In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Geography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Colonialism
  • Feminist Historical Geography
  • Race
  • Historical Geographies of Knowledge
  • Landscape
  • Maps
  • Urban Historical Geography
  • GIS and Historical Geography
  • Doing Historical Geography

Geography Historical Geography
Robert Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0099


Historical geography is the study of the geographies of the past and how the past is represented in geographies of the present. While historical geographers have examined a variety of topics throughout the history of the field, a number of themes stand out: the evolution of cultural and economic regions, the changing relationship between people and the environment over time, the development of cultural landscapes and the diffusion of landscape types to different places, and the history of representing places. Historical geographers primarily use archival records to examine places and landscapes in the past, although field observations, and increasingly tools such as Geographic Information Systems, are also important methods. Since the 1980s, critical social theories such as Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and post-structuralism have informed the work of many historical geographers. Historical geography has considerable overlap with other fields in discipline, especially cultural geography. In Britain, for instance, scholars are more likely to speak of cultural-historical geography rather than a separate historical geography. In North America, historical geography also has strong connections to the interdisciplinary field of environmental history.

General Overviews and Anthologies

There are a number of works that explain the literature, methods, and approaches of historical geography. One of the first programmatic statements about the field was Sauer 1941. More recent overviews include Baker 2003 and Heffernan 2008. Conzen, et al. 1993 includes two invaluable reviews of the literature about the historical geography of the United States and Canada up to the 1990s. Wynn 2012 addresses more recent developments in Canadian historical geography since then. Harris 1991 is an important intervention from the 1990s that makes a case for historical geographers to employ the insights of social theory—a call that many historical-cultural geographers would follow in the next two decades.

  • Baker, Alan R. H. Geography and History: Bridging the Divide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615818

    An extended meditation on the relationship between geography and history. Focuses on some of the areas of intersection, especially on topics such as the development of regions, the shaping of landscapes, and the modification of environments.

  • Conzen, Michael P., Thomas A. Rumney, and Graeme Wynn, eds. A Scholar’s Guide to Geographical Writing on the American and Canadian Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    An exhaustive bibliography featuring scholarship by historical geographers on the United States and Canada up until the early 1990s. Contains invaluable, lengthy essays by Michael Conzen and Graeme Wynn about the development of historical geography in the United States and Canada.

  • Harris, Cole. “Power, Modernity, and Historical Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 8.4 (1991): 671–683.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1991.tb01714.x

    An important article by one of the leading historical geographers of the era, arguing that historical geographers should employ insights from social theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, and Michael Mann.

  • Heffernan, Michael. “Historical Geography.” In Making History: The Changing Face of the Profession in Britain. 2008.

    A brief but useful summary of past and current themes in historical geography focusing mostly on the scholarly literature in Britain.

  • Sauer, Carl. “Foreword to Historical Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 31 (1941): 1–24.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045604109357211

    A reaction, in part, to an influential book by Richard Hartshorne, The Nature of Geography (1939), which argued that geographers should concern themselves with areal differentiation more than history. Sauer’s response was that all geography is historical in some respect. But unlike later historical geographers, Sauer argues that geographers should deepen their connections with anthropology and physical geography rather than history.

  • Wynn, Graeme. “‘Tracing One Warm Line through a Land So Wide and Savage’: Fifty Years of Historical Geography in Canada.” Historical Geography 40 (2012): 5–32.

    Article based on Wynn’s 2012 Distinguished Historical Geographer lecture at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers conference. Surveys the growth of historical geography research in Canada from the early 1960s to the early 21st century. Comments on both the significant achievements of the field and also on how a cultural geography informed by social theory and the rise of environmental history have posed challenges for the field.

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