquois; Fort Augusta and John Sullivan, etc.

Slide 20 Conclusion

We recognize that this is just a beginning and we eagerly look forward to further conversation.

Slide 21 Bibliography

Original slide show viewable at




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