Historic Preservation

The National Historic Preservation Act became law on Oct. 15, 1966.  Congress noted “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.” Preserving archaeological sites, and historic buildings and landscapes must take place within the context of the evolution of American communities. Making this concept a reality is no easy task. It involves balancing community needs for new housing, sewage treatment plants, hospitals and shopping centers with the need to protect historic courthouses, ancient ruins and Civil War battlefields. To succeed, we try to understand the relationships between community values and historic resources. We often define these relationships by their spatial proximity, or location of geographic features to each other. GIS is the perfect tool to highlight these spatial relationships.

National parks are, in a sense, communities. They require roads, visitor centers, pipelines, bridges, and utilities, just like the hometowns we leave behind for vacations in our national parklands. Like many communities, parks are coping with the pressures of increased population, as visitors bring more RVs, boats, tents, stoves, and pets into the parks. The National Park Service preserves parklands for our benefit and enjoyment, as part of its mission. Yet the popularity of national parks has strained the agency’s ability to protect cultural resources. To ease this stress, park managers use high-tech tools, including GIS, to balance visitor use and cultural resource preservation. For example, GIS software can create maps that show the spatial relationship between a proposed campground and a historic site, or between a planned highway and a Revolutionary War battlefield.
With each success, the National Park Service increasingly embraces GIS to define relationships between park management needs and historic preservation.  At Fort Smith National Historic Site in Arkansas, researchers combined GIS with historic maps to identify archaeological sites. At Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico, historians used GIS to help stabilize Pueblo and Spanish ruins.  Wilson’s Creek National Historic Battlefield mapped the possible location of two artillery positions to interpret the Civil War battle for visitor education and enjoyment. In the Northeast, the park service linked cultural resource databases with GIS to deliver a complete body of information on each cultural resource. And the Park Services’ Cultural Resources GIS Facility used GIS technology to survey more than 800 sites related to the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, to assess their condition. In these and other projects nationwide, GIS has made important links between cultural resources and park management. These relationships are essential if park managers are to make historic preservation a living part of the communities they serve.

John J. Knoerl, Ph.D, Program Manager
Cultural Resources GIS Facility
National Park Service


Carl Drexler, Wilson's Creek NB
Using GIS to Identify Possible Artillery Positions and Manage Artifact Data at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

The first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River erupted Aug. 10, 1861, along a quiet brook near Springfield, Mo. There at Wilson’s Creek, an intense firefight raged for hours between Union and Confederate troops. More than 140 years later, archeologists from the Midwest Archeological Center are using GIS to more accurately pinpoint artillery positions and record the locations of bullets, shell fragments, and personal belongings that show where opposing lines fought, and men died. GIS mapping helped historians reconstruct events at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Park. In one instance, a GIS analysis of shell fragments suggested a more accurate position for Union artillery that surprised Confederate cavalrymen at the south end of Sharp’s Field at dawn. In another, GIS mapping showed where a Confederate battery routed a union brigade at the north end of the field. This sort of analyses has become increasingly popular as a way to clarify and correct the historical record. GIS mapping has helped the NPS better understand and interpret park history and present a more accurate and sophisticated view of the battle to the public.

Artifact distribution on Bloody Hill


Viewshed analysis illustrating positions from which Bledsoe's Missouri (CS) battery could have fired on Sigel's Brigade in Sharp's Cornfield

Viewshed analysis illustrating positions from which Backof's Missouri Artillery (US) could have fired on the Confederate cavalry camps during the opening stages of the battle.

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John Knoerl, National Center for Cultural Resources
Mapping the Revolutionary War and War of 1812

Yorktown, Bunker Hill and New Orleans are getting the once-over as the National Park Service takes another look at the battlefields of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. With congressional support, the NPS set out to identify and preserve significant battlefields for future generations. With help from GIS and other high-tech tools, the NPS created an online database where scholars, researchers and the public could ask questions and make suggestions and corrections on potential battlefields. After reviewing all the information, experts selected 884 sites in 32 states for field surveys. Over the next two years, surveyors from federal and state agencies, universities, museums and private institutions mapped the battlefields, integrating GIS, the Internet, digital databases, topographic maps, laptops, and GPS. The resulting statistics and maps will shape NPS recommendations on battlefield preservation in its final report to Congress in (What year?).

Integration of GIS, GPS, Remote Sensing, and digital database technologies used to survey Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites.

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Cheryl Sams, Northeast Region
Linking Cultural Resource Databases through GIS

The National Park Service relies on databases full of cultural information about archeology, landscapes, historic buildings, museum collections, and characteristics and customs of different peoples. But until now, the NPS had no easy way to retrieve the data from a single location. Now thanks to GIS, the NPS can link the information kept in separate databases, putting data at the fingertips of park planners and managers. North Carolina State University’s Center for Earth Observation developed a method to determine the geographic relationship between each feature in the databases, using an (x,y) coordinate system. The center then built a geographic information system by linking information from each database to the corresponding features. The GIS has made the information readily available, allowing research queries and analyses based on information drawn from any of the databases.

Cultural Resource GIS for Appomattox Court House

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Anne Vawser, Fort Smith NHS
Using Historic Maps to Anticipate and Manage Archeological Resources in Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas

Fort Smith National Historic Site in Arkansas embraces the remains of two frontier forts and a federal courthouse. The government opened the first Fort Smith in 1817 to keep the peace between local Osage Indians and Cherokee who had been forced from their ancestral lands in the Southeast. The second fort opened in 1838 to deal with ongoing westward migration of Indians and settlers. The Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas replaced the fort in 1871, after the Civil War. The court served as a buffer between outlaws and peaceful citizens and handled legal matters in the Indian Territory and Western Arkansas. The site today reminds visitors of 80 turbulent years in the history of federal policy toward Indians. The National Park Service has completed a mapping program using GIS technology that included evaluation of more than 75 historic maps.  The project resulted in a digital atlas of more than 35 themes, each showing a different kind of geographic information. The atlas will help park managers and researchers avoid damage to archeological features in the park. And displays of the mapping process will offer visitors a new and easier way to understand park history and the role of the forts in the development of the West.

Historic map of the second fort at Fort Smith

Photograph of part of the foundation of the first fort

Features of the first for derived from historic maps and the areas that have been excavated

Historic features from various sources overlain on the current DOQQ for Fort Smith

Areas of Fort Smith National Historic Site determined to be archeologically sensitive based on historic features and areas that have been impacted by development

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Andrew Waggener, Salinas Pueblo Missions NM
GIS in Ruins and Historic Structures Preservation at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

The austere yet beautiful reminders of early contact between Pueblo Indians and Spanish explorers are visible in the ruins found at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. The decades-long work to preserve their rich history now includes GIS mapping of pre-historic and historic features to manage and automate these resources. From stored databases, archeologists can retrieve geographic information and field assessment reports and select from thousands of scanned photographs as they work to preserve the ruins of four missions and surrounding pueblos. GIS projects illustrated in these maps involve digitized, scanned drawings of Pueblo and Mission structures, GPS data collection and conversion of computer-aided design data sets. GIS mapping, databases and large-scale aerial photography assist archeology and historians as they learn more about the history of the Pueblo Indian trading communities that thrived in this remote frontier country until the late 17th Century, when drought, famine and warfare drove the Spanish and their Indian allies south to El Paso.

Mound 7 Room Blocks and Walls

Four Views of Mound 7

Abo Pueblo Mission Layers

Abo Visitor Area on Aerial Photo

Abo Mission Complex with Photos

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