The Place Paper Assignment

(This same text appears in the course syllabus; it is excerpted here for ease of Web reference.)

THE PLACE PAPER (5-6 double-spaced pages; 7-10 pages for Honors undergrads and graduate students):

This is due at the beginning of lecture on Monday, November 23, and is intended to give you an opportunity actually to do environmental history yourself as a way of synthesizing what you've learned from the entire course. In it, you are to choose some place--either located in Madison or somewhere you know well from your home or travels--and write a brief essay discussing your interpretation of some aspects of its environmental history, using the themes and perspectives we’ve studied in class. Because this is a relatively brief paper, you’ll need to think carefully about what parts of your chosen place you wish to explore in your essay: it is far better to discuss a few aspects well than many aspects superficially. Write a description or tell a story that will explain to the reader how this place came to have the shape and qualities it has today. You should think of this paper as an exercise in historical, geographical, and environmental interpretation, asking you to read a small patch of landscape as a document of past environmental change. Just as importantly, your place should illustrate one or more important themes drawn from the course as a whole, so please be careful to think carefully about which course themes can help you interpret the past of your place—and which aspects of your place can illustrate the themes of the course.

Since we'd like you to be thinking about this paper from the very start of the semester, we'd like to offer you some suggestions for the how best to approach it. Remember that a key aspect of this assignment is for you to gain experience trying to “read” an actual landscape while comparing what you find in that place today with historical documents that will help you interpret how it was different in the past. We fully understand that you don’t know enough environmental history to construct a complete or fully accurate narrative of environmental changes that have shaped your chosen place. What we’re looking for instead is that you take a long, careful look at the place and try to see it with unfamiliar eyes, taking nothing for granted but looking at everything you see there as if you’d never seen it before. Then ask how the things you see might have come to be there. As the first lecture of the course suggests, the trick is to ask as many questions as you can about landscapes you ordinarily take for granted. (Remember, you can go back and reread that first lecture, which is printed as an essay called "Kennecott Journey" in the book Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, edited by myself; a PDF version of it is even more conveniently available on the course page of my website.)  Use materials from the readings and from the lectures to help you think about the kinds of questions you want to ask, and do the best job you can answering these questions using the evidence you can find on the ground.

To help you learn the research skills you’ll be using in investigating and writing about your place, a group of my graduate students and I created a special website on “Learning Historical Research” which I would encourage you to explore and read carefully: It has many tips and suggestions that are likely to be helpful to you not just for this paper but for work you do in other courses as well. You are also strongly encouraged to read Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams’ classic The Craft of Research as early in the semester as you can.

If you’re having trouble choosing a place to write about, consider these suggestions right here in Madison; most can easily be applied to other locations as well:

  • Walk along a railroad track for a mile or more (the one behind the Kohl Center that has become a bike path west of the campus power plant would be a good choice) and think about its relation to the surrounding landscape. Ask how adjacent sites relate to the railroad, and how those relations may have changed with time. In what ways does the railroad divide the surrounding land, and in what ways does it connect it?  How might these divisions and connections have changed with time?
  • Spend an hour or two in a cemetery and see what you can learn from it as a historical document (the ones on both sides of the Speedway, just beyond Madison's West High School on Regent Street, are excellent for this exercise). What can you learn about the lives of those who are buried there: how long they lived, how they died, what their family relations were, etc.?  What does the cemetery tell you about their attitudes toward life, death, and their place in the natural world?  How does the physical form of the cemetery itself (as opposed to individual graves) reflect cultural attitudes toward nature?  A group of UW-Madison graduate students produced a wonderful on-line guide to Forest Hill Cemetery that you can peruse here: An excellent general guide to cemeteries is Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, NB1800 K45 2004. There is a walking tour of Forest Hill Cemetery and other resources available at this link: And there are very detailed guides to the people buried in Madison’s two main cemeteries: Forest Hill Cemetery: A Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery and Bishops to Bootleggers: A Biographical Guide to Resurrection Cemetery. These are available for online download from the top of this page:
  • Drive or bike west from the UW stadium along Regent Street, Speedway, and Mineral Point Road until you’re well out into the agricultural countryside (if you can, go as far as Pine Bluff, or even to the point where the road finally ends at Highway 78, which would be a round trip of 20-30 miles). As you ride, look very closely at the changing spatial arrangement of streets, buildings, and settlement patterns. How do houses change?  Look at their sizes, styles, presence or absence of garages and porches, nearness to neighboring houses, sizes of front and back yards, relation of residential and non-residential buildings, etc., etc. Look at the presence or absence of green space. As you drive west, you’re essentially moving through neighborhoods that were built in each succeeding decade of the twentieth century. The spatial changes you see directly reflect chronological changes in the history of Madison’s built environment and its relations to the surrounding landscape.
  • Try comparing two different residential neighborhoods in Madison and writing a brief paper on the key differences you notice between them. The City of Madison’s Department of Planning & Development has put together a good series of walking tours you can take of historic neighborhoods in the city, easily accessed as downloadable documents from . You might try taking one or more of these tours, and then write about what you see along the way. Just be careful not to write a paper that only reports what you learn from the tour booklet; be sure to look at what you see and write about the landscape itself, supplementing the guide with additional library research wherever possible.
  • Find the “Lost City” in the southeast part of the UW Arboretum and see what you can figure out about its past. This is an old failed subdivision from the early twentieth century which is now completely overgrown (it could be harder to find in deep snow!). You can find a map of where to locate it in the Arboretum visitor’s center, and you could read about its past in Nancy Sachse’s book, A Thousand Ages, QK 479 S16 1974.
  • Walk to the end of Picnic Point and spend time looking at the skyline of Madison. Think about the different human elements that make up that skyline, and ask yourself how and when they might have come to be there. Then go examine those same elements close up and read what you can from their sites. You may benefit from exploring the very detailed prize-winning website for UW-Madison’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve, which includes a great deal of environmental historical information at

Remember, the most important goal of this assignment is to look at a place, ask questions about it, and think about its past with reference to the historical and geographical phenomena you’ve learned about in this course. This is much harder when you’re worrying about it in the abstract than when you’re actually doing it. It really doesn’t matter what place you pick. You could literally go to anywhere in Madison or your hometown and take a random walk through a neighborhood, thinking about everything you see along the way, and write a great paper based on it.

We ask you to explore your place not just in the present, but in the past. Although you can partly do this by looking for remnants of the past in the place as it is today, you’ll also need to do significant archival research to locate old documents—newspapers, maps, travelers’ accounts, photographs, advertisements, and so on—that will give you insight into what your place was like in the past. For instance, looking at old photographs can be wonderfully suggestive about how your place has changed in the past.

If you’re writing about Madison, there are three excellent photographic histories of the city and the university on reserve at Helen C. White Library: David Mollenhoff’s Madison: A History of the Formative Years, F589 M157 M64 1982, 2003; Arthur Hove’s The University of Wisconsin: A Pictorial History, LD 6128 H68 1991; and Stuart Levitan’s Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1, 1856-1931, F589 M157 L48 2006. There should be copies not just on reserve but in the non-circulating reference collection; multiple copies of Mollenhoff’s book are in the Geography Library in Science Hall and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library as well. Even if you only spend half an hour looking through these, they could be extremely helpful to you, especially if you’re having trouble with the assignment. (These books are also an excellent source of images to get you thinking about the first assignment for the course as well.)

There are a number of ways you could learn more about your chosen place. The suggestions I’ve listed below relate mainly to Wisconsin places, but most would be equally well suited to other parts of the country as well.

  • Look at old photographs. The State Historical Society’s Iconographic Collection (located in the Archives on the 4th floor) has a vast collection of images of places from Wisconsin and elsewhere. Nothing is better than a picture for helping you see a past place and relate it to the present. A number of these images (though by no means all!) are now available for on-line search and access at
  • Look at a series of maps of your chosen place to see how it has changed over time. The Cartographic Collection of the Geography Library in Science Hall can be very helpful here. Aerial photographs might also be very suggestive if they’re available. Many maps of Wisconsin are available online via the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website at
  • If you've chosen an urban place, try exploring the amazing collection of bird's-eye views, most published during the nineteenth century, that have been digitized on the Library of Congress's American Memory website. The URL for these is:, with the bird’s-eye views under “Panoramic Maps” (as you’ll see, there are many other cool maps on the Library of Congress site as well!). Check under "Cities and Towns" and search for the place about which you're writing, but don't hesitate to explore other parts of the website as well. The American Memory website is an extraordinary source for digital documents: photos, maps, texts, almost anything you can think of. There’s a comparable collection of Wisconsin bird’s-eye views at; check out the Madison ones for the first assignment!
  • In the late 1920s or early 1930s, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources produced a remarkable series of “Land Economic Inventory Maps” which show the uses of land for every township in the state. You can read more about these maps at , and access the actual maps at under “Land Economic Inventory.”
  • If you want to go even further back in time, you could look at the original land survey records of the 1830s and 1840s, getting a rough sense of what the land looked like when the first American surveyors came through to impose the grid system upon it. These maps, along with the original surveyors notes, are now also available on-line, so you can peruse them for places you know at .
  • Track the changing population of the place in the manuscript census, which is available for every year between 1840 and 1930 except 1890 (for which the census records were destroyed in a fire). Microfilms of the census for every state in the country are available at the Historical Society. These will tell you who lived in a place, their family relationships, their birth places, their occupations, etc. If you’re writing about a rural place in Wisconsin, you should also look at the manuscript records of the Agricultural Census, which give you a complete picture of the crops and animals raised on every farm in the state during the census years.These are in the Historical Society too, in the Archives on the 4th floor.
  • If you’re studying an urban area, look at old city directories, which often list the residents and businesses of a community not just alphabetically but according to their street address. A directory enables you almost literally to walk down the same street in the past that you’ve walked down in the present, seeing how the people and businesses have changed in the interval. The Historical Society has a large collection of these for most cities in Wisconsin and many in other parts of the country as well.
  • Look at old county atlases or histories for your place. These were published for many counties in the Midwest primarily in the 1870s through the 1890s, so can give you lots of interesting information about your place during the nineteenth century. The Historical Society has an excellent collection, and a number of them are available online.
  • And of course: talk with people who have lived in your place for a long time.


It is very important for you to keep track of, acknowledge, and be respectful of the sources you use in writing your place paper. The Web has made it so easy for students to copy and paste information they find online that it may be tempting for you simply to paste some of this material into what write.  Don’t EVER do this. Plagiarism is a very serious ethical infraction—pretending that someone else’s work is your own—and will get you into serious trouble if it’s discovered. To learn more about plagiarism and how to avoid it, consult the following online resources: UW-Madison Writing Center: Yale Writing Center:


This semester, the History Department is offering a new “History Lab” to serve as resource center where experts (PhD students) will assist you with your history papers. No matter your stage in the writing process—choosing a topic, conducting research, composing a thesis, outlining your argument, revising your drafts—the History Lab staff is here, along with your professors and teaching assistants, to help you sharpen your skills and become a more successful writer. Sign up for a one-on-one consultation online: