Confluence is an environmental humanities project that bridges activism and academic methods of knowledge in order to explore the importance of rivers throughout North America. This platform provides an opportunity for people to learn about and share the history of rivers while considering how to put this knowledge to work through digital storytelling, education outreach, and politics.
Rivers have always been the lifeblood of the continent, yet their human histories have remained largely hidden from public view. Our goal is to create a publicly accessible digital platform for mapping and narrating lived history along North American rivers. Although rivers have played a surprisingly vital role in the history of the continent–rivers have been sites of wars, slavery, boundaries, commerce, transportation, food, and water–there are scant resources for understanding how rivers have shaped the daily life of ordinary river people over time. Telling powerful stories highlighting human dramas played out on the banks of rivers seems essential if we are to understand the historical drivers and consequences of inequality, environmental degradation, and climate change on a local level in human terms. Overlaying maps with archival documents, interviews, images, and timelines, we intend to portray each river as a messy interactive narrative in itself, allowing anyone to get to know a river in terms of the communities that lived and died on its banks.
The term “confluence,” literally meaning the convergence of two or more rivers into a single river, serves as the unifying metaphor for the project’s mission: 1) to merge the history of a river and its residents into a singular narrative of place, showing the diverse perspectives and experiences of different communities in that place; 2) to link rivers across the continent, creating a network of river histories for connection and comparison and mobilizing local knowledge towards national and continental dialogue over livable futures, equity, and sustainability; and 3) to unite diverse and interdisciplinary scholars and students, conservationists, decision-makers, and the interested public over watersheds near and far. Ultimately, we hope this resource can serve as a model for other scholars and other classrooms to hook into, each river scholar serving as that region’s “expert” and in so doing build a network of the social life of rivers across the continent.
A range of methods was used to create maps that highlight the central role of rivers in North America and show how rivers have changed over time. By overlaying older and more recent maps, we can see how both the river channel and the communities along them have moved and expanded or contracted. Grasshopper Geography’s featured, colorful maps use the US Geological Survey’s methods for the color changes representing basin delineation.
Confluence is sponsored by the Columbia University History Department, University of Wisconsin at Madison Geography Department, Columbia Center for Science and Society, and Heymen Center and Society of Fellows at Columbia University. The colorful river maps were created by Grasshopper Geography.