ArcGIS Lesson 1: Mapping Great Plains Population

[Please Leave Comments and Suggestions for Revisions]

Created by Geoff Cunfer, revised by Louis-Jean Faucher


This lesson has two goals.  First, it will introduce you to basic GIS methods and concepts, and provide initial exposure to ArcGIS software.  Second, it will introduce students to HGIS methods and concepts by exploring the spatial distribution of population in the Great Plains in the past.

The map and attribute data employed here are publicly available from the National Historical GIS project based at the University of Minnesota.  That project created map layers at various scales (nation, state, county, census tract, etc.) to correspond with the decennial U.S. censuses for years ending in 0 from 1790 until 2000.  You can download census statistics and corresponding maps, designed for use in a GIS or in statistical software, from

This project will walk you through the process of loading GIS data, joining attributes to maps, and symbolizing maps based on those attribute data.  It will enable you to explore historical questions about the spatial distribution of people of different ethnic backgrounds in the past.  You will learn how to create printable maps that answer descriptive historical questions.

  • Download zip and save in your Documents\ArcGIS folder (make sure you unzip the folder). The final file path should be C:\Users\<username>\ArcGIS\ArcGIS_Lesson1.

I. Open ArcMap

  • From your computer desktop (or Start Menu > ArcGIS), open the ArcMap software

Note there are a number of programs in the ESRI GIS package, including ArcCatalog and ArcGlobe, but you will mostly use ArcMap. Begin by saving a new map document.

  • Click File > Save (or Ctrl-S) and save to ArcGIS_Lesson1\ProjectFiles and call itmxd.

Key concept: In GIS work it is important to pay close attention to where on the computer you save files.  The program you see on your screen does not read just a single file, like a Microsoft Word document or a PowerPoint presentation does.  Instead, it refers to multiple underlying files, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of files.  The software has to know where to find those files by means of their path.  Moving files after the fact or changing the names of directories can cripple a GIS project, although it can be mended.  It is preferable to set up a directory structure before you start a GIS project, then stick with it.  For this exercise, a directory structure is already in place for you.

Note: The ArcGIS software has a tendency to crash now and again; you will save yourself a lot of frustration if you get into the habit of saving your work periodically.  Click the Save button (or Ctrl-S) to save your work about every 5 minutes throughout the exercise.  If you do not remember this advice now, you may be reminded the hard way later…

II. Load map data

Key concept: Spatial data represent geographic features in a similar way to familiar paper maps.  We will start with vector map data, which come in three different forms:  points, lines, and polygons.  This exercise makes use of polygon map data in a vector format. You could use graphics software to draw maps with lines, points and polygons. What distinguishes vectors features in a GIS is they represent places on the earth with known coordinates. Each point is a pair of coordinates (latitude and longitude, or X and Y). Lines and polygons are created by stringing together points, so they are also grounded with known coordinates. This makes it possible to automatically add vector data as layers and have them all line up to create maps.

  • In ArcMap click the Add Data button  add_data.
  • Browse to the Documents\ArcGIS\ArcGISLesson1 folder you created earlier, making sure to highlight the “ArcGIS_Lesson1” folder (single click) rather than expanding it (or double-clicking on the “GIS_Demo1.gdb” folder.
  • Double-click on the geodatabase called gdb.
  • Select the datasets (or Feature Classes) called GP_county_1930 and GP_states_1930.  Hold down the Ctrl key to select both at the same time, then click the Add button.


On the left side of your screen in the Table Of Contents (TOC) two new layers appear with check marks next to them.  One is GP_county_1930 and the other is GP_states_1930.  Each has a coloured box below it.  On the right side of your screen, in the map view, appears a corresponding map of all of the counties and the 12 Great Plains states as they existed in 1930.


You can’t see the the Great Plains states layer because the county layer is covering it up.

  • Uncheck the box next to GP_county_1930.

Now you can see the GP_states_1930 map layer.

Key concept: in ArcMap, GIS data is referred to as a Feature Class, meaning a collection of similar features, that share similar attributes, and that have a similar geometry type (point, line, polygon). The data is stored independently from the map. When added to the map, GIS data appear as layers of map features that can each be manipulated and symbolized independently. When saving your map document (*.mxd file), it does NOT contain any data; it merely remembers where the source data is located and how to display it on the screen.

III. Symbolize and arrange map layers

  • Check and uncheck the boxes next to the two layers to turn them on and off.GISlesson1_listbydrawingorder
  • Check both to turn both layers on.  Click the icon in the top left corner of the TOC to List By Drawing Order .  Then click and hold on the GP_states_1930 layer and drag it above the GP_county_1930 layer.  When you release the mouse button it moves to the top of the list.

Now you will “symbolize” (change the graphic representation) of the GP_states_1930 layer so that it complements the GP_county_1930 layer, rather than obscuring it.

  • Click on the coloured box beneath GP_states_1930. The Symbol Selector dialog appears.
  • Select the Hollow box Make the Outline Color black and the Outline Width = 2.
  • Click OK.

Notice how the symbol box has changed.


Now you can see both map layers at the same time.  GP_states_1930 appears as an outline only, without any fill colour, while GP_county_1930 retains its fill colour. The state boundaries make it easier to distinguish which counties are within which state.

IV. Load attribute data

Key concept: Attribute data are digitized descriptions of geographic places.  Examples of attributes include things like the total population of a county (polygon), the speed limit along a section of road (line), or the temperature at a given time at a weather station (point).  Attribute data can be numeric or text. The list of possible attributes about the world is infinite.  In this exercise we employ attribute data taken from the U.S. Census of Population about all counties in the Great Plains states.

  • Click the Add Data button again add_data. Inside GIS_Demo1.gdb select the dataset called GP1930pop.
  • Click the Add

A new data table appears in the TOC, but this time there is no layer corresponding to it in the map display.


  • Right-click on the table called GP1930popand select Open.

A table called GP1930pop opens in the Table view; it looks much like a spreadsheet.  Each row (or record) represents one county in the 12 Great Plains states.  Each column (or attribute / variable) represents one type of information about those counties.


  • Explore the data table by scrolling up and down and left and right.

The State and County attributes correspond to the location that each row represents.  The column headings (or variable names) across the top indicate what information about those places is available in this dataset. Individual cells contain numerical or textual data.  This selection of data from the 1930 US Census includes information about

  • total population
  • sex
  • race
  • age
  • rural or urban residence
  • tenure of farms
  • country of birth for the foreign-born population

This data table will help us characterize the population of each county and understand the demographic structures of different places in the Great Plains.

V. Join map data and attribute data

At the moment, ArcMap represents the location of all of the counties in the Great Plains states.  And the map contains a table of information (attributes) about all of those counties.  But the program does not yet know those two sets of information are related.

Key concept: One significant power of GIS stems from the ability to connect map data and attribute data.  This connection process is what separates GIS as an analytical tool from database and graphics software.  A database program can manipulate attribute data in sophisticated ways.  A graphics program can make beautiful maps.  But only a GIS can bring together the maps with the attributes so that researchers can analyze the spatial relationships of attribute data.

The map layers do have some attributes already built in.

  • Right-click on the GP_county_1930 layer and select Open Attribute Table.

A similar data table called GP_county_1930 appears in the Table window.  This table looks a lot like the other one, with several columns of attribute data and a row for every county feature.  There are 17 attribute columns, all with different kinds of identification information.

  • Scroll right and left through the columns

This table doesn’t contain much information of substance about the characteristics of each county. The crucial difference between the two tables is that GP_county_1930 is displayed in the map while GP1930pop one is not.

  • Resize and drag the Table window so that it doesn’t obscure the map.
  • In GP_county_1930, click on one of the small gray boxes to the far left of the table window.

Doing so highlights a row in the table that represents a single county and highlights the corresponding county feature on the map.  If you want to know where any given county is, click on the adjacent gray box in the table to select it.


  • Before going to the next step, click on the Clear Selection button GISlesson1_clear_selection located below the Add Data

Note that you can toggle between the two tables you have open by clicking on the tabs in the bottom left of the Table window.  GISlesson1_1930county_attributetable2.

Notice that one column is identical in both tables: GISJOIN. This variable presents a unique ID code for each county.  Custer County, Colorado has the code 800270 in both tables, for example.  These unique IDs will allow ArcMap to join the data table with census information to the layer attribute table so that the program can connect locations on earth with attributes describing those locations. Note that the matching attributes in the two tables do NOT need to have the same name, but they DO need to contain equal values of similar type (number to number, text to text) for the connection to work.

  • In the TOC, right-click on GP_county_1930and select Joins and Relates > Join.

The Join Data dialog appears, which will allow you to connect the Census data to the map layer.

  • Make the following selections in the dialog box and click OK.


The table called GP1930pop has not changed.  Close it.  Inspect the table called GP_county_1930.  All of the 17 original columns are still there.  Scroll to the right in the table.  All of the census data are now also present in the layer’s attribute table.  Now when you click on a gray box on the left side of the table, selecting both the row and a county on the map, you can determine how many people lived in that county in 1930, how many were male and female, what their age and racial structures were, etc.  The join procedure has connected the map data with attribute data about the map features, in this case counties. Note that this connection is ephemeral and is only temporarily stored in your map document.

To make this join permanent, you need to export the map layer as a new feature class.

  • In the TOC Right-click on the GP_county_1930layer and select Data > Export Data.
  • In the Export Data dialog select the following settings:


For Output feature class:

  • Click on the Folder icon and navigate to ArcGIS_Lesson1\GIS_Demo1.gdb.
  • Name the new map file GP_county_1930_join_census


  • Click Save, then OK.


  • Click Yes to add the exported data to the map as a layer.

You are done with GP_county_1930 so uncheck its box.

  • Click on the List by Drawing Order button GISlesson1_listbydrawingorder and drag GP_states_1930 back to the top of the list.

VI. Symbolize attribute data

You have completed the basic data set-up procedures for a GIS.  The map data and the attribute data are related to one another.  Because the data represent conditions more than 75 years ago, this is an HGIS, a Historical Geographic Information System.  Now we can ask historical questions of the GIS.


Where in the 12 Great Plains states could we find the most people of Norwegian birth in 1930?

Key concept: One of the fun parts of GIS analysis is the process of data exploration.  Data exploration refers to the iterative mapping and remapping of attribute information to look for interesting spatial patterns.  Some of the most productive and creative analysis in GIS work comes from repeatedly making maps, then changing a parameter and remaking the map, as a way to learn about the nature of the attribute data.

In this exercise we will begin the data exploration process.

  • Clear any selected features and close the Table window so that the map display occupies the main space.

The data are still there, connected to the map, but they need not always be visible.

  • In the TOC right-click on the GP_county_1930_join_census
  • Select Properties to bring up the Layer Properties dialog
    (note that because we will use this dialog extensively,
    double-clicking on the layer name in the TOC opens it automatically).
  • Select the Symbology
  • On the left side of the dialog box select Quantities and then Graduated colors.

Here you can instruct the program to represent one of the census attributes on the map.

  • In the Fields section, set Value to the Population

This instructs the software to map the total population information from the attribute table, joined from the census table earlier.

  • From the Color Ramp dropdown, select a red option.
  • Change the number of classes to 4 and click the Classify
  • On the right side of the Classification dialog box set the Break Values to the following:
    • 9999
    • 24999
    • 79999
    • 1000000


  • Click OK.

You have just instructed the program to represent (or display) the counties using 4 distinct classes based on total population size:  those under 10,000, those between 10,000 and 24,999, those between 25,000 and 79,999, and those over 80,000.  The more people in a county, the darker red the fill symbol will be.


  • Inspect the Layer Properties dialog to confirm that the classes seem appropriate.
  • Move the Layer Properties dialog off of the map and click the Apply button to see which parts of the plains had more people and which had fewer in 1930.

Note: clicking Apply applies the change to the layer but leaves the dialog open, whereas clicking OK applies the change and closes the dialog.

During this data exploration phase, you can change parameters on the fly to ask different questions and to refine your answers.  Maybe you want to change the 4 population class ranges or the number of classes represented.  You can change the colour choices and even the variable mapped until you hit on information that is useful and interesting.  So to answer the question “where would we find a lot of Norwegians in 1930?”:

  • change the Value field under the Symbology tab of the Layer Properties dialog to Born_Norwayand click Apply.


  • Which Great Plains states had many counties with high Norwegian-born populations in 1930?

Don’t remember your American geography?  Using the Identify tool  , click on one of the states.  You can find the state’s name in the Identify window that pops up.


  • Which Great Plains states had some counties with high Norwegian-born population in 1930?

We got our answer, but what do we really mean by “high Norwegian-born populations”? High compared to what?  What we have mapped here is high Norwegian-born populations compared to all counties in the 12 states.  We don’t really know what percentage of the population in these redder counties was Norwegian-born.  To discover that we need to represent the data as a percentage rather than an absolute population count. ArcMap calls this process “Normalization”, which is not the same as statistical or database normalization.

Key concept: Normalization is the process of allocating data equivalently based on a larger total.  For example, when we represent wheat acreage as a proportion of the total acreage of a county, we normalize based on total area.  When we represent Norwegian-born people as a proportion of all the people in the county we normalize based on total population.  It is often more accurate and honest to represent normalized data rather than raw data.

Inspect the map as it is now.  Note the large county in northeastern Minnesota that is one of the darkest on the map.  This county may have a large Norwegian-born population simply because it is considerably bigger than the one just to the south of it.  Mapping raw data doesn’t account for the variations in county size or for the fact that a county with a large city in it has a lot more total people than a rural county.

Revise your map to normalize for total population.

  • Set Normalization to PopulationGISlesson1_normalization

This tells ArcMap to take the Norwegian-born number for each county and divide it by the total population of each county.  The result will be the proportion Norwegian-born.  [Remember your math?  Example:  A proportion of 0.11 = 11% of the population.  To convert proportion to percentage, shift the decimal point 2 positions to the right.]

  • Click Apply.

The map changes quite dramatically.



  • Which Great Plains states had many counties with high Norwegian-born proportions in 1930?


  • Which Great Plains states had some counties with high Norwegian-born proportions in 1930?

Let’s adjust the map to use more intuitive break points in the legend.

In the Layer Properties dialog, under the Symbology tap, click the Classify button and change the Break Values on the right side of the Classification box to the following:


  • Click OK.

This setting groups together the counties with under 2%, 2-5%, 5-10% and 10-13% Norwegian-born population, with darker reds indicating higher percentages.

  • Convert the proportions indicated under the Range heading to percentages under the Label heading by typing in the following label items:
    • 0 – 2.0%
    • 1 – 5.0%
    • 1 – 10.0%
    • 1 – 13.0%


  • Click OK to close the Layer Properties

VII. Generate a finished map

Now that you have answered your analytical question, you may want to generate a map to accompany the historical discussion of this question in your text.

  • On the toolbar at the top of the ArcMap window look for a blue-green globe icon called
    Full Extent GISlesson1_full_extent.

Key concept: ArcMap offers two distinct ways to display your layers. Data View is used primarily for data manipulation, exploration and analysis, to assemble your collection of layers and data tables, to change their symbols, etc. Layout View on the other hand displays a page and is used to design a map that will be sent to the printer or published as a pdf or jpg file.

Now look in the bottom left corner of the map display.  A small map icon indicates that you are viewing your map in “Data View”. GISlesson1_page_icon.

  • Hold your mouse pointer over the icon to confirm this.

Now we will switch to “Layout View” to complete our map.  Just to the right of the small map icon is a page icon.

  • Click on the page icon to see a page layout mock-up of a publishable map.

The map we just created is already there.  We need to add a legend, scale bar, and title that will help map readers interpret the meaning of the map.  Because we are conscientious scholars, we will also add a credit line to acknowledge the source of our data.  The steps below tell you how to add these items to your layout page.  If you don’t like the initial result, you can always delete the element and try again.

  • From the menu bar at the top of the ArcMap window, select Insert > Title.

A text box appears on the map layout.

  • Type in “Percentage Norwegian-born, 1930” for the map’s title and click OK.
  • Click on the title text box to select it, and use your arrow keys to move the title up above the map but still inside the solid black neat line.
  • From the menu bar, select Insert > Legend.
  • In the Legend Wizard set Legend Items to show only GP_county_1930_join_census.  Click Next.
  • Change the Legend Title to read “Percent Norwegian-born.”
  • Continue to click Next through the rest of the windows and Finish to complete the legend.

It shows up in the middle of the page.

  • Click and drag the legend box to the bottom left corner of the page, inside the neat line.
  • From the menu bar, select Insert > Scale Bar.
  • In the Scale Bar Selector dialog choose the option you like best.
  • If you want to tinker with the scale bar properties, click the Properties

For example, you might want the scale bar to indicate kilometres instead of meters.

  • When you are done, click OK.
  • Select the scale bar box, click, and drag it to the bottom right of the layout, inside the neat line.
  • From the menu bar, select Insert > Text. A small text box appears in the middle of the map.
  • Type the following: “Map data and U.S. Census data from”
  • Drag the box to the bottom of the page so that it doesn’t overlap with any other map elements.

When the layout is arranged to your satisfaction, you are ready to export your map.  You could, at this point, print a paper copy.  Instead, for today, we will export the map as a .jpg image that could be imbedded into a Word document, uploaded to a web site, or used in a PowerPoint presentation.

  • From the menu bar, select File > Export Map.
  • Navigate to ArcGIS_Lesson1\OutputMaps and name your file Norwegian1930.jpg.
  • Set Save as type: to JPEG (*.jpg) and dpi to 200.
  • Click Save.

VIII. Explore your own historical question using the 1930 data

  • Click the Save button (in case you haven’t already done so 12 times…) to save your Norwegian-born map in its current form.

Now we need to create a second copy of this document.

  • From the menu bar, select File > Save As.
  • Rename the map document as mxd.

Be sure to save the newly saved file inArcGIS_Lesson1\ProjectFiles.  Every time you are ready to generate a new map, start by re-saving the *.mxd file with a new name

It is time to pursue your own curiosity. Because the data are already set up for analysis, you don’t need to repeat sections I-V above. Instead, repeat the procedures outlined in sections VI-VII above to ask historical questions of the data, symbolize the answers appropriately, and generate output maps.  Try mapping lots of different attributes.  Tinker with the best symbolization settings to represent them accurately and clearly.  Find one or two with interesting results, and generate a couple of output maps. (If you come up with something good, post it on Twitter and tag @geospatialhist.)

IX. Explore change through time

Key concept: GIS is useful to many academic disciplines and for a multitude of commercial applications.  Historical GIS is an emerging methodology within the historical profession that uses GIS technology to analyze and understand the past.  An aspect of HGIS that distinguishes it from other GIS uses is the need to represent time.  One solution to the challenge of time in GIS is to make sequential maps that hold constant the attribute mapped, the scale, and the legend, but change the dates

Choose one variable and map it for several time points. To explore change through time you’ll need to repeat some of the steps from sections I-V above to import map and attribute data, join them, and then symbolize variables. The exercise files contain data for several census years.  Keep in mind that the attributes available for each year are not always the same.  One that is consistent is total population, so a relatively easy time series to construct would be changes in total population through time.  To make maps that are truly comparable through time, they all need to have the same scale, and use the same classification and colours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: