Monday, 12 August 2013

Digging deeper: The Importance of Native American Maps in the Discovery and Exploration of North America

John Smith’s 1612 Map of Virginia
It's time to dig deep in our archives again and this time I'm focusing on the most popular article from Terrae Incognitae: Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries.
'The Importance of Native American Maps in the Discovery and Exploration of North America' by Louis De Vorsey emphasizes the importance of, yet lack of attention paid to, the mapping traditions of the Native Americans encountered by European explorers and settlers. It introduces readers to various methods for representing spatial understanding used by North American natives, many of which were vital to European exploration and later mapping of North America.  

The article begins with the following introduction:

"The story of Native American maps begins with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Upon his first landfall in the Bahamas, the admiral was impressed by the dugout canoes paddled by the first “Indians” he met. He described them as being “fashioned like a long boat from the trunk of a tree . . . and wonderfully made . . . some being so big that in some came 40 or 50 men, and others smaller, down to some in which but a single man came.” Columbus lost no time in taking captive some of the awe-struck natives to serve as guides. In Columbus’ words, they “made signs to me that there were so many other islands that they could not be counted, and they called by their names more than a hundred [islands].” While there is no mention of Native American maps in his account of his progress through the Bahamas to Cuba and Hispaniola, it is certain that Columbus relied on captured native pilots for his safe passage."

De Soto. Mapa del Golfo y costa de la Nueva España, c. 1544
Dr De Vorsey continues to argue that it was not only Columbus who relied on Native guides:

"It was an amazing fact of synchronicity that both the southwest and the southeast of North America were first explored by Europeans at the same historical moment. That moment came in 1539–1540, when Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led large, well-equipped companies into land now embraced by the United States. Both expeditions were dependent on Indian guides and informants, some of whom were capable and, as we will see, challenging cartographers."

The article concludes by quoting Dr Patricia Galloway:

"Indian maps and geographic information were so important a factor in the European development of knowledge of the American continent that it is impossible to gain an adequate idea of the process without taking them into account."

>> Read the full article for free

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