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Geography and History at the Crossroads

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #75, 2007.

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Michael Maloney


Students sometimes wonder why they have to know all manner of things about the geography of the planet they inhabit. They don't really understand why they should have to be able to differentiate between the Alps and the Rockies. After all, they are both just mountain ranges. Well... sort of.

An Artificial Division

Geography and history tend to be taught as two distinct subjects with little common ground. But if students are taught the many ways in which geography interacts with history, both disciplines become more relevant.

History is as much shaped by geography as it is by almost any other factor. The more easily that students can see the interdependence of history and geography, the more understandable and interesting both subjects become.

How Geography Affects Early History

When you study ancient civilizations almost anywhere in the world, one simple fact jumps out to meet you. Most civilizations initially formed around major rivers, especially those that led to oceans. We can point to the early civilizations that formed along the Nile River in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East, the Yangtze River in China, or the Ganges River of India. Each development had a lasting influence on history.

What geographic feature influenced these events? What were the advantages of living in this particular area as opposed to some other? It is easy to see several advantages of living on or near a major river. Historically, rivers provided a constant supply of clean, fresh water for humans, their crops and animals. A major river provided an easy means of transportation and exploration, especially if it emptied into an ocean. Larger rivers also provided protection against invasion because it was difficult to transport a large army and its supplies across a wide, deep river. The availability of fish and other marine related food added yet another benefit to being near a major river. Think about how the Mississippi River played such a role in the opening up of America.

On the other hand, living far from water meant that the tribe or group were almost always forced to be nomadic. They followed the animals, which followed the grass, which was determined by the prevailing rains. Most of these groups had a somewhat more difficult lifestyle than their settled urban counterparts. So the role of fresh water can easily be seen as a major influence on history because it helps to explain why civilizations were located in particular places.

Living on or near a major river also had its challenges. While it may have brought trade and commerce, it could also bring invasions and wars. A short study of the Vikings and the Norse indicates how these groups used most of the major rivers and oceans of Europe, all the way to the Baltic Sea, to raid and plunder in their swift warships. Rivers also brought floods which wiped out entire cities, sometimes more than once. Each of these events, based on a geographic feature, affected the history of the civilization involved.

Mountain Barriers

Mountains also have a major role to play in the history of most countries. In the past, mountains were the barriers that restricted movement. Whether that is the movement of explorers, settlers, traders or armies is of importance at various times in a nation's development.

In the United States. for example, expansion of the original thirteen colonies was blocked by the many ranges of the Appalachian mountain chain. The mountains made expansion to the west difficult. Due to the agreements made between the native Indians and the settlers, the land to the west of the mountains was considered to belong to the Indians. At some point, some adventurer discovered the Cumberland Gap through these mountains and slowly but surely trade, commerce and settlement flowed through it. The rest is history.

Mountains and mountain passes have had historic effects because of their military significance. The three hundred Spartan soldiers who held off Xerxes and his thousands of Persian warriors at the pass at Thermopylae saved ancient Greece from being conquered by the Persian empire. The same outcome could never have happened on an open plain. The defense of the Iron Gap, a pass through the Carpathian Mountains, kept the nomadic hordes of Huns from capturing parts of Europe. During the final stages of the American Civil War, the battle of Kennesaw Pass slowed the advancing Union armies in the same way that the Kesselring Line in Italy's northern Alps temporarily fended off Allied troops from entering Germany at the end of World War II.

Flatland Effects

Even large flat plains can have a significant influence on the history of a people. It does not seem completely accidental that the tribes that lived on the Great Plains domesticated horses as a way to travel and hunt more efficiently. The Tartars of the Siberian Plain did the same, as did the Tuaregs of the flat sandy plains of North Africa. In each case, wide expanses and the use of horses influenced the development of that particular culture, its values and its history.

Another geographic factor which affects the history of civilizations is simply the weather in which that civilization lives. The combination of weather and land features is especially powerful. The major cities of North Africa all lie to the north of the Atlas Mountains, an area of reliable rainfall. The area to the south of the mountains is home to the desert tribes and a completely different history and lifestyle. The land on the west side of the Rocky Mountains grows much of the fruit and vegetable crops of the U.S. mainland while the dry rainshadow to the East becomes ranch land and mineral rich semi-desert. The history of the Old West is partly a result of the wide-open and wild landscape upon which it played out.

Weather and Geography

Many students may not immediately see the impact of some geographic phenomenon on subsequent events. Weather and land features, for example, were both major influences in the defeat of both Napoleon's "Grande Armee" and Hitler's 6th Army in their separate attempts to conquer Russia. The Russian winter, the overextended supply lines and the very long retreat back over the Russian steppes in subzero temperatures, ensured their defeat. Each army lost more than 250,000 men-another example of how geography causes history to change.

Weather affects geography. Think of hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches and other such events. These have left their mark on the pages of history as well. The San Francisco earthquake, the eruption of Mount Etna which wiped out the Italian city of Pompeii, and Hurricane Katrina, each left an imprint on regional and national histories.

Guiding Our Learning

Now that the relationship between geography and history may be a little clearer, we can decide on how to make sure that our students know basic geography facts so that they can use this knowledge to understand both disciplines and their mutual interdependence.

Advanced knowledge is derived from an understanding of basic facts. Students obviously must be completely familiar with the basic concepts and the fundamental facts of geography in order to appreciate their effect on history. The physical geography of any region is the template upon which its history is written. Knowing the template's features fluently allows the student to understand the history more quickly and easily. The student must be able to quickly and accurately label certain features such as land forms, rivers, weather and climate information, the crops or products, the resources available, transportation hubs and routes and other geographic data. The student must be able to understand and apply the basic terms and concepts of geography including their definitions. They can only be considered fluent when they can do without hesitation and/or error.

Maps and Atlases

To achieve such fluent performance parents can use different types of geographic maps and atlases. These maps might depict size and relative location, physical features, economic characteristics, major cities, travel routes, etc. There are many kinds of atlases with many types of maps.

The student learns to identify the dominant characteristics of each type of map for the locale of their current history study. Students should be able to identify 25-30 items on a map in one minute with no more than two errors. The student also learns the relationships between the maps, such as the annual amount of rainfall and its resulting vegetation and crops. To the extent that the student can appreciate the relationships between the history and the geography which influences it, the more complete and robust will be their understanding of their world.


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