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New digital humanities project to map historic sites of conflict involving Native Americans in Texas

Historical accounts of conflict between Anglo-Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans in Texas are rife with inaccuracies, exaggeration and bias on the part of their authors – so much so that it can be difficult to know what really happened.

Sam Haynes, left, and Ramona Holmes, right, to lead "Border Land:The Struggle for Texas, 1821-1846" project.

But a team of University of Texas at Arlington researchers supported by a new College of Liberal Arts Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative is creating a data-driven, digital map of conflicts dating from the First Mexican Republic to the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexico War to create a new understanding of the conflicts and make their insights available online to everyone.

“Such data will be particularly valuable in allowing researchers to learn more about the mobility patterns of the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of Texas, and how these patterns changed over time,” said Sam Haynes, a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts, director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and co-investigator for the project, Border Land: The Struggle for Texas, 1821-1846. "This digital map will also give us a more complete picture of the wide-ranging nature of inter-ethnic conflict in Texas.”

Haynes and Ramona Holmes, director of the UTA Libraries Department of Digital Creation, were among the first recipients of a new grant awarded by COLA to encourage digital humanities. Eleven teams will share $100,000 in the inaugural round of awards.

“Increasingly we are seeing that innovation on the part of engineers and computer scientists yields greater results when married with liberal arts and the humanities,” said Paul Wong, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “The reality is that our economy and global environment demand creative and collaborative research such as the Border Land project co-led by Dr. Haynes. UTA is proud to nurture such an initiative that will bring about better understanding, in this case, of the state’s distinctive history.”

Wong added: “We are pleased that our College of Liberal Arts Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative will make research globally available for scholars to analyze and extract information for their own investigations.”

Throughout history, much of Americans’ understanding of the interaction between Native Americans and Euro-Americans has been largely anecdotal and impressionistic, researchers say. Haynes and Holmes said no attempt has been made to compile information on acts of violence among the many peoples of Texas between 1821-1846 – and no effort has been made to create a digital map of them.

Motives of revenge, deaths resulting from the seizure of livestock and captives, and defensive attacks against surveying parties were all part of the matrix of violence that framed relations during this period, Haynes said.

The UTA Central Library curated the exhibit, "Quanah & Cynthia Ann Parker: A Pictorial Exhibit of their Story" in 2014.

An example of one conflict was the 1836 raid on Fort Parker, about 40 miles east of present-day Waco. Historians have called it the most famous Indian raid in Texas history, involving several hundred Comanches. During the attack, a raiding party massacred many Anglo-Americans and kidnapped 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. Over the following years, she became wife to a Comanche chief and mother to his children, including son Quanah. After Texas Rangers recaptured Cynthia Ann and took her back to her birth family, Quanah became one of the most important Comanche leaders in both war and peace.

“There’s no evidence of a Comanche raiding party of that size in the area at the time. It’s more likely that the attack was carried out by local Wichita Indians, who had been fighting off and on with the inhabitants of the fort for over a year,” Haynes noted.

By compiling a database to map these sites of violence, the Border Land project will enable scholars to learn more about the movement – and therefore the intentions – of specific tribes.

Mapping the sites also is key because some Anglo and Mexican accounts often failed to distinguish between one Indian tribe and another, Haynes said. To further complicate matters, some accounts were written for the general public – captivity narratives, for example – and are untrustworthy as they tended to sensationalize encounters with Native Americans.

“Even the best studies of Native Americans in Texas pay very little attention to situating them spatially,” said Haynes. “We can better understand why these conflicts occurred in ways that were never clear before."

Haynes recently explored the broad, transnational approach to Texas’s secession from Mexico in “Contested Empire: Rethinking the Texas Revolution (2015, Texas A&M University Press),” which he co-edited with Gerald Saxon, an associate professor of history and former dean of the UTA Libraries. The Border Land digital project and Contested Empire book are both part of Haynes’ larger research project: a reconceptualization of the clash of peoples in Texas during the early decades of the 19th century. The Border Land project will collect information in a database, then map events to a website, overlaying them onto both historical and current maps to show where the events cluster.

Holmes and Ben Huseman, a UTA cartographic archivist, selected an 1835 map from the Library’s Special Collections to be scanned. The grant will be used for a graduate research assistant to work on the geographic information system or GIS portion of the project. The GIS helps to visualize, analyze and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns and trends. The funding also will help to hire a student worker to enter metadata into the database, and for a graduate research assistant to collect data from the 1820s and 1830s.

The team plans to secure additional funding as they achieve results. The funds would be used to continue data collections for all decades up to the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico War.

“This project represents a great opportunity for Library staff to develop their experience with mapping data on a website using GIS tools,” Holmes said. “Once we understand exactly how this all overlays and works, we can begin overlaying it on some of the interesting documents we have that are unique to the University and Special Collections.”  

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a Carnegie “highest research activity” institution of more than 51,000 students in campus-based and online degree programs and is the second-largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UTA as one of the 20 fastest-growing public research universities in the nation in 2014. U.S. News & World Report ranks UTA fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as the top four-year college in Texas for veterans on Military Times’ 2016 Best for Vets list. Visit to learn more, and find UTA rankings and recognition at