San Juan Island History

Data Mining: A Computer Science for the Humanities?

By Jeremy Gerhardt

Data mining gives historians the opportunity to look at vast troves of data and create analyses and narratives that previously would have taken decades to surmise. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel demonstrate this with their work on Google NGram viewer. In their Ted Talk, they examined how words changed over time. For instance, they made an exact diagram of the word “thrived” overtaking the word “throve” as the popular past tense of thrive. These methods are brilliant for analyzing troves of data, but not too far along, we see issues. For instance, they mentioned how the word “beft” was once used as a spelling for best. This seems valid until you realize that the s in older text once looked more like an f. Data mining is an exciting new tool for historians, but we need to understand that it doesn’t create its own historical meanings or interpretations. Just like it always was, that task is up to us. 

I’m curious how Google NGram view reacts to Sütterlinschrift

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Thankfully, working right alongside their future machine overlords, you’ll find a group of diligent, socially aware, and most of all: human historians. Through our work in data mining, we are able to give voices to people silenced throughout history. For instance, Ruby Mendenhall, an associate professor of sociology at University of Illinois made a data mining project which mapped out the stories of black women suffragists in America. I remember in one of my history classes, the professor said “sometimes an absence of information tells you more about something than an abundance of information.” That’s what I thought about with this project. 

Data mining gives us a chance to analyze all sorts of less known people in society including convicts. Though in some cases, we find that despite their obscurity, they had a lot more in common with us than we may have thought. Professor Robert Shoemaker and Dr Zoe Alker examined the tattoos of convicts and instead of finding that they represent an explicitly criminal identification system, are better used to depict social ideals, trends, and attitudes among common people of the time. 

This chart shows the changing subjects of convict tattoos over time.

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Visualization by Sharon Howard

Data mining’s applications can vary from comparing language to mapping out changes ideals or attitudes during a period of time. These sorts of applications are in familiar territory for me as a history. However, higher tech applications can create downright jaw dropping visualizations. For instance the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project creates this vast web of Francis Bacon’s network during his time. This sort of metadata project takes what once would have required thousands of books, and allows us to view a person’s entire network on a single screen. 

Yet no matter how advanced the technology behind data mining becomes, the discipline would be a total vacuum without an interpretation from a historian. Even when looking at the Six Degrees of Bacon Project, I’d have to have a starting point as to what I wanted to interpret or research in regards to Francis Bacon. Otherwise, it’s just an intricate web. Though this seems obvious, it’s something other professions easily forget when talking about digital outlets in history. 

Carl Minksy writes about the trend towards allowing history to be made from algorithms and numbers instead of interpretations. He cites an article claiming that “Machine learning algorithms can overpredict historical significance for some documents and overlook others that will prove to be important, he warns, which he demonstrated in a project with Microsoft called “Predicting History”. He also cautions that “Poorly-made data analyses can unwittingly lend an air of objectivity to historical arguments that really can’t be supported by these incomplete archives.” I think that the biggest lesson we need to understand with Data Mining, and really any non-human interface used in history, is that it can’t interpret history for us and more than we could be expected to create the complex visualizations and charts that computers can create. Data mining needs a soul, so to speak. With a soul, we can use this technology to give voices to those who previously had none. We can highlight similarities with our ancestors, and we (perhaps most importantly to students) save hundreds of hours on projects. However, without a soul, Data mining is just a web of numbers. 

San Juan Island History

The Pig War: Reliving Contested Memories

In the weeks leading up to the election, we are terrified of the lack of information and the ensuing chaos this lack of information may bring. “What if it takes a whole week to know the results?” wail pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. In our world of convenience and instantaneous knowledge, this seems unthinkable. However, Americans have coped with a larger void of information and still acted diplomatically. The Pig War is a prime example of this. 

“With the transcontinental telegraph still several years away, steamships often crossed paths bearing dispatches containing conflicting information. Policies enforced had to be undone. Confrontations escalated—or vice versa—before reports reached their readers.”

The Seeds of Conflict

The pig war started out non-miraculously. In 1859, Lyman Cutlar, a down on his luck miner, took his Coast Salish wife to San Juan Island to survive until better opportunities presented themselves. Fashioned in the traditional Coast Salish fashion, he and his wife delineated their property with stacked rocks around its perimeter. This method suited the Salish people for thousands of years, but white people found problems with it in just a few. As the story goes, a man named Charles Griffen was convinced that this “insufficient mystery fence” allowed his cattle and pigs free access to Cutlar’s garden. Cutlar didn’t agree with this sentiment, and when he caught one of Griffin’s pigs rooting through his potato patch, he shot the pig. 

Shortly after shooting the pig, Cutlar felt bad about it and described it as a “moment of irritation.” He offered either to replace the animal or agreed for three men to choose an appropriate price value to compensate Griffin for the pig. Griffin had different plans and valued the pig at $100, or $3,135 in 2020 money.For further reference, a state of the art Sharps breech-loading rifle sold new for $30 during this time period. According to accounts, Cutlar was deeply insulted by this demand as he didn’t even believe the pig was worth $10. The argument shifted away from the pig and soon became focused on the fact that Cutlar, an American was living on the island. With Griffin threatening to bring a posse from Victoria, and Cutlar threatening a resistance against such a posse, the seeds of the Pig War were sprouting. 

This Chart shows the value of $100 in 1859 at $3,135. The average amount of usable meat on a modern pig is 154 pounds. If the meat was sold at a price proportionate to the pig’s $100 value, it would sell for $20.35 per pound in today’s money. Even more when you consider that pigs weighed less back then. With recognizing the limitations of currency conversion, that’s still one expensive porkchop. 

In an alternate universe, the Germanic Kaufland Königreich intervenes by appeasing both parties with an abundance of questionably cheap pork. 

Contested Accounts

Despite Cutlar’s claims, Griffin and Alexander Dallas maintained that they never demanded a $100 sum from him nor did they threaten to take him back to Victoria. Furthermore, they maintained that the pig was not shot on Cutlar’s property, but was instead shot in the woods bordering his land. We find out later that Dallas’s claim that he never demanded $100 is either a lie, or a matter of his own forgetfulness, but at the time the truth was blurred. Ending the issue of the pig in the pig war, Judge Henry Crosbie ordered Cutlar to pay a fine for shooting the pig. However, the pigless pig war continued as an ongoing border dispute until 1872 when following mediation efforts by Kaiser Wilhelm I, the British left ceding the island to the United States.

Celebrating Diplomacy and Reliving the History

The contested stories and lack of information could have easily spelled disaster for San Juan Island and its American inhabitants, but through restraint and diplomacy, peace prevailed. However, this wasn’t the first time in American history that grazing animals caused a war. Lisa Brooks mentioned how disputes over grazing animals were one of the factors that led to King Philip’s War. 19th-century preservationist John Muir referred to sheep as “horned locusts” and was against them grazing in natural areas. In the spirit of promoting nature preservation and indigenous heritage, I think that replicating (perhaps for now just digitally) a replica of what the Coast Salish stone garden fence would be a great interpretation piece as it represents both the origin of the war, Indigenous heritage, and the broader picture of settler colonialism being at odds with Indigenous customs. Boyd Pratt researched the Coast Salish and his book: Island Farming History and Landscape of Agriculture in the San Juan Islands features information on their customs. I think that this interpretive piece would be a great opportunity to utilize recent research and build an interpretative piece that allows people to visualize the Pig War where it began.

Since many of the Island’s buildings were auctioned off after the joint occupation, there is plenty of room for interpretive sites.