Maps That Infuriate Me: European Claims to North America

I've decided to wean myself from my recent mapmaking spree (this, this, this, and this) by starting a new series on the blog: Maps That Infuriate Me. I don't know how many posts this series will end up including, but I do at least know where to start.

Put the words "European claims to North America" into a Google image search, and these will be the first two results (at least for now):

The map on the left (from here) claims to represent the year 1700, and the one on the right (from here) represents 1763. The only egregious flaw I see in terms of physical geography is on the left, where the Alexander Archipelago - my home, no less - has been gratuitously sunk into the ocean. However, considering that it's clearly intended to be a more simple grade-school-ish kind of map, I don't think that's such a big issue, and it's not the one that I'm here to write about.

What I'm really here to write about are the political implications of these maps. Now don't get me wrong - both maps are legitimate and roughly accurate in fulfilling their stated purpose. After all, I did search for "European claims to North America," emphasis on the claim. That having been said, this is about the only sort of map that you'll see in standard history curricula dealing with North America during this time period: European claims to the continent.

So what is so wrong about maps showing European claims? What's wrong is that such claims and their boundaries only truly mattered for European diplomats negotiating at the end of a war, not for anyone - and I mean anyone - living in North America. These maps completely discard indigenous Americans and their polities as if they didn't exist. And I'm not asking for some sort of "politically correct acknowledgement" of Native peoples here; I'm asking for a realistic assessment of the cold, hard, realpolitik facts-on-the-ground.

The truth here is that up through the year 1800, Native Americans controlled MOST of North America - and "most" is a bit of an understatement.

Neither of these maps shows that historical reality; in fact, both of them help to hide it. Although some might think it obvious that most of the continent was still controlled by Natives in 1800, this "obvious" fact isn't made so clear for students. Vast areas in the above maps that are splashed with color and labelled with a European nation were actually entirely dominated by Native powers. There were Natives who still held sovereignty over themselves even in the 13 Colonies, even in central Mexico. The areas labelled "unexplored" only further inform the ridiculousness of the maps: Everywhere labelled for a country is basically anywhere a European set foot - and often not even that. Basically, the student looking at these maps of 1700 and 1763 can already imagine Natives in the places they occupy now - bottled up, isolated, unimportant to the real governmental powers of the continent descended from European colonies. That impression of inevitability is wrong and disgustingly biased.

a map of Comancheria
In areas around present-day Texas, the Comanche and other powerful indigenous groups would be completely uncontrolled by Europeans - and would dominate the Europeans in their spheres of influence - up through and beyond the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which my professor says would be more accurately named the Mexican-American-Comanche War. In the Louisiana Territory, there were little to no assertions of European sovereignty imposed on the Natives there: The most that was done by the French there was to trade; they certainly couldn't claim to actually control or govern anyone there, and neither could Lewis and Clark, exploring the area over forty years after the year purportedly shown by the second map. What the second map portrays of Alaska is ridiculous as well: I'm not even sure that all of the coastline that's colored pink was even explored by Russians, let alone exposed to trade or settlement.

It would be far more accurate to make a map showing all of the European outposts in these parts of North America. The rest of the map should be colored with the spheres of influence of Native groups, or if that is too difficult it should be labelled "disputed," because that's what much of the continent was - disputed among Europeans, yes - but even more importantly, disputed among diverse groups of Natives and Europeans, allying and competing variously among each other, briefly dominant in one area or another, never entirely sure of their rule. In other areas, like that labelled "unexplored" (by Europeans, it should be added), Native sovereignty was entirely undisputed. Why do maps so rarely acknowledge that presence and power? If the cartographer is too lazy to distinguish among peoples, they could at least color it in and label it "Natives" or even "Indians," as silly as that would be.

To conclude, showing European claims in the Americas can be very important, especially to show that Europeans claimed far more land than they had any realistic ability to hold. However, I get the impression that American students in particular are never made aware of the true power and presence of Native Americans and their sovereign governments up to the end of the 19th century. Rather, the progression of U.S. territory westward is portrayed as happening through immense purchases or treaties with Europeans and Mexico, and as soon as the land became "owned" in this way, a student is given no reason to believe that there would be any other conflict with the United States' borders or sovereignty. In reality, American actions like the Louisiana Purchase, Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, and the Alaska Purchase only served to transfer Western claims from one country to another. The active process of subduing Native nations - which really created the United States - was a much longer and much more complex process, nor was it an inevitability or "destiny." It's about time that maps express that historical truth, and that's why maps like these infuriate me.


  1. Interesting thoughts, but only a dream, and such a dream is broken the moment any isolated primeval land and its people are discovered by the advance of a technically superior civilization. The result will likely range from sad to horrific, but it will happen. For whatever it might be worth, we do know that technically primitive civilizations of the past were not necessarily innocent of abusive behavior either. Take your pick, the French Revolution or the Maya sacrificial rituals. Steve Siemion


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