Rediscovering Native North America: “Forgotten” Settlements and 18th-Century Cartography

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Chad Anderson, Hartwick College
Historians frequently treat Euroamerican ideas of "settlement" in North America as timeless, emphasizing how Europeans saw the continent as a wilderness. This scholarship centers on topics ranging from the legal concept of vacuum domicilium, used to take supposedly unused Indian land in colonial New England, to the myth of "virgin land" pulling Thomas Jefferson's idealized farmers westward throughout the nineteenth century. As visual representations of the built and natural environment, maps provide insight into how Euroamericans envisioned such lands as "settled" or "empty." Scholars of cartography have emphasized erasure of the Native American presence on Euroamerican maps, especially during the seventeenth century. Following the work of geographer Brian Harley, this literature argues that early English colonists produced maps that portrayed America west of New England as an empty land. These blank spaces invited settlement and legitimized colonial expansion. Although this scholarship—by historians and geographers—has been invaluable to understanding powerful European ideals, it has overlooked the dynamic reality of early modern "settlement" and its portrayal on maps during the eighteenth century. By the middle of that century, European imperial rivalry for North America reached its apogee during the Seven Years' War, and European cartographic knowledge of the continent greatly expanded. Rather than blank spaces, maps from this period contained hundreds of Native American settlements.

Analyzing and reproducing six essential maps from the Library of Congress' collections, my proposed poster will help visualize an often forgotten landscape of eighteenth-century North America, where, for most of the continent, Native Americans controlled the definition of "settlement." Unable to project political power into the lands that they supposedly controlled, British mapmakers and writers had to recognize Indians settlements and even referred to "settling Indians." Relying heavily upon Native American sources, British maps tell a story of indigenous agency rather than European cartographic mastery. A poster presentation is an ideal medium to convey this process of "discovery" and loss from the eighteenth-century through the early years of the American republic, when Indian power declined east of the Mississippi and reservations replaced Native American villages on maps. Colonial maps suggest that when teaching American history, to recapture the past as it was (rather than what it became), towns such as Onondaga should take their place alongside Boston, Philadelphia, and other familiar places in our classroom books and diagrams.

See more of: Poster Session #3
See more of: AHA Sessions