Navigating the Past

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Geography Professor Stephen Hanna (left) and senior Fariss Hodder (right) worked together to create a geographical information systems (GIS) database that includes 224 markers in the city’s historic district and on the Fredericksburg campus.

On clear sunny days last semester Fariss Hodder rode her forest green, off-roading bike from the University of Mary Washington to downtown Fredericksburg. The senior, with a Trimble Juno GPS always handy, set off on a special mission – searching for commemorative markers of the city’s storied past.

This trek to local historic sites became routine for Hodder over the past year as she worked with Geography Professor Stephen Hanna. Together, the two created a geographical information systems (GIS) database designed to measure how and where slavery and emancipation was represented on 224 markers that Fariss mapped in the city’s historic district and on the Fredericksburg campus.

“It was like a little discovery mission every time . . . It’s incredible the amount of history you can learn just by walking downtown.” said Hodder, who photographed each marker, collected data on the date each marker was installed, who installed it and the historical topics it represented.

The venture started as basic data collection to help Hanna in his research, but soon grew into a full-blown project. Hodder mapped tours and other heritage attractions to see whether the markers commemorating slavery or recognizing the efforts of the enslaved to free themselves during the Civil War were in prominent locations.


Click this map to check out the GIS database.

Most days, Hanna, chair of the geography department, directed Hodder to specific locations, but she also discovered hidden markers on her trips. After the professor and student discussed Lee Hall, they realized there must be a marker on the historic UMW building. After much searching, Hodder discovered the marker behind a pillar.

Among her favorite discoveries is a plaque outside the St. George’s Episcopal Church cemetery placed by the APVA, now known as Preservation Virginia, which states: THE FOUNDERS OF FREDERICKSBURG SLEEP HERE.

“It’s poetic – it creates an incentive to actually go into the cemetery,” Hodder said. “It made me a little more invested in the place.”

In addition to collecting the data, Hodder drew from her coursework in GIS to design the database itself.  Hanna’s goal was to be able to easily access and analyze the markers’ photographs and texts by clicking on a map showing their location. Hodder was able to accomplish this – teaching her professor a thing or two about databases along the way.

“This is the best kind of interaction where the students are teaching you as much as you are teaching them,” said Hanna.

Hodder and Hanna presented a paper based on their project in a special session on research methods at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles last spring. Hodder was the only undergraduate to present at this session, in the company of graduate students and other academics. Their participation in the conference led to an invitation to write a chapter for a research methods book that will be published by Routledge.

For Hanna, this GIS database is just the beginning of a resource that will provide a multitude of possibilities for the future. It represents research opportunities for future students as well as research for his publications. Most importantly, “This database will allow us to understand what chapters of Fredericksburg’s history are most prominent in the landscape and which ones tend to be marginalized or ignored,” he said.

John Hennessy, chief historian/chief of interpretation at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, agrees. “The database of historical markers gives all of us the chance to step back and see the expanse and effect of our efforts. And while sometimes the result is not the happy picture we had hoped to see, the database offers us a path upon which we can channel our collective interpretive efforts, to present history that is both excellent and just.”

Check out this article in the Free-Lance Star that also explores this project.






  1. […] Hanna, chair and professor of Geography, and Fariss Hodder ’14 co-wrote an article based on a Fredericksburg historical markers study completed while Hodder was a student. The article, “Reading the signs: using a qualitative […]

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