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Shackleford Diary - Which Stream Is It, Anyway?

Jen Glaubius
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In This Episode:

The first death Ruth Shackleford recorded during her journey, but certainly not the last, was on May 17, 1865. The entries from May 16 and 17, 1865 also provide good examples of problems identifying streams from the diary. And a new feature - Listener Q&A!

TW - Description of death along the trail (1:15-1:34) and discussion about death in Shackleford's diary and in present day (2:45-5:32).

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May 16. This morning Att bought a rifle for Frank, paid $20 for it. We only came eight miles to the Big Ottawa and stopped to do our washing here. We came in company with five other wagons, some of Att's acquaintances. We were glad to see them.

May 17th. We all started together. There were six other wagons camped just below us. They caught up with us and we had a considerable train out on the high desolate prairie. We had not gone far until Frank's hard-headed cattle ran off down a branch and like to upset the wagon. Att run in before them and stopped them before the children and I could get out. We passed through a town called Frankforde. All it has was the name and flag. We then came on to Red Oak the county seat of Montgomery County. About a quarter of a mile from town, we came to Middle River. The bridge had fallen in. They had a flatboat to take teams across. It worked by ropes. They charged us three dollars and fifty cents for five wagons. They could only take one yoke of cattle and one wagon at a time. The women and children all got out of the wagons and stood on the boat. We're camped tonight on the same river. There was a terrible accident happened in a company behind us this evening. Mr. John Milburn was shot. He and Mr. Ralman were fixing to shoot some prairie chickens. Mr. Ralman's gun went off and killed him. All he said was "Raise me up." They buried him in Frankfort.

I'm Jen Glaubius and this is The Helonaki Deep Dive, a podcast about the process of geographic historical and archaeological research using open source tools.

In this episode. I'll discuss death a little bit in Ruth Shackleford's Diaries and continue my discussion about locating places that I started in the last episode. This time, I'm going to talk about locating streams using the rivers mentioned in the two entries I just read. So, let's dive in.

I've continued on tagging locations. I've continued on tagging locations as much as I can. When I started writing the outline for this week, I was at these two days - May 16th and 17th, which provide the perfect examples of difficulties in locating streams, any types of rivers. And I'll talk about that in just a bit.

But I want to start with the end of Ruth Shackleford's entry for March [May] 17th, where she tells the story of Mr. Milburn's accidental death when he was going hunting with Mr. Ralman. This was the first death recorded in Ruth Shackleford's diary, but it was far from the last. Um... some things to note.

Mr. Milburn was not part of their company but was traveling behind them since he was buried in Frankfort where the Shackleford's had at... had passed through earlier that day.

Death itself is a constant theme for Ruth Shackleford. She mentions each of the deaths of her.... the death of her son Frankie, of her sister-in-law, and nieces and nephews, other people that died that they were traveling with or who died nearby. But not only that... she also as they go on they passed by graves and she mentions the circumstances that she hears about them. She'll write whose name it was and that she thought about them as they pass. And so, she in her own way, way, in her diary, for herself, Ruth Shackleford recorded and memorialized the people that had died before her along her path.

I was especially struck, by the mentions of death. Death is always hard. But especially now in 2020 when covid-19 has killed so many. There have been over 200,000 deaths from covid in the United States and more than 1 million deaths worldwide. And so death is something to think about. And sometimes those numbers become blurry, it's just overwhelming. One thing I do, to try to make the people who have died from covid at least a bit more... and make them more people instead of numbers is I follow a Twitter account called Faces of Covid where they memorialize people who have passed on because of covid.

One of the things I want to do later with Ruth Shackleford's diaries is to go through and tag and log the deaths and graves that show up in the entries, which right now I'm only doing the locations, but I want to look eventually at how she thinks about death. Because just from re-reading the diaries. I've read probably at least five-ten times by now. It just strikes me each time that she mentions death and thinks about death which because there was so much death in her party that makes a lot of sense. So down the line, this is one topic, I'd like to look more into.

Now let's talk... change gears a bit. And let's look at the streams that Ruth Shackleford mentions on May 16th and May 17th and the actual process for locating streams.

So in the May 16th and May 17th entries, Ruth Shackleford mentions two streams. On May 16th, the Shackleford's came to the Big Ottawa where they washed their laundry and did other washing. On May 17th, they take a boat across the Middle River. It was just west, a quarter of a mile, is what she says west of the town of Red Oak. And they had to take a boat across since the bridge had collapsed.

Now a few things to think about with the names. Ruth Shackleford didn't always get the correct names or in some cases the name she refers to are no longer the names of different towns or streams or other places. So thinking about this we're looking at history and so place names including stream names definitely change.

Another thing to think about, especially with streams, is that most of the major rivers in the midwest were channelized by the US Army Corps of Engineers after World War Two. Streams meander, they're always moving. They're changing their location.

So any type of locational information I have right now is modern. If I wanted to try to find more precise locations, I could try digitizing historical historic maps... the Stream locations on historic maps, but that would be a lot of work. So what I'm dealing with is modern data because it's a bit faster, but keep in mind that any locations I have are not precise to 1865 because stream locations have changed.

So the data... the modern data that I use for streams... I've used two different data sources. The first is a data set from Natural Earth, which has rivers, lakes worldwide and they have specific data sets, the center lines for North America and rivers for North America at a 1 to 10 million scale.

Now. This is a very small scale. 1 divided by 10 million is a very very small number. And so that means that it represents a very large area such as a continent.

So Natural Earth, this data is not going to be super precise, if you're looking very local at a very small area. But it's okay for getting a general location of larger rivers and streams. The smaller streams are not going to show up on that data at all.

I also am using... actually using more... the National Hydrographic Data Set from the United States Geological Survey and they have shapefiles also geodatabases, but I can't open them with QGIS. So I'm using shapefiles still. And you can download the shapefiles from this hydrologic data set by state. And so, for Iowa, the shapefiles come in three different levels, which is the amount of flow that goes through so there's much greater precision for the locations. But they're very segmented. So an individual stream could have hundreds of individual segments spread out across multiple flowline levels. And so they have to be merged before you can do... use them. I'll talk about this a bit later.

I'll talk through my process, but I wanted to let you know what the data is that I'm using for these modern streams.

All right. So let's start with the process of identifying the Big Ottawa. I started with the Natural Earth files, and there's no such stream as the Big Ottawa, definitely not in Iowa. So then I looked at the National Hydrographic data set files. And also there's no stream in Iowa called Big Ottawa. That's a problem.

So setting that aside, I'll have to go find that in a bit. So switching to looking for Middle River. Again, there's no stream called Middle River. There is a Middle Nodaway nearby, but it's on the wrong side of Red Oak. As I mentioned before, Ruth wrote that they came to the Middle River a quarter mile west of Red Oak, Middle Nodaway is over 10 miles east of Red Oak. However, the East Nishnabotna river is just west of Red Oak. And so that's probably the Middle River that she's referring to and the Middle Nodaway is much more likely to be the Big Ottawa that Ruth mentioned since both the Middle Nodaway and the East Nishnabotna appear in the Natural Earth North American Rivers files. We can see their locations, but they're not super precise. So I'm not using them to get the location in the database.

So the process for streams. So a stream is not a point. A stream is a line. The best way to represent a stream is with... is with a geometry. So not a point, but an actual geometric shape in this case a line.

Within nodegoat, I can change when I'm creating a place object and giving it a location. I can change location to be a reference. Um... which I'm not using, a point, which I'm using for towns and other simple locations, but I can also use the geometry which then I can paste a geojson into the field and that'll provide the location of the stream or county or state, something that isn't just a point.

So to get that geojson, this is my process. I'm using QGIS at the beginning of this and what I start with is creating a temporary scratch layer, of type polyline so that it can contain more than one line segment. Because remember the National Hydrologic Data Set contains many, many segments for each stream. So I create that and then I go through the different flow line levels and I select all segments with the identified name. I copy them out of the flow line and paste them into the temporary scratch layer. Once I have all all those segments into the temporary layer, I run a dissolve on that temporary layer. Dissolve is located under vector and then geoprocessing tools in QGIS, and I save the result as a shapefile.

Once I have a shapefile I go to online and I import that shape file and then export the result. I look at it and make sure it looks okay. Yes. It doesn't have too many holes in it. It looks like a river, great. Then I export it to a geojson. Once I have a geojson, I open it in a text editor because it's basically a text file. The text editor I use is Atom, which is what I use for any markdown and most of the programming that I do. So I open up the geojson, I copy out the text and then I paste it into nodegoat into the geometry, the geojson field. And then I celebrate because I have gotten this location.

Now for these streams. Both of them were... I classified both of them as uncertain. Partly because neither of them had the name that was in the Ruth Shackelford diary, and I potentially could have misidentified each one. So there could be more than one stream. It could be some other location.

So before I go I want to talk a little bit about classification of place type. So last time I talked about classification a bit, but I was using a large classification in multiple places where things had separate meaning. So I was using a place type that contain Town, Fort, Stream, a Stop, Passed, Mention. Things that actually get classified in two different places, and this was a problem. I would forget which type of place type I was supposed to be using and which part of the tagging process and so I separated those out, re-tagged what I had already done.

So now any place location is tagged with what it is. Is it a town? Is it a fort? Is it a stream? Mountain? A state? So that's a place type versus when I'm tagging a location in the diary. Tagging that with why that place is mentioned that location is mentioned. Is it because it's some place where the Shackelfords stopped? Some place they passed by? Was it some place that's mentioned? And I'll probably add one about places that they see, because that comes up later when they get closer to the mountains and they see different mountains.

But keep in mind that this is a work in progress like all research is and there's...There are times when you just have to go back and revise and improve because things don't work quite the way you were hoping they were. And so that was... that was the case of my place type classification.

Welcome to the first Helonaki Deep Dive Q&A.

From the last episode, I had a few people reach out to me wondering about a term I used - gazetteer. A gazetteer is an index or a directory of geographic locations, places. The term came from... I believe... old atlases. Like printed books of maps an atlas like that. Where some place in it in the front or the back. They would have a list of locations, of places. And along with that list of places each place would have which map so the page number that that location could be found as well as usually the grid coordinates. So usually there were like B3 and that would give you a box so that you didn't have to hunt the entire page to look for the location.

Now, of course, that's the old-fashioned way and today gaz... online gazetteer such as they work as a search engine. So you'll type in a name. It'll give you one or more possibilities what you'll see is usually the latitude and longitude for that location.

So thanks to everyone who asked me about....about that word gazetteer.

Another thing I wanted to let you guys know about is I dug into a bit of my family history recently and I found out that Ruth Shackelford, the author of the diary that I'm using, was she was my... is my great-great-great-grandmother. So my three-times great-grandmother. So I have a... I thought there was a family connection, but it's nice to know that Ruth Shackelford was my ancestor. It's really wonderful to know.

If you have a question about any topic that I've covered or anything you'd like me to cover. Send me an email at deepdive - all one word - at Helonaki. That's

deepdive at

You can email me at That's h-e-l-o-n-a-k-i.

If you have a comment or suggestion, please drop me a line.

That's it for this episode.

If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and leave a review or recommend The Helonaki Deep Dive to a friend.

If you'd like to send a little cash our way to support the Deep Dive, there's a link to the Helonaki page on Buy Me a Coffee in the show notes.

The Helonaki Deep Dive is written produced by me, Jen Glaubius, of the Helonaki.

The theme music is Deep Ocean Instrumental by dan o at

Thanks for listening!


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The Helonaki Deep Dive is written and produced by Jen Glaubius of The Helonaki

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