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The Where of History - Geography

  • Terri Johnson The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • 2004 20 Oct
The Where of History - Geography

Geography is a subject many parents feel inadequate to teach. The "where" of history is just as critical to the story as the "who" and "when". To close your eyes to geography while studying history is akin to learning math without manipulatives. It can be done, but it leaves holes in the complete picture, very much like putting together a puzzle without all the pieces.

We often don't remember much from our own geography lessons, and a sincere question, such as "where is Calabar?", from a curious, upturned face, can feel quite intimidating. It can be challenging enough to find Chattanooga on a map, much less Calabar. In truth, this place is not even shown on most modern maps you might have around your house.

How does a home-educating parent incorporate geography into a history lesson? With a few simple tools and resources on hand, the task can become quite painless and even enjoyable. One key to remember, however, is that it is perfectly acceptable to learn geography alongside your students. You don't have to have all the information or answers ready in advance. Investigating the answers together can be a rewarding and bonding experience.

Before reading a historical account, whether from an encyclopedia, a biography, or a work of literature, make sure that you have on hand a globe, a wall map, and a historical atlas. Optional, but helpful, items include outline maps (preferably historically based) and a timeline (any format will do – wall, book, or computer software). Why is a timeline recommended for incorporating geography into history when this tool focuses more on the "when" aspect of history? A timeline will allow the student to see what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time as the event he is studying.

Let's take a look at the life and ministry of Mary Slessor, pioneer missionary to Calabar in Western Africa. Mary grew up in Scotland in the time of the Industrial Revolution, and this had a profound effect on Mary's upbringing during the 1850s and 60s. Her father moved the family from Aberdeen to Dundee before landing a job as a laborer in a mill, while her mother took a weaving job in a factory. As a teenager and young adult, Mary worked twelve-hour shifts as a factory-girl. It was during this fourteen-year period that she ministered to young street ruffians and prepared for her journey to the faraway and romantic coast of Western Africa.

This would be a good time to find Scotland on the globe. Where is this small European country? Who is its nearest neighbor? Using your historical atlas, find the areas of heavy industrialization. If you are using an outline map, place a star by the cities in which Mary and her family lived. Label and trace the outline of England and Scotland. Label the island country to the west and the country directly across the channel to the east. Label the bodies of water surrounding Great Britain. Use your globe or atlas for the answers. This is not cheating; it is how we learn. Make this a time of exploration and discovery, rather than a test or drill. If your children are young, don't require much writing; rather, let them color the map that you helped them to label.

Let us return to our story: the Presbyterian mission in Calabar, founded by Jamaican ex-slaves, intrigued Mary Slessor. She left her homeland and traveled to the coast of Nigeria, the very coast raided by slave-traders who bought and sold human beings as chattel for the far-off plantations in the New World. Of course, slavery had been abolished in most parts of the civilized world by this time, but its horrific history still had an enormous impact on the people of that land.

Take some time to look at a map of the whole world. Locate the area of West Africa to which Mary Slessor dedicated thirty-six years of her life. Follow the western coastline down from Morocco until it cuts in to the east and forms the Gulf of Guinea. Find Scotland and Jamaica in relationship to Nigeria. How far did these pioneer missionaries have to travel to reach this dark, exotic jungle and spiritual wasteland?

If you have older students (about sixth grade and up), a challenging, age-appropriate activity would be to pull out some graph paper and draw a blown-up view of the Calabar region. Use all of the information that you gained so far to piece together an inexact map, or dig through some old biographies of Mary Slessor and find a suitable map to trace.

About one hundred miles east of the mouth of the great Niger River is the smaller Cross River. It was up this river that Mary Slessor ventured, ever further into the thick jungle and heathen societies that dwelt there. Label the towns you would come to if you were paddling upriver in a canoe. First there is Duke Town, Old Town, and Creek Town. Paddling further upstream, the river covered with a thick white bed of water lilies and trees overhead filled with tropical birds squawking out their warnings, you would come to the villages of Akpap and Ekenge of the Okoyong people. Mary Slessor dedicated fifteen years of her life to these tribes and raised many of the Okoyong children as her own. If you continue up the Cross River, you would reach Itu, Use, Asange, and finally Ikpe, where Mary spent many of her final years. Although it is just over forty miles from Duke Town to Ikpe, it would take you at least two full days traveling by canoe to reach this destination.

Mary's heart ached for the salvation of the Nigerian people. The desire to bring the light of Christ to these people that she loved is what drove her to journey ever deeper into the interior, where sinister practices continued to rage, and wild animals menacingly roamed. In 1903, Mary finally procured for herself a bicycle to travel between towns, drastically improving her commute time. This was an incredible advance in transportation for this part of the world. Ironically, it was in this same year that the bicycle-makers from Dayton, Ohio, first flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk and forever changed the world of transportation. By using your timelines, you can see the connection between these two events, happening in different parts of the globe during the same time period.

Over the next 10 years, world tensions began to escalate, particularly in Europe, leading to the start of the First World War in 1914. Your timeline in progress would show you that this event occurred toward the end of Mary's life. What is the connection between this world war and the unpublicized efforts of Mary Slessor, who was changing precious lives and savage customs in the West African bush? In truth, it was learning of WWI that sent Mary's health into a tailspin from which she would never completely recover. Her sorrow over the state of her homeland, coupled with the loss of two of her dear friends killed in the war, drove her to bed with a raging fever. Her health was already poor by this time, but this global tragedy took its toll on the beloved white "Ma" of the Nigerian people. On January 13, 1915, Mary Slessor went home to be with her Lord. It was the quiet conclusion of a life of giving all that she had to bring God's glory to the people of Calabar…

 "Over this vast, sun-smitten land she wept, as her Master wept over the great city of old, and she did what she could – no woman could have done more – to redeem its people, and sought, year in, year out, to make the Church rise to the height of its wonderful opportunity – in vain." - W. P. Livingstone

Upon her death, her African children and friends mourned her departure with the deepest grief. Fellow missionaries, government officials, and loved ones from home knew that there was no one who could fill the large shoes this courageous woman left behind. With redoubled effort, many men and women were sent to the bush, and Mary's lifelong dream was eventually realized: a Christian church in Nigeria!

The use of maps and timelines completes the historical picture of the life and ministry of Mary Slessor. It fits the final pieces into the puzzle, giving a clearer overall perspective of the story. Don't allow insecurity to keep you from teaching geography alongside history. Without it, the scene developed in your students' imaginations may be dull and flat. With it, their imaginations may "pop" with vibrancy, and their fascination with the subjects of history and geography may soar to a new level.

Terri Johnson is the creator of Knowledge Quest maps and timelines. She has created and published over 15 map and timeline products. Her Blackline Maps of World History have been widely recommended in the education community. Terri resides in Gresham, Oregon with her husband Todd and their four children whom she teaches at home. Her website is

Copyright, 2004. Used with permission. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Please direct comments to: