Foreword to Historical Geography*

Carl O. Sauer

Text converted in Fall 1997 by Tiffani Burns, Kristin Lanoue, Craig Primozich, Glendon Joyce, and Trey Rhodes. Corrected 2006.6.28. from notes of Charles Dingman.  KEF.


These remarks are directed to the nature of historical geography and to some of its problems. By preference I should present data and conclusions from my own work in Mexico. On second thought, however, I am moved to do what has been done so often in the annual address before this body, to set forth in some manner a confession of the faith that has stood behind one's work. 

It is obvious that we who call ourselves geographers do not at present understand each other very well. We have more fraternal feeling of belonging together than common intellectual ground, on which we meet freely and easily. We can hardly claim to be getting our chief intellectual stimulus from one another, to be waiting impatiently on the research of colleagues as needed for our own work. We are of various minds as to the fields in which we are engaged. As long as we are in such a condition of uncertainty about our major objectives and problems, attempts must be made from time to time to give orientation to ourselves along a common course.


This will not be another design for the whole of geography, but a protest against the neglect of historical geography. In the nearly forty years of existence of this Asociation, there have been but two presidential addresses that have dealt with historical geography, one by Ellen Semple, and one by Almon Parkins.

A peculiarity of our American geographical tradition has been its lack of interest in historical processes and sequences, even the outright rejection thereof. A second peculiarity of American geography has been the attempt to slough off to other disciplines the fields of physical geography. Hartshorne's recent methodologic study is an interesting illustration of both these attitudes. In spite of basing himself strongly upon Hettner, he does not take into account the fact that Hettner's own contributions to knowledge have been chiefly in the field of physical geography. Nor does he follow Hettner into his main methodologic position, namely that geography, in any of its branches, must be a genetic science, that is, account for origins and processes. Hettner's students have made many of the important contributions of late years to historical geography. Hartshorne, however, directs his dialectics against historical geography, giving it tolerance only at the outer fringes of the subject. I have cited this position because it is the latest and, I think, best statement of what is in fact, if not by avowal, a pretty general viewpoint in this country. 

Perhaps in future years the period from Barrows' Geography as Human Ecology to Hartshorne's late resume will be remembered as that of the Great Retreat. This retraction of lines began by the pulling apart of geography from geology. Geography, of course, owes its academic start in this country to the interest of geologists. Partially in order to gain administrative independence in the universities and colleges, geographers began to seek interests that geologists could not claim to share. In this process, however, American geography gradually ceased to be a part of Earth Science. Many geographers have completely renounced physical geography as a subject of research, if not entirely as one of instruction. There followed the attempt to devise a natural science of the human environment, the relationship being gradually softened from the term "control" to "influence" or "adaptation" or "adjustment" and finally to the somewhat liturgical "response." Methodical difficulties in finding such relationships led to a further restriction, to a non-genetic description of the human content of areas, sometimes called chorography, apparently in the hope that by and by such studies would somehow add up to systematic knowledge. 

This thumbnail sketch of our generation, as to its dominant motifs, is simplified but, I hope, not distorted. Throughout this time, the desire has been to limit the field in order to secure its domination. There has been the feeling that we were too few and weak to do all the things which had been done in the name of geography and that a sufficient restriction would mean better work and the freedom from trespass quarrels.

Whichever way he has turned, the American geographer has failed to locate the uncontested field in which only professionally certified geographers might be found. Sociologists have been swarming all over the precincts of human ecology. Odum and his North Carolina associates have been exploring with success the connotations of region and regionalism. Economic geography has been approached from new angles by economists like Zimmermann and McCarty. Land planning can certainly not be claimed as the geographer's discipline, nor as a discipline in any sense, since it must obviously be primarily projected from a specific theory of the state. These errant years have not led us to the desired refuge. We shall not find our intellectual home in this sort of movement away from our heritage. 

The American geography of today is essentially a native product; predominantly it is bred in the Middle West, and, in dispensing with serious consideration of cultural or historial processes it reflects strongly its background. In the Middle West, original cultural differences faded rapidly in the forging of a commercial civilization based on great natural resources. Perhaps nowhere else and at no other time has a great civilization been shaped so rapidly, so simply, and so directly out of the fat of the land and the riches of the subsoil. Apparently here, if anywhere, the formal logic of costs and returns dominated a rationalized and steadily expanding economic world. The growth of American geography came largely at a time when it seemed reasonable to conclude that under any given situation of natural environment there was one best, most economical expression of use, adjustment, or response. Was not the Corn Belt the logical expression of soil and climate of the prairies? Did not its capital, Chicago, show in the character and energy of its growth the manifest destiny inherent in its positon at the southern extremity of Lake Michigan, toward the eastern margin of the Prairies? Did not the green sea of corn that overwhelmed the native prairie grasses represent an ideal realization of most economical use of a site, as did the bending of the strands of communication to meet at the dynamic center of Chicago? Here the growth of centers of heavy industry at points of most economic assembly of raw materials was an almost mathematical demonstration of function of ton-miles, somewhat conventionalized in terms of freight rate structures. 

And so, in the simple dynamism of the Mid-West of the early Twentieth Century, the complex calculus of historical growth or loss did not seem particularly real or important. Was it, in view of such "rational" adjustment of activity and resource, being very realistic to say that any economic system was nothing but the temporarily equilibrated set of choices and customs of a particular group? In this brief moment of fulfillment and ease, it seemed that there must be a strict logic of the relationship of site and satisfaction, something approaching the validity of natural order. Do you remember : the studies that related land use to numerical sums expressing natural environment, that related intensity of production to market distance, that planned the "best" future use of land and "most" desirable distributions of population? Actors in the last scenes of a play that had begun in the early Nineteenth Century, they were largely unaware that they were part of a great historic drama. They came to think that human geography and history were really quite different subjects, not different approaches to the same problem, the problem of cultural growth and change. 

For those who would not follow in this train, the last twenty years of American geography have not been heartening. Those who found their work in fields of physical geography often have felt themselves scarcely tolerated. Particularly depressing has been the tendency to question, not the competence, originality, or significance of research that has been offered to us, but the admissibility of work because it may or may not satisfy a narrow definition of geography. When a subject is ruled, not by inquisitiveness, but by definitions of its bondaries, it is likely to face extinciton. This way lies the death of learning. Such has been the lingering sickness of American academic geography, that pedantry, which is logic combined with lack of curiosity, has tried to read out of the party workers who have not conformed to prevalent definitions. A healthy science is engaged in discovery, verification, comparison, and generalization. Its subject matter will be determined by its competence in discovery and organization. Only if we reach that day when we shall gather to sit far into the night, comparing our findings and discussing all their meanings shall we have recovered from the pernicious anemia of the "but-is-this-geography" state.


The business of becoming a geographer is a job of life-long learning. We can teach a few skills such as the making of maps of various kinds, but mostly, in the instructional period, the best we can do is to open doors for the student. 

1. One of these, which is not sufficiently often thrown wide, is that of the history of Geography. There is available a fine and great intellectual heritage to us. This is not simply the study of our subject as it has shaped up at various periods of its history, though this is stimulation enough. No one is likely to regret, for instsnce, becoming familiar with Greek thought in geography, as a background for his own thinking. Of especial value, however, to the development of the student is the first-hand study of the individual great and genial figures of our past. A student can hardly immerse himself for a period in following through the intellectual history of a Ritter or Humboldt without seeing wide horizons open up. This sort of thing, however, involves learning to know these men through the whole range of their work, not by way of some one else's critique. A good knowledge of the work of one or more of our major personalities is about as improtant an induction into geography as I am able to suggest. 

The list of these will vary with individual opinion. I should, however, like to bespeak a place on this shelf of classics for Eduard Hahn, as well as for Ratzel. Ratzel is best known to us, and that mostly at second hand, for the first volume of his Anthropogeographie. There is far more in the unknown Ratzel than in the well publicized one. Hahn is our forgotten classic. For the view-point that I wish to develop in later paragraphs, he is perhaps the most important person in our history. At this point, I shall simply submit the opinion that Hahn made of economic geography an historical science, that he opened up unimagined vistas of the origin and spread of cultures, and that he penetrated farthest, as well as first, into the concept of the economic region. From England I should like to nominate Vaughan Cornish and from this country George Marsh for full length biographical inquiry. The half dozen names offered will in themselves provide a truly liberal geographic education, provided each is taken as a whole, and not skimmed eclectically in terms of pre-arranged views as to what is and is not geographic. 

2. American geography cannot dissociate itself from the great fields of physical geography. The ways that Davis, Salisbury, and Tarr so clearly marked out must not be abandoned. A geographer, I submit, may properly be a student of physical phenomena without concerning himself with man, but a human geographer has only limited competence who cannot observe as well as interpret the physical data that are involved in his studies of human economies. It is a puzzling fact that American environmentalists have reduced attention to surface and soils, to climate and weather to most inadequate terms, whereas those who see in geography more than the relation of man to environment have continued to support by inquiry these physical observations. In addition, climatology, ecology, and geomorphology serve important methodologic purposes as disciplines of observation, the techniques of which may be applied to human geography. 

3. Lastly, the human geographer should be well based on the sister discipline of anthropology. Ratzel elaborated the study of cultural diffusions which has become basic to anthropology, both as a means of inspection and as theory. This is essentially a geographic method. Its influence can be traced as a dominant theme through anthropology for the past half century, down to the current concern with the Kulturkreis and "culture area" concepts. Swedish geography gains part of its strength from the formal association with anthropology in the joint national society. In England the influence of Fleure and Sir Cyril Fox is that of a bond between both disciplines, strongly shown by the active generation of geographers in that country. 

Methodologically, anthropology is the most advanced of the socia1 sciences, and one of its best deve1oped methods is that of geographic distribution. Sten De Geer's essay on the nature of geography is de facto a statement of a method in continuous use in anthropology. The forms of material culture with which the anthropologist deals are identical with those of human geography. His observations of culture traits, his synthesis of these into culture complexes or areas are, or should be, entirely familiar to us. His use of occurrences, discontinuities, losses and origins of culture traits in terms of their localization as diagnostic of what happened to a culture is actually a mode of geographic analysis for genetic ends. It is precisely the same method of inferring cultural movement from distributions that August Meitzen introduced into continental historical geography many years ago. It is also used in plant and animal geography to trace dispersals, retreats, and differentiations.


The ideal formal geographic description is the map. Anything that has unequal distribution over the earth at any given time may be expressed by the map as a pattern of units in spatial occurrence. In this sense geographic description may be applied to an unlimited number of phenomena. Thus there is a geography of every disease, of dialects and idioms, of bank failures, perhaps of genius. That such form of description is used for so many things indicates that it provides a distinctive means of inspection. The spacing of phenomena over the earth expresses the general geographic problem of distribution, which leads us to ask about the meaning of presence or absence, massing or thinning of any thing or group of things variable as to areal extension. In this most inclusive sense, the geographic method is concerned with examining the localization on the earth of any phenomena. The Germans have called this the Standortsproblem-the problem of terrestrial position-and it represents the most general and most abstract expression of our task. No one has yet written this philosophy of geographic localization, but we all know that this is what gives meaning to our work, that our one general problem is in the differentiating qualities of terrestrial space. Might one hazard the statement that in its broadest sense the geographic method is concerned with terrestrial distance? We are not concerned with universalized economic man, family, society, or economy, but with the comparison of localized patterns, or areal differentiations.


Human geography, then, unlike psychology and history, is a science that has nothing to do with individuals but only with human institutions, or cultures. It may be defined as the problem of the Standort or localization of ways of living. There are then two methods of approach, one by the study of the areal extension of individual culture traits and one by the determination of culture complexes as areas. The latter is the general objective of these continental geographers who speak of genre de vie and of the English who lately are using the term "personality" as applied to a land and its people. Much of this sort of inquiry lies as yet beyond any systematic means of development. 

We have available, however, an immediately useful restriction to the material culture complex that is expressed in the "cultural landscape." This is the geographic version of the economy of the group, as providing itself with food, shelter, furnishings, tools, and transport. The specific geographic expressions are the fields, pastures, woods, and mines, the productive land on the one hand, and the roads and structures on the other, the homes, workshops, and storehouses, to use the most generic terms (introduced mainly by Brunhes and Cornish). Though I should not argue that these terms include all of human geography, they are the core of the things that we know how to approach systematically.


If we are agreed that human geography is concerned with the areal differentiation of human activities we are at grips at once with the difficulties of environmentalism. Environmental response is the behavior of a given group under a given environment. Such behavior does not depend upon physical stimuli, nor on logical necessity, but on acquired habits, which are its culture. The group at any moment exercises certain options as to conduct which proceed from attitudes and skills which it has learned. An environmental response, therefore, is nothing more than a specific cultural option with regard to the habitat at a particular time. If we may redefine the old definition of man's relation to his environment as the relation of habit and habitat, it is clear that the habitat is revalued or reinterpreted with every change in habit. Habit or culture involves attitudes and preferences, which have been invented or acquired. There is no general environmental response in the wearing of straw hats. In Chicago they may belong to the summer wardrobe of the well-dressed man. In Mexico they are the distinctive badge of the peón in all weather, and the unmodified Indian wears no hat at all. Like every other culture trait, the straw hat depends on the acceptance by a group of an idea or mode, which may be suppressed or substituted by another habit. The design of science that Montesquieu, Herder, and Buckle forecast, failed because we know that natural law does not apply to social groups, as Eighteenth Century Rationalism or Nineteenth Century Environmentalism had thought. We have come to know that environment is a term of cultural appraisal which is itself a "value" in culture history. 

We know that habitat must be referred to habit, that habit is the activated learning common to a group, and that it may be endlessly subject to change. The whole task of human geography, therefore, is nothing less than comparative study of areally localized cultures, whether or not we call the descriptive content the cultural landscape. But culture is the learned and conventionalized activity of a group that occupies an area. A culture trait or complex originates at a certain time in a particular locality. It gains acceptance, that is, is learned by a group, and is communicated outward, or diffuses until it encounters sufficient resistance, as from unsuitable physical conditions, from alternative traits, or from disparity of cultural level. These are processes involving time and not simply chronologic time, but especially those moments of culture history when the group possesses the energy of invention or the receptivity to acquire new ways.


The culture area, as a community with a way of living, is therefore a growth on a particular "soil" or home, an historical and geographical expression. Its mode of living, economy, or Wirtschaft, is its way of maximizing the satisfactions it seeks and of minimizing the efforts it expends. That is perhaps what adaptation to environment means. In terms of its knowledge at the time, the group is making proper or full use of its site. However, these wants and efforts need not be thought of in monetary or entirely in energy terms, such as units of labor performed. I daresay that every group of men has built its habitations in the spot that for them has been most suitable. Yet to us (that is, for our culture) many such sites appear queerly selected. Therefore, as preliminary caution, every culture or habit must be appraised in terms of its own learning and also habitat must be viewed in terms of the occupying group. Both requirements place a severe tax on our ability as interpreters. 

Every human landscape, every habitation, at any moment is an accumulation of practical experience and of what Pareto was pleased to call residues. The geographer cannot study houses and towns, fields and factories, as to their where and why without asking himself about their origins. He cannot treat the localization of activities without knowing the functioning of the culture, the process of living together of the group, and he cannot do this except by historical reconstruction. If the object is to define and understand human associations as areal growths, we must find out how they and their distributions (settlements) and their activities (land use) came to be what they are. Modes of living and winning a livelihood from their land involve knowing both the ways (culture traits) they discovered for themselves, and those they acquired from other groups. Such study of culture areas is historical geography. The quality of understanding sought is that of analysis of origins and processes. The all-inclusive objective is spatial differentiation of culture. Dealing with man and being genetic in its analysis, the subject is of necessity concerned with sequences in time. 

Retrospect and prospect are different ends of the same sequence. Today is therefore but a point on a line, the development of which may be reconstructed from its beginning and the projection of which may be undertaken into the future. Retrospection is concern with origins, not antiquarianism, nor do I have sympathy with the timorous view that the social scientist may not venture to predict. Knowledge of human processes is attainable only if the current situation is comprehended as a moving point, one moment in an action that has beginning and end. This does not involve commitment as to the form of the line, as to whether it has cyclic qualities or shows no regularity, but it does guard against over-emphasizing the importance of the current situation. The only certain advantage of studying the present scene is that it is most fully accessible to inspection. Yet out of the contemporary data in themselves it is not possible to find the means of selecting what is diagnostic of important process, and what is not. I am inclined to say that geographically the two most important events of my life-time have been the settlement of the last of the prairie lands and the coming of the Model T Ford, one an end, the other a beginning of a series of cultural processes. Yet how well did we, whose business it was to do so, pick out these critical processes at the time of their happening, or link them with the changes derived from them? And why did we miss them, if not because we were unaccustomed to think in terms of processes?


The reconstruction of past culture areas is a slow task of detective work, as to the collecting of evidence and weaving it together. The narrative historian may accept anything out of the past as grist at his mill, but not so the culture historian, and I wish to reckon historical geography as a part of culture history. Our obligation is to glean classified data on economy and habitation so that a valid filling of gaps of area and of time can be made. Let us take, for example, the reconstruction of Mexico at the moment of the Spanish conquest. Here we need to know as well as is possible the early Sixteenth Century distribution of population, urban centers, urban economies, types of agriculture, sources of metal and stone, provision of plant and animal materials from wild lands, and lines of communication. The early authors who drew a picture of pre-Spanish, as against Spanish conditions, such as Torquemada's famous Monarquia Indiana, unfortunately made general, rather than localized statements, or took a situation that was true of one place and applied it as though it was general. One cannot rely, therefore, on most of the accounts that were intended to be synoptic, but must turn to the minor records that give local data. The reconstruction of critical cultural landscapes of the past involves a) knowledge of the functioning of the given culture as a whole, b) a control of all the contemporary evidences, which may be of various kinds, and c) the most intimate familiarity with the terrain which the given culture occupied.

The historical geographer must therefore be a regional specialist, for he must not only know the region as it appears today; he must know its lineaments so well that he can find in it traces of the past, and he must know its qualities so well that he can see it as it was under past situations. One might say that he needs the ability to see the land with the eyes of its former occupants, from the standpoint of their needs and capacities. This is about the most difficult task in all human geography, to evaluate site and situation, not from the standpoint of an educated American of to-day, but to place one's self in the position of member of the cultural group and time being studied. It is, however, a rewarding experience to know that one has succeeded in penetrating a culture that is removed in time or alien in content from ours.

Such work obviously cannot be done by sample studies ranging widely, but may require a life-time given to learning one major context of nature and culture. One may thus extend his learning outward to the limits of a culture area and explore the contrasts on the other side of the boundary line. Or one may undertake excursions to areas characterized by important kindred qualities. But always there must be the base of the area for which the observer is making himself the expert. The human geographer cannot be a world tourist, moving from people to people and land to land, and knowing only casually and doubtfully related things about any of them. I doubt whether a human geographer can ever be a continental authority. Should we not get rid of the habit of writing regional textbooks about areas we don't know, with materials we copy from secondary sources that we are unable to evaluate? Nor are a thousand so-called type studies, individually quasi-photographic records of spots on the earth, likely to add up to anything significant. We recognize expertness among ourselves in physical geography, but do we have anything of the sort in human geography? If we do not, is not the difficulty that we have been concerned with nongenetic forms of presentation rather that with intensive and analytical observation? We have a full company of Ph.D.'s duly trained in human geography, teaching hundreds of classes to thousands of students, but how little are they adding to the substance of the science they represent! 

Historical regional studies of the manner indicated are in the best and oldest geographic tradition. Cluverius in the Seventeenth Century did some extraordinarily acute reconstructions of ancient Germany and Italy, skillfully uniting knowledge of the classic and knowledge of the land. Humboldt's Essay on New Spain is still the classic of historical geography on Mexico. The stimulus of Humboldt and Ritter was pointed up through the work of Meitzen in the mid-Nineteenth Century into an adequate discipline of historical geographic study. Meitzen's approach affected all continental geography greatly. Historical regional specialization is well expressed in the great repository of the Forschungen zur Deutschen Landes und Volkskunde. The influence of Fleure and Miss Taylor is evident in the studies of the younger English geographers. It is about time that we in this country become actively conscious of this, the great tradition in human geography.


In all regional studies-and we equate regional geography and historical geography-a serious problem is in the definition of the term "area." There has been so much inconclusive discussion of the term "area." There has been so much inconclusive discussion of the term "region" or "area" that apparently no one definition suffices. 

Most commonly the attempt has been to proceed from the "natural area." Yet it is hard to know what constitutes a natural area, unless it be an island, for climates, land forms, and soil provinces are likely to diverge widely. Hence the preference for the study of islands and areas that simulate insular conditions in their sharpness of outline. If we can agree on what is a natural region, we are still faced by the fact that cultural units are likely to straddle the boundary zones of physical contrast. Boundaries rather than center of physical regions are likely to be centers of culture areas. 

We often employ the term "natural region" to designate any areal division of simple habitat qualities that may facilitate study by reducing complexity. Quite subjectively we indicate that "natural" region A is a coniferous forest land, that region B is characterized by a certain climate, that area C is a land of mountains, that region D is a province of coal or oil. Consistently we mix terms in designating natural regions, selecting a major quality of habitat for each. We are therefore likely to conceal, rather than to answer, the dilemma of area by calling it a natural unit. 

In human geography we are mainly interested in the connotation of the cultural area. The unit of observation must therefore be defined as the area over which a functionally coherent way of life dominates. The most satisfactory illustration we have to date is in Eduard Hahn's basic economic regions of the world. We are, however, still far from knowing how to determine a culture area beyond saying that it has intimate interdependence of living. Nevertheless we have a simpler task than the anthropologist in his all-inclusive culture areas, though perhaps we too in the end must build up our areas by finding a sufficient accordance of common traits. A culture area of one order may be recognized by the dominance of a single economic complex. A culture area of a superior order may be determined by the interdependence of a group of areal economies. The traits of making a living for us are the dominant things to observe. Until we know much more about them we do not need to concern ourselves much with other qualities of culture. 

Economic areas rarely have fixed or sharp boundaries. Historically they may experience shifts of centers, peripheries, and changes of structure. They have the quality of gaining or losing territory and often of mobility of their centers of dominance. They are fields of energy, within which changes in dynamism may show characteristic directional shifts. It is also possible to imagine a culture area which in the course of time shifts away completely from an earlier location and still maintains organic continuity. 

We are interested in the origin of a cultural system as to place of birth. This we may call the theme of the culture hearth, the inquiry into the localization of culture origins. The classical formulation of the problem still is that of the places of origin of agricultural systems. Next, we are concerned with the energy that a growing culture shows as to manner and rate by which it occupies land, including the nature of the extending frontiers. Next, we are interested in the manner of stabilization of one culture area against another. Finally there are the problems of decline or collapse and of succeeding cultures. The homologues of all these questions are well known from plant ecology in the study of plant societies.


A dissent may now be registered against that view of geography which considers geography as exclusively or peculiarly concerned with present economies or cultures. One of the fundamental questions in all social study is how to account for the rise and loss of institutions and civilizations. The birth or fall of a great state or culture will always claim the attention of students of civilization. One is no less a geographer if he is engaged in knowing the rise and passing of a culture that lies back at the dawn of history, than if he is concerned with the growth of industrial Chicago. There may be as important things to learn about human geography in the archeology of the Mississippi Delta as in its fields of sugar cane. Any topic in the social sciences is important, not by reason of its date, but by the light it throws on the nature of culture origins and changes. This assertion is basic to the present position. If it is correct, all human time is involved in the field, and any predilection to consider the present as intrinsically most important misses the expressed aim of human geography as a genetic science. 

Here and there geographers have concerned themselves with prehistoric settlements and culture. In Louisiana, Kniffen and Ford are providing a good illustration of what may be learned by archeo-geographic study. There is, indeed, a specifically geographic dimension to archeology, that of the complete distribution of the traces of a culture, so as to reconstruct its population pattern and its economic geography. Even in our best known area, that of Pueblo culture, this approach has been carried out only once, by Colton and his associate at the Flagstaff Museum, an approach which I should like to recommend as a model of workmanship. English geography is today most largely indebted to Fleure, who has concerned himself primarily with the farthest corridors of time. In this field there is hardly a question of continuity with the present culture area, but an approach to the general problem of the specialization and viability of culture. To some of us, at least, the geography of Basketmaker Man or of the Bell-Beaker Folk is as revealing and absorbing as anything in the present-day world. Those of us who are completely historical geographers are concerned with human origins and changes throughout all human time. Let no one think, therefore that we are in any sense off-side from the main theme if we work at the farthest reaches of time, the childhood of our race. We think rather, that the human geographer who works on the short time dimension of the contemporary scene is held by a peculiar obsession.


The first step in reconstruction of past stages of a cultural area is mastery of its written documents. The discovery of contemporaneous maps is the first thing hoped for, but rarely realized. We have, however, scarcely exploited the documentary possibilities in the United States of old land surveys as to notations on the character of vegetation and of "improvements" early in the period of settlement. There is a fair amount of valuable material in the Land Office plats and in the older records of land grants that give glimpses of the pioneer landscape. Factual data, precisely localized, of enumerations of persons and goods, of land titles, assessments, production, lie neglected in various archives to await exploitation. There is an embarrassment of such riches in the old Spanish records for New Spain, from parish records up to summary reports that were sent to the king in Spain. There are diaries and accounts of early explorations, the visitas made by inspecting officials who reported in detail on condition of the country, letters of missionaries, the so-called geographic relations ordered for all Spanish America at several times in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, records of payment of taxes and tributes, data on mines, salines, and roads. Perhaps no other part of the New World has as elaborate a documentation on settlements, production, and the economic life of every part as do the Spanish colonies, but it is certainly an exceptional area for which documentary sources will not yield a large part of the data needed to reconstruct the geographic pattern of living through successive stages of its history. Familiarity with such records, however, takes much time and search.


Let no one consider that historical geography can be content with what is found in archive and library. It calls, in addition, for exacting field work. One of the first steps is the ability to read the documents in the field. Take into the field, for instance, an account of an area written long ago and compare the places and their activities with the present, seeing where the habitations were and the lines of communication ran, where the forests and the fields stood, gradually getting a picture of the former cultural landscape concealed behind the present one. Thus one becomes aware of the nature and direction of changes that have taken place. Questions begin to take shape as to what has happened to local site values. It is real discovery thus to take old documents into the field and relocate forgotten places, to see where the wilderness has repossessed scenes of active life, to note what internal migrations of inhabitants and of their productive bases have occurred. There comes a time in such study when the picture begins to fit together , and one come to that high moment when the past is clear, and the contrasts to the present are understood. This, I submit, is genetic human geography. 

This may be hard and often difficult work physically, because there are trails that must be followed if one is to get the answers. One must go over the ground of former activity, no matter what its present accessibility of facilities, or lack thereof, for the comfort and health of the student. It isn't a question of learning to know a country by common means of transport. There is an exaction of intimacy with out-of-the-way places which historical geography often imposes that modern economic geography does not do. This sort of inquiry demands that the field worker go where the evidence requires him to go. Hence the importance of those brief and precious younger years when he is physically able to follow his clues through the chosen area. There are all too few field seasons that will be available to him. At best, when the days of insufficient physical strength come upon him, he will wish that he had been in the field longer and more often, to secure the observations which he needs. 

The first objectives of historical field work are to value the habitat in terms of former habit, and to re-locate the former pattern of activity as indicated in the documentary record. To these are added more specific tasks of field observation. The chief of these may be called the location of the cultural relicts and fossils. 

Cultural relicts are surviving institutions that record formerly dominant, but now old-fashioned conditions. Familiar illustrations are 1) types of structures, 2) village plans, and 3) field patterns surviving from former days. Every student of European geography knows how house type, settlement plan, field systems have yielded knowledge of the spread of different kinds of settlement forms, often where the written record is silent. Scofield, Kniffen, and Schott have well shown how such data may be used in this part of the world. 4) Some of us have been engaged in tracing the distributions of varieties of native crop plants as indicators of cultural spreads. Similar work remains to be done with Old World plant and animal domesticates to trace routes of cultural dissemination. 5) Little has been done in the study of old forms of plant and animal husbandry. We lack inquiries into native hoe husbandry or milpa agriculture, into old traits of backwoods farming still surviving among us, into the old basic elements of our stock ranching, into the historic functions of the barn, into types of different immigrant agricultures. Such type studies, recording in faithful detail the year-round calendar of old-fashioned agricultural communities, would be of great value, especially if they can be carried out so as to show what modifications have come in with time. 6) Similarly, there still are archaic forms of placer, pit, and even lode mining, and 7) old ways of felling lumber and getting out logs. All such archaisms which help to understand former processes operative in localizing settlement and use of resource should be recorded while they still exist. 8) The old-fashioned water and animal-powered mills, and 9) the survival of old transport methods by water and land are other instances in point. 

It may be objected that such inquiries are technologic and not geographic. However, every organized activity is a skill that has been learned or developed by a group or community, without the understanding of which the geographer cannot interpret the productive occupation of his area. If there is no such thing as direct adaptation in human geography, there can be no human geography that does not concern itself with communities as associations of skills. The field geographer then must observe the expression of such skills in the cultural objectives of a group occupying a given site, and the historical geographer must recover the survivals of old skills that explain older dominant forms of land occupation. 

Moreover, the geographer as field worker has the opportunity to make observations on how material cultures worked that other social scientists are not likely to secure, because mostly they are not accustomed to field observations. Not even anthropologists give attention to the husbandry of their primitive peoples in the sense that should be expected from a geographer observing the same people. It is difficult to imagine a human geography that fails in expertness in the processes of getting a livelihood. If pack trails are geographic phenomena, the pack trains that use them are also; the feeding places that the animals use involve a knowledge of the fodder or forage on which they depend; then why not also the utility of the animal as to distance it can cover and load it carries, and the whole process of loading and driving? Let protest fall where it may, I should not be interested in historical geography or in human geography except as helping to understand the differentiation of cultures, and I cannot get understanding of this sort except by learning the ways and devices men have used for making a living out of their homelands.

Fossil forms may be considered those that are no longer functioning, but which still exist, either obsolete or as ruins. The field study of ruins is important, for it alone will show in some cases localization of production or settlement that has failed. There are the direct ruins of habitation that give clues as to why people once lived there, from hearth places of early man to abandoned farmsteads. There are the curious and persistent alterations of soil where once an earthen floor stood, or the refuse of settlement was dumped, often expressed by characteristically different vegetation. There are the escaped plants of the household that may propagate themselves indefinitely in its vicinity, the lilac bushes of the northeast, the Cherokee rose of the southeast, pomegranate and quince in Spanish American lands. There are ruins of land use in abandoned fields that may be identified from prehistoric surfaces of tillage to the boom agriculture of two decades ago. The evidence may be in particular plant succession, in changes in the soil, even in ancient furrows. In the Old South, it is well known that the exact limits of old fields may be determined by stands of old field pine, and the time of abandonment approximated by the age of the trees. 

There are lesser lines of historical field work, the place names that have connotations of olden days, folk customs and dialectic turns that reveal traditions of times when tradition was a living part of the economy, the memories that still belong to the oldest members of the group. The oddments one thus turns up by living with a people are not inconsiderable, and occasionally there is a lead that is most revealing. I may refer to the illumination that Eduard Hahn got out of considering unconsidered trifles about food and drink habits in Europe, especially vestigial mannerisms that no one had considered before him. 

In all historical geography, field work demands most acute observation, constant alertness to clues, flexibility in hypothesis. It is not comfortably routinized as may be the mapping of current land utilization. 

There is urgency in such field observations. Year by year the sweeping hands of modern industry and commerce brush away more and more of what is old. Traditions die with the old people; documents are destroyed; weather, storm, and flood erase the physical remnants; science and market standardization destroy old crops. Now is a better time than will ever be again for both student and the records, before the years invalidate both. 

Thus a science of comparative regional geography may grow up among us, which will shun the following fallacies: 1) That geography has substance as a science of contemporaneous activity, 2) that historical geography can be done by adding the missing environmental notations to the works of historians, 3) that historical geography is only library work, 4) that a geographer can acquire expertness by knowing a little about a lot of unrelated localities, 5) that descriptive studies, done without regard to due process, i.e., genesis and function, can add up to a science, either physical or social, 6) that geography can deal with relations of culture and site without understanding the nature of cultural process, growth, and differentiation, and 7) that there is some way of compensating lack of curiosity and dearth of knowledge by devices of style and organization.


A number of general problems are suggested as the sort of comparative knowledge we should be advancing: 

1) Certain processes of physical geography, involving secular change, may effect man. a) The most important is the problem of climatic changes or cycles. The other sciences of man expect us to get the answers as to facts, nature, and direction of climatic alteration in human time. The areally specialized geographer has the opportunity to shed light on the controversial subject. In all the dry margins of the world, this topic is of major concern; especially, have their boundaries expanded since the beginning of agriculture? Methods and results in using non-instrumental climatologic data might well constitute a recurrent symposium at meetings of this association. b) In part connected with this question is the problem of natural changes in vegetation since glaciation; few problems should be more interesting to the geographers of the interior United States than that of the prairies, or of the humid grasslands in general. c) Another topic is that of natural changes of coast line and drainage in the period of human occupation. In these meetings, Russell has pointed out drainage changes of the Mississippi, some since the crossing of De Soto. Marsh's classic Man and Nature outlines a lot of such problems. 

2) Man as an agent of physical geography. a) At present, we incline to deny all effects of settlement and clearing on climate, in contrast to the attitude of an older generation, as shown by the literature of early American forestry. Indeed the science of forestry began largely on the hypothesis that trees diminished climatic extremes. We are hardly sufficiently well informed to dismiss this topic entirely. There is, in terms of our present information, no assurance that in certain climatic tension zones, as of dryness, radical alteration of the ground cover cannot affect critical relations of temperature, humidity, and moisture availability at and near the ground level. I should not be entirely sure that man has not extended the limits of deserts by altering the climatic condition of the lowest film of the atmosphere, which may be called the intra-vegetational climate. 

b) Geographers have given strangely little attention to man as a geomorphologic agent. Soil erosion is the popular name for the processes of surface removal that man has released or accelerated. The incidence of soil erosion may be a major force in historical geography. Did soil losses sap the Mediterranean civilizations? Were the Virginians great colonizers because they were notable soil wasters? Geographical field work should embrace thorough search for full, original soil profiles and note the characteristic diminution or truncation of soil profiles in fields and pastures. Thus only can an understanding of the age, nature, and extent of wastage of productive surfaces be secured, and thereby the changing fortunes of human agricultural regions registered. The strange blind spot of geography to this, one of its most basic problems, may illustrate the result of dodging historical approach. 

The aggradation of waste on surfaces below the slopes of cultural denudation is, of course, the complementary part of the situation. Gullies mostly are advanced, acute symptoms of soil erosion, including some that have served in text-books as illustrations of normal youthful valleys. How often have geographers distinguished between natural ravines and man-induced gullies, or found the latter of interest as to their incidence and life history? Surely nothing could be more geographic than critical studies of the wastage of surface and soil as expressions of abusive land occupation. On the one hand, are the pathologic physical processes; on the other, the cultural causes are to be studied. Next come the effects of continued wastage on survival of population and economy, with increasing tendency to degenerative alteration or replacement. Finally, there is the question of recovery or rehabilitation. 

The theme was clearly indicated as a formal problem of geography three quarters of a century ago by Marsh. Geographers have long given lecture courses on Conservation of Natural Resources and considered the evils of soil erosion. But what have they done as investigators in the field, which may lie actually at the doorsteps of their class rooms? Is the answer that soil students should study sheet wastage, geomorphologists gullies, agricultural economists failing agriculture, rural sociologists failing populations, and the geographer prepare lectures on what others investigate? 

c) All results of destructive exploitation must be regarded as involving changes in habitat. The presence of civilized man has often meant changes in the regimen of streams and of underground charge of water. Irrigated areas show here and there the creeping paralysis of alkali accumulation, or of water logging. The forms of dissipation of natural capital are many, their causes are cultural, their results are slow crises in the affected areas, their connotation is therefore a matter of human geography. 

d) A special problem of the alteration of the land by man is the relation of culture to plant and animal ecology. There are questions in this field that may be reserved to the plant or animal specialist. The historical geographer, however, must take this topic into account in so far as he is able to deal with it and, since he works deliberately with historical data, he may encounter evidence that the ecologist will not. In Mexico, for instance, it is apparent that civilized and primitive men have modified the vegetation rather differently. Primitive husbandry was far less bound to low slopes than is modern agriculture. Given certain conditions of climate and soil, hoe agriculture was in effect a long-term forest-crop rotation, usually on hill and mountain slopes. Under such a system, in effect as it has been for thousands of years, the whole of the present wild flora may represent locally a type of old field succession. The coming of the white man introduced in certain areas a new form of pressure on the native vegetation through heavy grazing. About the mines in particular, he effected complete deforestation through the needs of wood and charcoal in the mines, as well as by persistent pasturing of stock about the mining camps. The old mining camps may now be surrounded by open country for many leagues where once there were forests and brushlands. 

These are some of the themes which the historical geographer may well develop. In the process he will probably learn somewhat about the suppression of certain vegetation elements because of their superior utility to man, or because of their low ability to reproduce, or because of their sensitivity to an ecologic balance. There is nothing particularly esoteric about learning the important constituents of a native flora, or even in observing their habits of reproduction and growth. One observer may go farther with this theme than another, but its appropriateness can hardly be questioned, and the cultural approach may sharpen observation of the biotic association as to time elements. In climatic tension zones in particular, it is possible that human interference may operate characteristically to displace widely former vegetation boundaries. Any area with a long grazing history, in particular, should be examined in this respect as to the replacement of palatable browse and grass by unpalatable, probably woody or bitter, succulent elements. The role of fire, especially in the hands of primitive man, needs much additional observation, undertaken with the knowledge that long-continued burning may have opposite effects on vegetation from those that result from a short series of burnings. 

3) Sites of Settlement. The location of a settlement records the particular preferences as to habitat that concerned the founders. Since a settlement once established is not readily transferred, subsequent culture changes alter the site value, and confront the people of the town with the alternative of moving or of meeting developing handicaps. Perhaps if we were locating our cities, de novo, we should place relatively few of them in the exact site which they occupy. Consider the towns that grew up on once navigated streams, on portages, and under other site selections which have lost their significance, but which have imposed repeated problems on later generations as transport, supply, and municipal services have changed. If California were being settled today, San Francisco would probably be a middle class suburb of a major city across the bay. Yet in the 1840's, San Francisco was the most eligible site for a port at which the ocean and river transport met. It has successfully maintained a large number of urban functions in which it acquired initial dominance, and has on the whole overcome the handicaps of a transverse peninsular position as these have developed. 

At the time a settlement is made, it may generally be regarded as combining in its site the best means of satisfying the wants of the founding group. It is necessary, therefore, to regard the site in terms of the original wants. In one case, protection may be very important, in another indifferent. Food and domestic water needs and transport advantages vary with the founding culture. Site classifications in terms of cultural attitudes at the time of origin of settlement have been rarely made, yet here is the basic chapter in a science of urban geography. Next would come site revaluations and accommodations under change of culture--the site viewed under successive stages. 

4) Settlement Patterns. We do not have a great deal of comparative historical knowledge about a) dispersal or agglomeration of habitation, or b) about the spacing and size groups of settlement clusters that develop under particular cultures, or c) of the functional specialization as between town and town within one culture area, or d) of functional differentiation within a major town. These are some of the most obvious problems of localization of habit that need inquiry in historical and regional terms. 

5) House Types. Americans have given little attention to the unit dwelling, which commonly approximates the social unit, or the family in its inclusive connotation, rather than in the marital sense. Is the dwelling unit single or multi-family, does it provide for its dependants and retainers, does it include arrangements for the domestic animals? Does it include formal provisions for the storage of primary necessities or for the exercise of crafts or trades? What is the functional generalization of the house plan? The study of house types is basically the study of the smallest economic unit, as that of a village or a town is that of an economic community. In both cases description seeks the meaning of structure in relation to institutionalized process, as an expression of the culture area. Houses are historical geographic records. They may date from a former historical stage, or they may, as current buildings, still preserve conventional qualities which once were functionally important (fireplaces, porches, shutters, on American houses). 

6) Land occupance studies with regard to the historic structure of the culture area. At any given time, in theory, there is a momentary equilibrium of habitat evaluations and habit wants. Environmental advantage or disadvantage should then always be relative to the moment or stage of the particular culture, and land use an accommodation of the wants and energies of a community, that changes as these change. To change, however, usually involves considerable lag, partly because of the difficulty of revising property lines. The rationalization of land use meets the opposition of the design of fields and other land holdings of earlier days. At any one time land rights and land use are likely to conserve a good deal of the past. Settlement patterns, house types, field systems and land ownership are the best recognized observational items used in reconstructing changes and continuities. 

7) What of cultural climaxes? Is there in human societies something like an ecological climax, a realization of all the possibilities inherent in that group and its site? What of limits of population growth, of production attained, of accumulation of wealth, even of increment of ideas beyond which the matured culture does not go? We may be skeptical of the more extreme hypothesis of the cyclic character of all culture, but we are too concerned with the recurrence of cultural peaks, of stabilization, and of cultural decline. The rise and fall of cultures or civilizations which has interested most historically minded students of man cannot fail to engage the historical geographer. A part of the answer is found in the relation of the capacity of the culture and the quality of the habitat. The case is relatively simple if destructive exploitation can be shown to have become serious. There is also the knotty problem of overpopulation (which may be very much a reality in the culture historical sense though a heresy to the social scientist), involving diminishing opportunity and sharing for the individual. There may arise loss of productive energy by mal-distribution of population as between country and town, between primary producers and those who are carried as leisure class. There may be a shift of comparative advantage to another people and area. A melancholy and stimulating subject is this scrutiny of the limits of culture. 

8) Cultural receptivity. A new crop, craft, or technique is introduced to a culture area. Does it spread, or diffuse vigorously, or does its acceptance meet resistance? What are the conditions that make a certain group eager to accept innovations, whereas another chooses to continue in its old ways? This is a general problem of social science, which in part can be examined by geographic studies.
The geographer, in the first place, is best able to determine the existence of physical barriers or corridors. Perhaps a crop does not spread because it encounters an unsuited climate, perhaps because the soil which it requires is not of a type that a particular husbandry has learned to utilize.

In the second place, the geographer presumably has kept track of the presence or absence of material culture traits. He should know whether a crop or a skill is confronted by a satisfactory alternate already established in the area. The dissemination of wheat growing in Latin America has been considerably affected by the food habits of the people with regard to other starch and proteid crops. It is only true in terms of world markets and hence strictly commercial production, that the yield of a given plot as to wheat or corn will determine which will be grown. I should like to add that even the current world market price is only an expression of cultural demand from a dominant purchasing group, not a real expression of the utility of the several grains.

It may well be remembered that Ratzel founded the study of the diffusion of culture traits, presented in the nearly forgotten second volume of his Anthropogeographie, and that Eduard Hahn came upon the great problem of his life work by asking himself why some people engaged in dairying and others would have nothing to do with milk or its products.

9) The distribution of energy within a culture area. Here we may refer to the great thesis of Vaughan Cornish, that of the cultural "march." His view is that every growing civilization has had an active frontier--an actual frontier on which the energies of the people become massed, where power, wealth, invention are most highly developed. This has some resemblance to Turner's thesis of the frontier, though it does not involve the necessity of continued expansion. It begins with expansion, but energies of a culture once localized on such a border may continue to manifest themselves by leadership in many ways long after expansion has ceased. Historically, therefore, it is not in the central parts of a culture area that the great developments take place, but on what was both the most exposed and the most alluring border. There is a lot to be done in considering the dynamic fields (Kräftezenten) within the whole expanse of a given culture area. There is much to be said about this thesis of Cornish. The dynamic front of Mexico, e.g., has been the northern border throughout its history. Archaeology, in both the New and the Old World, shows many illustrations of the flowering of culture at the far margins of a culture complex.

10) Cultural stages and succession. Turner made an unfortunate error when he accepted an ancient, deductive view that human progress advances through an identical series of stages, which he thought he could recognize as general stages of the American frontier. We know that there is no general cultural succession, but that each culture must be traced separately through its history of acquisitions and losses. Hahn's great work, in particular, warns against deductive approaches to cultural stages, as, for example, by his denial that pastoral nomads derived from hunters rather than from older agricultural backgrounds. Since cultural change by no means follows a general or predictable course, it is necessary to trace back each culture through its historical steps.

It is not generally appreciated that the first and dominant pattern of Spanish settlement of the New World was the formal organization of all Spaniards into town corporations and their permanent domiciling in such a villa or real. From this basic knowledge that the Spanish pioneer was a member of a town corporation at all times, the nature of Spanish penetration and economic organization acquires a very different form from that of the settlements by other colonial powers of the New World. On our American frontier, there was no such uniformity as in Spanish America, but a considerable number of first stages from North to South, dependant on colonizing group, nor was there one type of frontier in the Westward movement. Might it not be time for geographers to try to characterize the culture complexes and successions in the settlement of the United States? It should provide substance for some of the future meetings of our Association.

11) The contest for area between cultures. Certain cultures have been notably aggressive; some such can be determined for almost any part of the human past. The contest for dominance in the meeting zones of cultures, the manner in which a balance is established and a boundary takes form, express cultural energy and adaptability. Ratzel had in mind this sort of study in his political geography, which stressed the historical struggle for space. Whether by conquest, absorption, trade, or superior adaptability, all cultures have been marked by ground-gaining or ground-losing qualities.


The human geographer has the obligation to make cultural processes the base of his thinking and observation. His curiosity is directed to the circumstances under which groups or cultures have diverged from, or been assimilated to, others. Most of the history of man has been a matter of differentiation of culture and of reconvergences. We cannot even point to a uniform human culture back in the dawn of Paleolithic time. The Tower of Babel is almost as old as man. In the literal meaning there are very few "common-sense" qualities about living habits, that is, things that are most sensibly done in one way only, general logic or physiological necessities. I fear that the more theoretical social sciences--like economics--are likely to lose sight of this truth. In this country, we are likely to forget this because we happen to be part of a tremendously vigorous and widespread culture, so confident of itself that it is inclined to regard other ways as ignorance or stupidity. The terrific impact of the modern western world, however, does not repeal the old truth that the history of man has been markedly pluralistic, and that there are no general laws of society, but only cultural assents. We deal not with Culture, but with cultures, except in so far as we delude ourselves into thinking the world made over in our own image. In this great inquiry into cultural experiences, behaviors, and drives, the geographer should have a significant role. He alone has been seriously interested in what has been called the filling of the spaces of the earth with the works of man, or the cultural landscape. His primarily is the difficult job of discovering the meaning of terrestrial distributions. The anthropologists and he are the principal social scientists who have developed field observation as a skill. 

The themes suggested for our work may represent a task beyond our immediate individual or joint ability, but they are at least a design of the quality of knowledge we seek. Our several efforts may build consciously toward the understanding of the differentiation of the earth at the hands of man. We shall not get far if we limit ourselves in any way to human time in our studies. Either we must admit the whole span of man's existence or abandon the expectations of major results from human geography. Either we must produce, or warm over what others have prepared. I see no alternative. From all the earth in all the time of human existence, we build a retrospective science, that out of this experience acquires an ability to look ahead. 

University of California
January, 1941.

* Presidential address delivered before the Association of American Geographers at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, December, 1940.