About the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project

The WV GeoExplorer Project
Undertaken and Supported by Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission

Overview
Jefferson County has a wealth of historic resources that could be used to interpret its past and help determine what part of its heritage should be preserved for future generations. In 1996, under a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Foundation, the West Virginia Division of Archives and History produced and published theExplorer West Virginia History Database on compact disc. (Dr. William Theriault was project director.)  Using the technology available at the time, the Explorer Database provided users access to a large number of primary and secondary sources related to Jefferson County and West Virginia history. Materials included books, articles, and abstracts of published sources, maps, images, and census information. The database was created in a proprietary format at a time when desktop computers had limited processing and storage space and when most West Virginians had access to the Internet via slow and often unreliable dial-up connections.

During the years since Explorer’s inception, computer capability and availability have increased exponentially while the Internet has become faster and more reliable. Computer languages now allow different systems to share information quickly and easily. Geographic information systems (GIS) have become more sophisticated, allowing digital mapping to be integrated with more traditional methods of researching, writing, and publishing history.

The WV GeoExplorer Project (WVGP) is converting the materials originally included in Explorer to an Internet accessible format, adding the large amount of new material that has been collected over the part 15 years, creating digital maps for land grants and other selected properties, and developing a program interface that allows users to search and display this information via the Internet.

The WVGP has created an innovative geographically-based web resource for exploring the history, culture, and architecture of Jefferson County, WV, and serves as a prototype for similar efforts elsewhere in the state. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, digital imaging, and the rich concentration of local primary historical materials, it is a freely-available resource for scholars, students, professionals, and laymen, with potential uses ranging from a digital archives of primary sources, to a research and educational tool, to an integral part of the community’s planning and development process. Consisting of a web-based GIS linked to a series of databases, WVGP is the cooperative effort of The Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission and several local institutions. The project will be structured so that the number of participating institutions and geographic scope can be expanded in later years to include other institutions and other counties if desired.

The project includes the following components:

Digital Archive
Thus far over 14,000 photographs and maps have been collected and digitized for the project. They are searchable online by location, date, and subject. The archive also houses digital copies of primary sources, such as wills and deeds, as well as relevant books and articles in the public domain.

Textual Archive
Thousands of books, newspaper articles, and other printed materials that were originally available in the Explorer Database are being converted into a format that can be viewed and searched on the Internet. Documents within this module can be digitally annotated, to let users search by time, place, key word, and personal identification number.

Relational Database Archive
At this time, the project includes the complete decennial census records for Jefferson County from 1850 to 1880. These records are searchable online. Other decennial census records, property tax records, birth, death, and marriage records, and other public documents are now being added.

In addition to housing census records for individuals, the JCGHP also contains data extracted from published U.S. Census summaries from 1790 to 1950. The counties represented include Jefferson as well as its neighbors: Berkeley and Morgan Counties in West Virginia, Washington and Frederick Counties in Maryland, and Clarke, Loudoun, and Frederick Counties in Virginia. The data is being used to produce a Multi-County Census Browser, allowing users to compare statistics among these counties; for example, the number of acres in farmland and the number of bushels of wheat produced by decade.

GIS Map Archive
WVGP is currently creating digital map components that can be used to record, display, and analyze the geographic features of Jefferson County through time. These elements include historical property boundaries, roads, railroads, water features, elevations, structures, soil types, and other information recorded in historic documents.

Several related projects are currently under way: a Jefferson County Base Map of the original land grants for the area has been completed; similar maps are being created for Harpers Ferry and Virginius Island. Resources in the map archive will contain links to references such as deeds and historic maps, so that users can explore other avenues of research.

Personal Identification Archive
It is often difficult to search historical records for specific individuals because their names are spelled in various ways, several people have the same name, or the original source is ambiguous. WVGP lets researchers annotate sources with a Personal Identification Number (PIN), which functions much as a Social Security Number does today. Persons assigned a PIN will also have a digital record that contains basic biographical information and supporting documentation.

Resource Bibliography
A searchable, annotated bibliography of local resources has been created for the project. It includes more than 40,000 references, and it will continue to grow as additional sources are identified, This module will also lets users add their own abstracts online. After being reviewed, these new entries will be included in the bibliography, with credit given to the person providing the abstract. The system also allows additions or corrections to existing abstracts. When fully operational, all of the archives just mentioned will be searchable through the resource bibliography as well as individually. As the sources identified in the bibliography become available online, they will be linked to the appropriate entry, allowing users direct access.

Gazetteer
WVGP now includes an extensive list of past and present local place names, as well as search resources that identify other properties that fall within the boundaries of the original parent property and display their map location.

Project Schedule
New resources are constantly being added and search features refined to create a truly unique research tool. To date, the project has received one large and numerous small grants and is pursuing several other grant options.

Organizations supporting the program include:

  • Jefferson County Emergency Services Department
  • Jefferson County Planning Commission
  • Jefferson County Assessor’s Office
  • Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
  • Harpers Ferry Historical Association
  • Historic Harpers Ferry
  • The Town of Harpers Ferry
  • The Charles Town Historic Landmarks Commission
  • The Jefferson County Historical Society
  • The Berkeley County Historical Society
  • Shepherd University
  • American Public University System