This website is the product of a Digital History Workshop (HIST:2195) taught at the University of Iowa in the spring of 2020. In this course we explored the social and economic history of a 6×6 mile square of North American prairie land that since 1856 has been named Oxford Township, Johnson County, Iowa, USA. We display our findings in the pages of this site.

Overall, mostly fresh European migrants rapidly occupied Oxford’s land and developed a modern rural economy in the first few decades of the township’s organization in 1856. After this initial settlement and development peaked in the early 1900s, however, Oxford’s society and economy has either stagnated or declined ever since (at least up to the 1950s, as far as we could get in one semester). The picture that emerges from this history is therefore very different from the uninterrupted march of progress and economic growth that we read about in modern history textbooks. Instead of the world experiencing such universal progress and growth, the history of Oxford suggests that this progress is more like a single wave that has passed around the world. For anyone riding this wave, things appear to be moving forward, but for everyone else on the ground the wave comes and goes in a matter of decades.     

Our history is organized into the basic building blocks of human society: People and Land, and the economic and social relationships between them. Our method is to investigate how individuals and families acted in specific circumstances, and how specific circumstances influenced their actions. In the sixteen weeks of the Spring 2020 semester, we were able to describe basic trends for the first century of Oxford’s history (up to the 1950s) in the origins, health, and relations of Oxford’s families; economic developments of the town, railroad, local businesses and occupations, and the distribution of land; and social formation through local histories, newspapers, schooling, and voting. None of this work is conclusive. Our only hope is that it can inspire others to pick up where we left off, in Oxford and elsewhere.

The goal of this project was not to learn more about Oxford Township, per se, but to learn how a single American rural community experienced the past 150 years of human history. Much of the world as we know it today was created during this time. Only in 2008, a little over a decade ago, did the world’s urban population become larger than its rural population for the first time in history (UN FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013, 6). This means that the experience of rural communities like Oxford is more representative of “modern” global history than the experiences of places like London or New York.

On Historical Narrative

This website presents a new approach to studying the past. Traditionally, the goal of historical research is to write a narrative story about the past. A good history helps us understand how and why past events occurred and hopefully also how this past influences present events.  But such a history does not really explain where and how the historian got their information, what pieces of information they decided to include or exclude, and why they wrote one story instead of another.

The premise of this project is that the where, how, what, and why of historical research itself is more meaningful than, and in many ways largely determines, the final product (e.g., a history book). This website, the final product of this project, therefore presents very basic descriptions and illustrations of Oxford society as it existed in space and time. Fundamentally, many of these illustrations are direct visualizations of the dates and locations of historical events, often divided into categories for the sake of comparison. (For more details of how we did this, see Methods and Our Data.) The goal of these descriptions is to use raw historical records to recreate the specific historical context of Oxford in as much detail as possible before we even begin trying to understand and interpret the actions and events that occurred there.

In this respect, we are not neglecting historical narrative, but only demonstrating a new way to begin constructing historical narratives. The final products of this project, in other words, are meant to be the ingredients for writing new histories about Oxford. And this project itself is meant as a model to encourage other students, communities, and researchers to begin recreating their own specific historical contexts.      


This project was an experiment in applying new perspectives and new technologies to the study of local history. Other projects have used similar methods on a larger scale,1 but we hope the focus on a single community helps make this project more accessible and realistic for students, local historians, and others to emulate. One of the greatest virtues of this project is that almost all of the data it uses are freely available online for tens of thousands of other similar communities across the U.S. This means that this project can be replicated thousands of times, and every time the results will differ according to different local contexts but still be similar enough to provide endless opportunities for comparative research.     

1 The best example being the research that Myron Gutmann and others have done on Great Plains communities. See Gutmann, Myron P. Great Plains Population and Environment Data: Social and Demographic Data, 1870-2000 [United States]. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2007-02-07. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR04296.v2; Sylvester, Kenneth M., Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Myron P. Gutmann, and Geoff Cunfer. “Demography and Environment in Grassland Settlement: Using Linked Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Data to Explore Household and Agricultural Systems.” History and Computing 14, no. 1–2 (March 2002): 31-60. https://doi.org/10.3366/hac.2002.14.1-2.31.