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Cartography and Empire in Northeastern America


Nicholas Gliserman is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Southern California and the Barra Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation “Landscapes of Conflict: Cartography and Empire in Northeastern America, 1680-1713” examines the relationship between warfare and cartography in New France, New England, and New York.

Could you briefly describe your dissertation project?

My project, “Landscapes of Conflict: Cartography and Empire in Northeastern America, 1680–1713,” examines the relationship between warfare and cartography in New France, New England, and New York. I begin in the closing decades of the seventeenth century as English and French imperial officials were attempting to transplant state cartographic practices and spatial epistemologies into their colonies. Rooted in a desire to order natural, social, and political environments, the European imperialist impulse to map and thereby mark territory in northeastern America led both to warfare between English, French, Iroquois, and Wabanaki polities as well as upheaval within each of these societies. Subsequent warfare enabled new kinds of mapmaking as spies, captives, and mapmakers travelling in enemy territory used their observations to craft geographic narratives and as military campaigns into borderlands fostered geographic exchanges between Natives and European allies. This movement and exchange created a storehouse of geographic knowledge upon which mapmakers could later draw.

In narrating this story, I especially focus on cartographic exchange—moments when a person (or a group) furnished somebody else with a map. Here I ask: What work did they hope the map would achieve once in the recipient’s hands? What did colonial governors and military engineers hope to evidence by enclosing a map in their letters to Versailles or Whitehall? Or what did Indian delegates hope to accomplish by drawing maps for merchants, missionaries, and soldiers?

Did any current issues inspire you to focus on this particular area of history?

I originally set out to write an environmental history of warfare in the colonial period. The origins of this project were many and varied. In terms of current events, the September 11th attacks shaped many of the questions I ask as a historian—I think because they occurred when I was becoming increasingly aware of the world beyond myself. Architectural critics had once bemoaned the Twin Towers as eyesores but now, in their absence from the New York City skyline, these buildings suddenly symbolized a national wound. Destruction had remade not only the physical landscape but also the ways people (myself included) utilized, perceived, represented, and remembered those landscapes. So in college and graduate school, I began wondering: Why do visual representations of landscapes and violence seem to resonate so deeply within the human psyche? How do we imagine communities through traumatic historical events?

Jacques Levasseur de Neré, “[Plan de Quebec]” (manuscript) (1699), Archives nationales d'outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence, France), Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, 361B. Available:

Jacques Levasseur de Neré, “[Plan de Quebec]” (manuscript) (1699), Archives nationales d’outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence, France), Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, 361B. Available here.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore your topic?

While drafting my prospectus, I was fortunate to take a research seminar on visual culture in the Atlantic World, co-taught by my advisor Peter Mancall and committee member Daniela Bleichmar. This course really put maps on the radar for me—though I did not know how central they would become to my research. As I set out on my research year and began visiting archives in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Britain, and France, I was surprised to keep discovering manuscript maps (eight hundred and counting!) which had often been miscatalogued and even misplaced. I sensed there was an important story here that could help me answer my original questions so I decided to focus my project around this source base.

At a certain point, I took a break from the archives to read widely and deeply in the history of cartography. During this time, I also began reading scholarship emerging from the spatial humanities. I was deeply impressed by the work of people like Brian Donahue, Ian Gregory, and Franco Moretti who were using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to ask new and exciting questions. I also sensed an opportunity here as my dissertation research had led me to a really unique body of historical geospatial data. So I began pursuing a master’s degree in Geospatial Information Sciences and Technology, which has in turn brought me to a second project, tentatively titled “From Historical Map to Historical Geodatabase: Measuring Social and Environmental Change in St. Lawrence River Valley, 1640–1760.” Here I draw upon the cartographic work of six military engineers to assess the development and environmental impact of French settlement during the colonial period.

Jacques Levasseur de Neré, “[Plan de la ville de Québec]” (manuscript) (1709), Archives nationales d'outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence, France), Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, 375A. Available:

Jacques Levasseur de Neré, “[Plan de la ville de Québec]” (manuscript) (1709), Archives nationales d’outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence, France), Dépôt des fortifications des colonies, 375A. Available here.

Can you describe the benefits and challenges of working with maps as your primary archive?

Maps are a challenging source because they present information in a non-linear format (in contrast, we read most English-language textual documents from left to right, following rows from top to bottom) and employ a mixture of textual and non-textual symbols that often have ambiguous meanings and relationships. They are by necessity documents that abstract and omit. Even determining what a map is can be challenging. Europeans and Native Americans had vastly different conceptions of mapmaking and different ways of recording, remembering, and transmitting geographic information. Europeans preserved cartographic information on paper or vellum and understood geographic relationships as a series of distances made coherent by Euclidian geometry. In contrast, indigenous Northeasterners understood territory through toponyms, narratives, and ephemeral diagrams, which often signaled on-the-ground aspects of a place that European mapmakers missed or deemphasized.

Fortunately, I’ve found that the problems have a way of becoming solutions. The questions and ambiguities that make maps challenging sources serve as the canvas for the story I am telling. Rather than asking how do we read a given map, for example, we might instead ask: How did the mapmaker, printer, or person who commissioned the map envision their audience? How did they hope their audience would read or otherwise use it? For example, when governors enclosed maps in their correspondence to metropolitan officials, they may have used those maps to frame their textual arguments. Or they might have been trying to demonstrate their diligence as agents of empire by collecting geographical information for metropolitan officials.

GIS has been a surprisingly helpful tool. Digitally processing maps is a great method of close reading because you have to dwell on all of the details. Furthermore, it has helped me to reconstruct Native spaces/mental maps—for example, I have been able to map out Amerindian place names in a way that helps me to understand how Iroquois and Wabanaki people navigated interstitial spaces or defined boundaries. Finally, overlaying historical maps onto present-day maps helps to illustrate absences, omissions, and distortions (purposeful or accidental) contained within the historical maps.


What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

There is a veritable explosion of cartographic production—or at least more manuscript maps from this period survive and exist outside imperial archives—after 1713, when my current project concludes.

In particular, there is an incredibly detailed survey of British North America conducted between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. Alexander J. C. Johnson and Stephen Hornsby have both recently written about this survey from the perspectives of bureaucracy and print culture, respectively, in really meticulous and thoughtful ways. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to be accomplished here. First, digitally processing these maps will offer us an unprecedented view of colonial development on the eve of the revolt and revolution. Second, I look forward to reexamining the survey through the lens of on-the-ground experiences. How did colonists and Amerindians react to the presence of imperial surveyors? Did this work fuel discord in the decade of imperial crisis? (I suspect it did!) Because these maps are also reprinted during and after the American Revolution, paying attention to reception may help us build upon the excellent work of Martin Brückner in explaining how cartographically literate Americans begin to either reimagine or reaffirm the communities to which they belonged.

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, “Plan de la Ville de QUEBEC” in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire et description generale de la Nouvelle France, avec le journal historique d'un voyage fait par ordre du roi dans l'Amérique Septentrionnale 3 vols (Paris: Nyon fils, 1744)

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, “Plan de la Ville de QUEBEC” in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire et description generale de la Nouvelle France, avec le journal historique d’un voyage fait par ordre du roi dans l’Amérique Septentrionnale 3 vols (Paris: Nyon fils, 1744)

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Come to the archives with big questions but, ultimately, follow your sources and your instincts. Be flexible—your project will most likely change as you research and write. And most importantly, enjoy the process! Have fun looking at the documents and objects that provide us a link to the past. Reach out to the other researchers you meet along the way. Visit the places you are working on, if you can, to get a sense of the landscape your historical subjects inhabited.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

First, maps have been a flawed but nevertheless potent technology of state because of the fantasies of power and control they have allowed political elites to construct and envision. Second, warfare and conflict catalyzed cartographic production throughout the Atlantic World during the early modern period but, ironically, maps helped to establish peace and order as a normative state within political discourse—this is, by the way, a paradox we still live with today as the legal historian Mary Dudziak has demonstrated in her book on “wartime.” Finally, many of the manuscript maps drafted during the period I examine are copied and printed across the long eighteenth century fueling imperial discourses and desires. They allowed people to envision geographically dispersed communities in ways that underwrote the emergence of imperially and nationally imagined communities as well as modern conceptions of territorial sovereignty.

Pat Mackellar, “Plan of the Town of Quebeck” (manuscript) (1759?), British Library (London), Kings Topographical Collection, 119:34. For the 1755 copy, see 119:33. Available:

Pat Mackellar, “Plan of the Town of Quebeck” (manuscript) (1759?), British Library (London), Kings Topographical Collection, 119:34. For the 1755 copy, see 119:33. Available here.

For example, I write about the mapping and fortification of Quebec City after an unsuccessful English siege in 1690. Fortifying the city unfolded slowly and unevenly owing to political disputes, an inhospitable environment, and shortages of funds, labor, and building materials. Yet ingénieurs du roi send an unbelievable number of maps detailing their plans to build fortifications to Versailles. One engineer, Jacques Levasseur de Neré, plans an expansion of the lower city of Quebec in 1699, projecting a masonry wall in his maps that will both defend against foreign invaders and contain the high tide. Here he proposed laying out geometrical city blocks with wide streets—in other words, he was creating an idealized vision of an orderly city. As he makes halting progress on the city’s fortifications over his next decade in the colony, he does no actual work in the lower city. But as he sends new maps, the projected expansion keeps growing in size and ambition. Neré was appealing to metropolitan fantasies here, hoping that his cartographic labor will overshadow the dearth of his accomplishments as an engineer. Thirty-five years later the Parisian hydrographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin printed Neré’s last map of Quebec (sans expansion) in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s history of the colony, which emerged as the most important source of information about New France for metropolitan audiences. The British get their hands on Charlevoix and actually copy, in manuscript, the Bellin engraving of Neré’s map. King George III, alone, had three manuscript copies! At least one was made years before the 1759 British conquest of the city.