{ subscribe_url:'//loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/geography-and-maps.php', }

Celebrating Native American Cartography: The Catawba Deerskin Map

With the end of November and Native American Heritage Month, today we are taking a closer look at a unique map among the cartographic collections of the Geography and Map Division. Documenting just part of the expansive and diverse Native American experience is the “Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina,” which is more commonly known today as the “Catawba Deerskin Map.”


“Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina.” Francis Nicholson (Contributor), c. 1721. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

This map is notable for being among the few surviving maps from the colonial period in North America that were originally authored by Native Americans, as opposed to early European colonizers. Native Americans have a long history in producing cartographic depictions of their environments, and the geographic knowledge of Native Americans proved to be invaluable in educating newly arriving Europeans. However, it is believed that many Europeans would discard the original Indian maps once they had acquired the geographic information pertinent to their needs and translated the information into their own maps. As a result, very few indigenous maps, particularly from the present-day southeastern U.S., have survived.

The Catawba Deerskin Map was a map drawn on deerskin and presented to Francis Nicholson, the colonial governor of South Carolina, around 1721. The original map, believed to have been authored by Indians of the Catawba Nation, has been lost. However, Nicholson had two copies of the map made and returned to London, thereby ensuring this rare preservation of indigenous cartography from the colonial period.

The map is a stylistic representation of the Indian nations between Charlestown (Charleston, South Carolina) and the colony of Virginia. The map is oriented so that southerly features are on the left side, while northerly features are on the right. European settlements are depicted in squares and straight lines, while Indian nations appear in circles. The “Nasaw” is shown as the most central community of the Catawba Nation, appearing in the center of the map as the largest circle. Furthermore, the translated text written in English in the copied map labels “The English Path to Nasaw.” Peripheral to Nasaw are various other Indian communities.


Detail of the English Path to Nasaw in “Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina.” Francis Nicholson (Contributor), c. 1721. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Rather than emphasizing geographic accuracy and scale, the map focuses on the network of relationships between the Indian nations and the English. According to Max Edelson, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a former Kislak Fellow in American Studies at the Library of Congress, the map “served the purposes of diplomacy rather than cartography as a scientific endeavor” and was meant to communicate trade relationships. In a 2012 interview with the radio program BackStory in which he discusses the map in detail, Edelson compares the Catawba Deerskin map to a modern subway map, in which depicting accurate physical space is less important than communicating the structure of the network.

For example, in this map of the Washington, D.C. metro system, excerpted from a 1986 pamphlet for the National Zoo, it is the clarity of the paths between subway stations that is most important in the map, rather than preserving exact positioning and the geographic spaces of, and between, the stations.


Detail of the Washington, D.C. metro system from “Zoo map : [Washington D.C.]” National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution. 1986. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Despite the unfortunate loss of so much Native American cartography from this period in history, we should cherish the few maps that have been preserved to the present day and use them to foster a deeper appreciation for indigenous narratives and representations of place. Maps such as the Catawba Deerskin Map help to tell stories about how Native Americans of the time period viewed not only their physical surroundings, but themselves as well.

Celebrating Waldseemuller’s Carta Marina at 500: A Conference at the Library of Congress

Conference Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1516 Carta Marina. Keynote address by award winning author and historian of science Dava Sobel. A two-day conference hosted by the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta Marina, one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance […]

New Exhibit Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial and the Organic Act

Today’s post is from Jacqueline Nolan, a Cartographer in the Geography and Map Division. Today officially marks 100 years of the National Park Service! National parks are a cherished resource of the American public, and serve as inspiration to many countries and communities worldwide. A new exhibit open today in the Geography and Map Division […]

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Map Monsters

This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the introductory post to the series here. “You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!” – Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the […]

Exploring the National Parks in the Geography and Map Division

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this month, there is no better time to highlight the Geography and Map Division’s special Digital Collection “Mapping the National Parks.” This curated collection includes nearly 200 maps, dating from the 17th century to the present, covering national parks and areas that in the future would become […]

Maps for the Masses: Geography in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

It is almost a cliché to say, but today, in 2016, maps are everywhere. The barriers to geographic information have come down so that anyone with internet access or a smart phone can see maps of the world in incredible detail. But the wide availability of maps to people of all walks of life is […]

Millie the Mapper

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts.   We’ve all heard the story of Rosie the Riveter: women, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who entered […]

Computing Space VI: The Many Languages of Space or How to Read Marble and Dacey

Today’s post is the sixth in a year-long series called,”Computing Space,” which highlights new mapping technologies and new areas for cartographic innovation, along with stories of the lives and work of many of the mostly unknown cartographers, geographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, designers and architects who both now, and in the past, have had a hand […]

Putting Women Back on the Map

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. Today, we’ll give a brief overview of what’s to come. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts. Women cartographers envisaged, engraved, drew, and printed every kind […]

Rare Spanish manuscript map showing the western borders of the Louisiana Purchase arrives at the Library of Congress

Today’s guest post is by Anthony Páez Mullan, a cartographic reference specialist in the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress. He specializes in the historical cartography of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula and is a co-author of the “Luso-Hispanic World in Maps.” The Library of Congress recently acquired an important […]