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How Maps Reveal, and Conceal, History

In this map of North America, the Mississippi River features prominently.

Guillaume de L’Isle’s 1718 “Carte de la Louisiane et du Course du Mississippi” was simultaneously the most accurate map of the time and a French weapon designed to limit English aspirations into the interior. Map courtesy of the British Library.

A few years ago, an editor at the British Library Press who was familiar with my research on the history of maps reached out to me with an idea. Might I be interested in writing a history of America that featured the Library’s cartographic material? He envisioned a volume aimed at a general audience and organized around 100 images. This gave the book a framework and even a “hook,” but beyond that I could shape the content as I wished. Given that the British Library has one of the largest map collections in the world—and is particularly strong on early American material—I was intrigued. Even more appealing was the promise of reproducing the maps in a large color format.

I have long been interested in the complex place of maps in American life. I’ve investigated the role of maps in war and peace, the rise of thematic mapping, and the influence of maps over American national identity. I’ve studied the rise of mass market cartography, the place of maps in American education, and the structural evolution of the world atlas. Yet despite my longstanding preoccupation with the history of maps, the prospect of writing a history of America through maps was daunting. With a limit of one hundred artifacts, of course, this would be a selective rather than a comprehensive history. But the real challenge lay in choosing the maps themselves, which hinged on a more basic question: what kind of story did I want to tell?

I began by brainstorming with a few fellow map scholars, which is a rather unorthodox group given that it includes not just academics but also map dealers and collectors, the best of whom are attuned to both the material nature of these artifacts as well as their historical significance. Within this community, I was immediately struck that several recommended—practically insisted—that I include Guillaume de L’Isle’s 1718 map of “La Louisiane” shown above.

There are very good reasons that de L’Isle’s map was at the top of their list. First and foremost, it was the most accurate and comprehensive depiction of North American geography to that point, synthesizing the latest information from other maps with newly gathered intelligence in the field. It moved light years ahead of its predecessors by approximating the course of the Mississippi River and the general physical scale of the continental interior. Even the British—who similarly sought to thwart French ambitions in North America—considered “La Louisiane” the most geographically authoritative map for decades thereafter.

But if the map was geographically precise, it was also a masterful example of propaganda. De L’Isle was asked by the French king to render a map that would both substantiate and maximize French territorial claims in the continental interior. The mapmaker responded by designing a map that aligned the geography of the continent with French political and territorial claims of sovereignty. Note the expansive rendering of “La Louisiane” across the interior, which effectively hems in the English settlements between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Coast. De L’Isle then centered the map on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, all of which the French claimed through French explorations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. De L’Isle stretched the French sphere of influence to its limits, outraging the British and launching a “war of the maps” that ended only when the French and Indian War ultimately terminated French claims to North America altogether in 1763.

The English claims to North America are outlined in yellow and limited by the Appalachian Mountains in this section of the map.

De L’Isle used the Mississippi and its tributaries to maximize French claims in North America, thereby relegating English claims to the east of the Appalachian Mountains. The map outraged the British and heightened territorial disputes that ultimately exploded in the French and Indian War.

For several reasons, then, this was a great candidate for inclusion in the book, one which would allow me to discuss imperial rivalries as well as the state of contemporary geographical knowledge. Moreover, the map arguably influenced decisions and actions, making it not just a record of history but also an agent of historical change. And yet to write a history of America through maps that focused primarily on these iconic documents—usually produced as official instruments of discovery, statecraft, and territorial control—would scarcely do justice to the extraordinary capacity of maps to reveal history. For instance, the de L’Isle map described above tells us a great deal about imperial politics and rivalries in the early eighteenth century, but the map below—drawn at almost the same moment—is arguably just as rich a source of contemporary history.

Red ink depicts circles of various sizes connected by lines.

This copy of a deerskin map, most likely drawn by a Cherokee chief in about 1721, rendered geography in terms of power and relationships rather than absolute space. As a tool of diplomacy, it captures the complex nature of the contemporary deerskin trade in the Southeast. Map courtesy of the British Library.

This “map” was copied from an original drawn by a Native American on deerskin in about 1721, a priceless document held only in the British Library. For those like myself who are not specialists in Native American history, the map is initially disorienting, for it represents space in terms of relationships rather than physical distance or absolute location. But with the right context, it unlocks just as much history as the celebrated de L’Isle map.

De L’Isle took pains to identify the many tribes of the densely settled Southeast on his “La Louisiane” map. Yet the map tells us little beyond the location of these tribes. By contrast, the indigenous map brings us into a world of upheaval centered around the deerskin trade. In the aftermath of the Yamasee War, the newly appointed Governor of South Carolina sought to meet with local tribes in order to strengthen trade relationships in a way that would funnel trade to the port of Charleston. Moreover, the governor was anxiously aware that the French were actively expanding their own realm eastward from the Mississippi River and the recently founded port of New Orleans.

But the English and French, of course, were not the only agents operating in the Southeast. The Cherokee similarly sought to strengthen their position in the deerskin trade, which had been decimated by the recent war and displaced by the rapid cultivation of rice in South Carolina. To this end, they sought to forge an alliance with South Carolina at the expense of both Virginia and the other tribes. This map was presented to the governor by a Cherokee leader at that meeting, designed as an instrument of that strategy.[1]

Note the indigenous perspective, where circles of various size are used to denote the relative power of the individual tribes in the larger region. In contrast, the English settlements at Charleston and “Virginie” are rendered through angled lines. Along the top of the map, a two-lined path suggestively circumvents the Catawba tribe to link the Cherokee directly to Carolina’s bustling new port at Charleston. The absence of any link between Cherokee and Virginia indicates the recent end of trade between those two parties.

Produced at a particular moment in time, the deerskin map encodes layers of information. It was designed to communicate across cultures, outlining the advantages of particular alliances in a way that conveys indigenous agency in the highly fluid and contingent world of eighteenth-century colonial America. It reminds us that individual tribes had competing and sometimes conflicting interests, which drove them to make strategic alliances. Unlike most maps of the time, it records an indigenous perspective in an era that is most commonly narrated through European narratives, and which traditionally foregrounds the rivalry between the French and the British. Through its radically different rendering of space, it challenges our very definition of a map. Through its purpose, it reminds us—like the de L’Isle map—that cartography is always as much a tool of persuasion as a representation of terrain.

The deerskin map of 1721, in other words, asks us to think differently not just about the history of America, but the history of maps. By capturing a moment in time from a particular perspective, it also becomes an unrivaled and direct window onto the past. And some of the richest of these sources were used to influence behavior or decision making, revealing that maps are not just passive records of the past, but active agents as well. For instance, take this 1853 German language map, just one piece of a much larger contemporary literature designed to influence the enormous wave of immigration to the United States.

Western Europe and the eastern half of North America are connected by red lines in this map.

Gotthelf Zimmerman’s map of 1853 was designed to guide potential German emigrants. The most popular destinations reveal not just German patterns of settlement, but also the larger forces that contributed to the sectional crisis. Map courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At first glance, the map seems fairly straightforward, advertising a range of destinations throughout the country. Yet a closer look reveals not only patterns of immigration in the 1850s, but the more fundamental dynamics that contributed to the Civil War. Traditional German typography identifies cities and towns, and the distance from each to ports along the Atlantic coast. Railroads are marked in red, and canals in blue, which together convey the larger infrastructure behind both the market revolution and the subsequent industrial revolution.

Dense networks of red and blue lines show how cities in the Northeast and Midwest are connected by railways and canals.

A closer look at the map reveals the tremendous recent advances in transportation, which integrated the Northeast with the emerging Midwest. Red railroad lines and blue canals show us a region enmeshed in industrialization, while the comparative absence of both in the southern states reveals a very different landscape.

Notice that canals, roads, and railroads integrated the Northeast and the Midwest; conversely, the absence of the same revealed the comparatively limited economic development in the South, and also the relative geographical isolation of that region within the country as a whole. Thus, while this map was designed for one purpose, it inadvertently reveals a much larger set of forces that increasingly differentiated the slave-based agricultural economy of the South from the free-market wage economy in the North. And by guiding immigrants to the latter, the map actually helps us understand the way that immigration was both a cause and consequence of that growing regional distinction, which ultimately led to the sectional crisis.

This final point is essential: old maps are valuable as both records and agents of history. Across five centuries, artifacts such as these have guided exploration, conquest, and settlement but also politics, commerce, science, medicine, education, bureaucracy, reform, and entertainment. Whether made for military strategy or moral reform, to encourage settlement or investigate disease, maps both reflect and mediate change. They tell us what people knew, what they thought they knew, what they hoped for, and what they feared. They invest information with meaning by translating it into visual form, thereby reflecting decisions about how the world ought to be seen. They capture the irreducible complexity and contingency of the past. Above all, they remind us that the past is not just a chronological story, but a spatial one as well.

Susan Schulten is Professor of History at the University of Denver, an OAH Distinguished Lecturer, and the author of A History of America in 100 Maps (co-published by the British Library Press and the University of Chicago Press, 2018). She is also the author of The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 (2001), and Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (2012), both published by the University of Chicago Press.

[1] My discussion draws on Ian Chambers, “A Cherokee Origin for the ‘Catawba’ Deerskin Map (c.1721),” Imago Mundi, 65 (no. 2, 2013), 207–16. Though he interprets the map in similar terms, Alan Taylor identifies the author as a Catawba in Alan Taylor, “Squaring the Circles: The Reach of Colonial America,” American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia, 2011), 3–23.

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