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RESEARCH PARTNERS: (From left): Chris Abbott, a Slippery Rock University environmental studies major from Slippery Rock, and Jack Livingston, associate professor of geography, geology and the environment, examine plantation ruins in San Salvador. They are researching land ownership history there.

Student geographer uncovers
colonial past in San Salvador

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Talk about getting down and dirty. When tropical growth that obscured the walls and outbuildings of a plantation in San Salvador threatened his research, Chris Abbott, a Slippery Rock University environmental studies major, grabbed a machete and went to work.

"I spent three days hacking, crawling, bleeding and pushing GPS buttons," he said. "I cut a trail to the newly discovered slave quarters, delineated many more plantation boundaries and uncovered the original driveway to the oldest port on the island - and got poisonwood on my arms and feet," he said.

Abbott traveled to San Salvador over spring break to research spatial characteristics and land ownership on San Salvador from 1760 to1919 and is creating maps of the island based on his findings. Abbott, in collaboration with Jack Livingston, professor of geography, geology and the environment, has created a three-dimensional map of the Watling Castle Plantation region on the east side of the island, a focus area of his research.

His student-faculty research project aims to provide a better understanding of land-ownership trends during the slavery and post-colonial period, Abbott said. He is examining land ownership boundaries, plantation ruins, period roads and agriculture plots to determine changes in parcel size over the years. He is also studying agricultural practices and the effects of the abolition of slavery in 1832 on land division.

San Salvador is the island where Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the new world in 1492. Buccaneer George Watling built Watling's Castle in the 1700s. The ruins include a main house, kitchen building with a stove and fireplace, stonewalls and slave quarters.

"The colonial period was such a dynamic era in world history," Abbott said. "San Salvador's island history is survived by a one-year journal, and many present-day Bahamians still bear the last names of their ancestral masters. The puzzle has so many missing pieces. I guess the draw for me is threefold: geographic information system mapping, mystery and a machete."

Abbott said he conceived the project for SRU's "Field Studies" and "Oceanography" classes, which require independent, original and extensive research. When Livingston told him that large parts of the island were void of comprehensive stonewall mapping data he was off and running.