Alfred H. Meyer

The Life and Work of a Midwestern Geographer




While his name is rarely heard in graduate seminars in geography departments today, Alfred Meyer had a remarkable career. Truly a product of the Midwest, Meyer was born in southwestern Illinois, in the small German Lutheran community of Venedy, Washington County. His college education began at McKendree College and continued at the University of Illinois, where he completed two degrees in geology. He continued his training in succeeding summers at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and finally the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in geography. He joined the faculty at Valparaiso University in 1926, remaining there for the rest of his distinguished teaching career.

Meyer partly made his unique mark on American geography through his research, which focused on the Kankakee Marsh and Calumet regions of northern Indiana and Illinois in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The subject of his doctoral work, the Kankakee Marsh served as the early focus of Meyer's academic research and a showcase for his attention to detail. Most notably, Meyer reconstructed the vegetational complex of the Kankakee and examined the changing land use of the area, especially in light of the marsh's reclamation for agriculture (1935). The thoroughness of his fieldwork was not lost on those who advocated field study as an important component of American geography (1959).

Meyer's research on the Calumet began with a study of the toponyms (or place names) of the region (1945). He was particularly interested in using place names to help reconstruct the settlement history of the Calumet. Meyer noted a variety of different kinds of place names, many tracing their roots to the Potawatomi Indian occupants of the region prior to 1830. The very term "Calumet," in fact, which was applied to over a dozen landscape features, likely derives from the Indian term for the reedy vegetation found around the southern end of Lake Michigan. While Meyer's analysis and cartographic depiction of the region's toponyms were important, his identification of recognizable stages of settlement would serve as the foundation for future work.

In 1950, Meyer supplemented his studies of the human dimension of Calumet occupance with a detailed reconstruction of the biotic dimension of the area. He realized the significance of such a study since vegetation had a profound influence on early settlement, a lesson learned in his Kankakee research. Meyer was particularly interested in what he called the fundament vegetation--the species and plant communities that predated Euro-American pioneers. In this sense, he resisted use of the term "natural" vegetation, recognizing that Indian adaptive strategies had likely altered and shaped the ecological patterns of the Calumet.

Meyer is perhaps most noted for his application of the sequent occupance concept in the historical geography of the Kankakee and Calumet. Put simply, sequent occupance involved the analysis of discrete stages of settlement at a given location, the differences between stages representing geographic change through time. Building on his earlier works, Meyer formulated his now-classic sequent occupance of the Calumet in the early 1950s. He summarized the "circulation and settlement patterns" of the region in his contribution to the 1952 volume of the International Geographical Union. In this concise, but provocative piece, Meyer identified the four major stages or phases of Calumet historical geography as he saw them. They were as follows:

One of the most notable features of this article was the accompanying sequence of "ecological silhouettes"--graphic cross sections or profiles showing the generalized landscape changes characteristic of each occupance phase. Meyer had utilized this technique in his detailed 1935 study of the Kankakee Marsh region immediately south of the Calumet (a portion of which is shown here). Over the next several years, Meyer expanded on his analysis of regional settlement, writing additional, more elaborate articles on each of the first two stages of Calumet Occupance for the Annals of the AAG(1954, 1956).

Ultimately, the sequent occupance approach to historical geography experienced a marked decline in American geography. The approach had first appeared and flourished in the 1920s and 30s, the likes of Derwent Whittlesey, Preston James, Stanley Dodge, Robert Platt, and Charles Colby helping to popularize it. Meyer no doubt learned of the approach from Dodge, a faculty member at the University of Michigan at the time Meyer studied there. In spite of the success of Meyer's work, however, sequent occupance declined in favor of the cultural landscape/culture history approach emanating from Carl Sauer and his students at the University of California, Berkeley. Still, students of the history of geography recognize that, for whatever shortcomings the sequent occupance approach may have had, Meyer was its ultimate practitioner. According to Marvin Mikesell, "sequent occupance reached an early culmination in Meyer's work of 1936, for subsequent studies by American geographers (excepting those by Meyer himself) were not of comparable quality" (1976, 162). Meyer's sequent occupance studies of the Kankakee and Calumet regions were significant because of the highly detailed "silhouettes" that he prepared to represent the various stages of settlement. As artistic as they were scientific, these diagrams helped visualize landscape change over time in a way few other scholars could match.

Meyer also left a mark on American geography through his efforts in building the Department of Geography and Geology at Valparaiso University. After joining the faculty in 1926 as an instructor of geology and zoology, he became head of the Department of Geology in 1933. In 1937, under Meyer's leadership, the department was reconstituted as the Department of Geography and Geology (Strietelmeier, 1959, 114), making him the "founder" of the modern department. In large part because of his teaching ability and dedication to the discipline, this small, but long-running department has sent a disproportionate number of its graduates on to complete advanced degrees in geography (Barton and Karan, 1992, 150). A recent study of the educational backgrounds of professional geographers also revealed that Valparaiso University ranked twentieth in Bachelor's degrees conferred to U.S.-resident members of the Association of American Geographers, a remarkable position for a small liberal arts college (Janelle, 1992, 375). This accomplishment is due, at least in part, to the tradition begun by Meyer.

After a lengthy career at Valparaiso that touched thousands of geography students and teachers--both in the Midwest and across the country--Meyer died in 1988 at the age of 95.

Career Highlights:

1921 - A.B. in geology, University of Illinois
1923 - A.M. in geology, University of Illinois
1926 - Joined the faculty of Valparaiso University
1933 - Appointed head of the Department of Geology, Valparaiso University
1934 - Ph.D. in geography, University of Michigan
1937 - Appointed head of the Department of Geography and Geology, Valparaiso University
1942 - Promoted to Full Professor, Valparaiso University
1947 - President, National Council for Geographic Education
1953 - President, Indiana Academy of Science
1957 - President, Indiana Academy of Social Sciences
1959 - Distinguished Service Award, Chicago Geographical Society
1967 - Distinguished Service Professor, Valparaiso University
1969 - Distinguished Service Award, National Council for Geographic Education

Bibliography:

Barton, Thomas F. and P.P. Karan. 1992. "Alfred Herman Ludwig Meyer." In Leaders in American Geography, pp. 149-151. Mesilla, NM: New Mexico Geographical Society.

Janelle, Donald G. 1992. "The Peopling of American Geography." In Geography's Inner Worlds: Pervasive Themes in Contemporary American Geography, eds. Ronald F. Abler, Melvin G. Marcus, and Judy M. Olson, pp. 363-390. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Meyer, Alfred H. 1935. "The Kankakee 'Marsh' of Northern Indiana and Illinois." Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 21 : 359-396.

________. 1945. "Toponomy in Sequent Occupance Geography, Calumet Region, Indiana-Illinois." Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 54 : 142-159.

________. 1950. "Fundament Vegetation of the Calumet Region, Northwest Indiana-Northeast Illinois." Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 36 : 177-182.

________. 1952. "Circulation and Settlement Patterns of the Calumet--South Chicago Region of Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois (A Sequent Occupance Study in Historical Geography)." Proceedings, VIIIth General Assembly and XVIIth Congress of the International Geographical Union (Washington, D.C.), 538-544.

________. 1954. "Circulation and Settlement Patterns of the Calumet Region of Northwestern Indiana and Northeastern Illinois (The First Stage of Occupance--The Pottawatamie and the Fur Trader)." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 44 : 245-275.

________. 1956. "Circulation and Settlement Patterns of the Calumet Region of Northwestern Indiana and Northeastern Illinois (The Second Stage of Occupance--Pioneer Settler and Subsistence Economy)." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46 : 312-356.

________. 1959. "The Kankakee 'Marsh' of Northern Indiana and Illinois." In Field Study in American Geography: The Development of Theory and Method Exemplified by Selections, by Robert S. Platt, pp. 202-216. University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Research Paper No. 61.

Mikesell, Marvin W. 1976. "The Rise and Decline of 'Sequent Occupance': A Chapter in the History of American Geography." In Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy, eds. David Lowenthal and Martyn J. Bowden, pp. 149-169. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strietelmeier, John. 1959. Valparaiso's First Century: A Centennial History of Valparaiso University. Valparaiso, IN: Valparaiso University.


This page is maintained by the Department of Geography and Meteorology at Valparaiso University. Please send comments and corrections to Jon Kilpinen at jkilpinen@exodus.valpo.edu.

Created on 10 June 1996 by Jon T. Kilpinen. Last revised on 11 November 1996. JTK.