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Ellen Churchill Semple: The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains

[ photo: Ellen Churchill Semple ]

The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains

How Ellen Churchill Semple, class of 1882, became a geographer is an interesting story in itself. She earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in history at Vassar. After graduating, on a family trip to London, she read Anthropogeographie by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel and made up her mind to study with him. Women were not permitted to matriculate at the University of Leipzig, but she was allowed to sit outside in the hall and listen to his lectures.

Back in the U.S., "[w]hen Semple began her career, geography was a young field—and early researchers, heavily influenced by the earth sciences, emphasized physical geography in their work. Semple developed a new program of research into the human aspects of geography, an innovative orientation that spanned the disciplines of geography, history, and anthropology. 'The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains' (1901) exemplified this new approach. To compete research for the article, Semple traveled to the Kentucky mountains and recorded observations about aspects of mountain life, such as housing, food, crafts, and religion. This trip was itself an innovation since fieldwork was an uncommon practice in geography at the time. From her observations, Semple documented the importance of human-environment interactions in the character of places and regions."

Ratzel believed in environmental determinism - that the natural environment determines the character of a society as well as the course of history - so it's not surprising that Semple adopted his theoretical framework. When later scholars rejected that framework, her influence diminished. "However, in recent years Semple has been recognized as a pioneer in the study of human-environment interaction. Her research also foreshadowed contemporary concerns with cultural and political ecology in the social sciences."