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.”
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.
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.
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.