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Native American Spaces: Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress

*The text for this blog post was adapted from the research guide created by former G&M reference specialist, Mike Klein, and from the essay by Jim Flatness, former G&M acquisitions specialist, found in the Library’s publication “Many nations : a Library of Congress resource guide for the study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States,” 

For Native American History Month, we want to highlight a research guide available from the Geography and Map Division titled Native American Spaces: Cartographic Resources at the Library of Congress. Created by reference specialist, Mike Klein, this guide provides access to digitized primary sources, print bibliographies, and related online resources for the study of American Indian and Alaska native people of the United States.

Land and environment are fundamental to American Indian culture and history, and also central to Indian / non-Indian relations. As the primary means of storing geographical knowledge and experience, as well as communicating locational and spatial information, maps are the links between landscape and history, and although often overlooked, they are potentially rich sources of primary historical information for Native American studies. Maps furnish us with a graphic representation of an over five-hundred year historical record of the physical and cultural landscape of North America. As such they reflect the changes set in motion by the arrival of Europeans in America and the subsequent competition for control of the land. In many cases the maps most valuable for the study of American Indian history are those that are not specifically related to Indian matters but include such American Indian-related geographic data as indigenous place names, settlement sites, trails, and tribal range as part of recording the known geographic landscape such as the map seen below, made by the Spanish in 1769. In addition to their historical value, maps are tools for portraying the present-day physical environment and natural resources of Native American lands.

This is a well executed, detailed map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain (Northern Mexico and Southwest United States) prepared as a result of the 1766-1768 expedition to survey presidios and defenses of northern New Spain. This map includes administrative boundaries, pictorial representation of relief and selected European and Native American towns and settlements, fortifications (presidios), mines, missions, haciendas, Native American nations, rivers, streams, lakes, coastlines and coastal features. Mapa, que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominios del Rey, en la America Septentrional. 1769. Geography and Map Division.

Maps are not, however, only neutral and impartial mirrors of nature. What is depicted and what is omitted from the cartographic record, either inadvertently or intentionally, reveal aspects of the cultural values and attitudes of the map-maker, and the social and political climate in which the maps were constructed. Since early maps of North America are almost exclusively European in origin, the cartographic depiction of Indian cultures and environments is primarily a reflection of the non-Indian population’s perceptions of, and attitudes toward, indigenous peoples and their lands.

In the contest over land rights, maps and mapping can be seen as tools for defining power relationships and symbolizing authority. As a means for documenting as well as legitimizing the transfer of land rights from Indian to non-Indian control, maps were tools for promoting and promulgating the Euro-American appropriation of territory. In particular, as tools for identifying and publicizing information about the existence and location of valuable natural resources, maps had a direct effect on Indian groups’ use and control of their environment. Even maps specifically of established and recognized Indian lands were often not intended to portray Indian affairs, but rather reflected the interest of others in acquiring rights to those lands.

For example, following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, President Andrew Jackson implemented a policy of land exchanges and forced expulsion of the eastern Native Americans to regions west of the Mississippi River. Epitomized by the “Trail of Tears” followed by the Cherokee in their forced journey from their ancestral homes to lands in what is now Oklahoma, Jackson’s policy set the stage for decades of native resettlement and for the widespread establishment of reservations. This map below shows the approximate boundaries of the lands assigned to the relocated tribes in territories west of the Mississippi by 1836. Different shades of color are used to indicate the various tribes. Forced cession of land by tribes indigenous to the American West, such as the Sioux, is also shown. The number of Indians who “emigrated” is listed in the lower right margin, as well as the number of “resident” Indians already living in these regions and the number of Indian tribes remaining east of the Mississippi. Included as well is the total acreage of lands granted by the federal government to the new immigrants according to each tribe.

Map showing the lands assigned to emigrant Indians west of Arkansas and Missouri. Map by U.S. Topographical Bureau, 1836. Geography and Map Division.

The Library’s cartographic holdings related to Native American studies are neither comprehensive nor easily identified, but the coverage is broad and embraces those aspects of Indian society and culture that have been traditionally mapped. Emphasis has been on mappable characteristics associated with the Indians’ physical world and historical distribution. Little cartographic attention has been given to social or political issues affecting Indian lives.

Cartographic works, including reproductions of historical maps, are frequently illustrative supplements to textual works. Consequently, significant maps can be found in most parts of the Library’s diverse collections. The majority of the Library’s cartographic holdings are, however, preserved in the Geography and Map Division. We hope this research guide, which can be found here, is an invaluable resource to conducting research related to Native Americans and cartography.

Map of the upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains region. Map by Pierre-Jean De Smet, 1851. Geography and Map Division.

GIS Day 2022: Exploring Humanitarian GIS

Happy GIS Day from the Library of Congress! Today the Library celebrates GIS Day with a virtual event exploring the role of GIS in addressing humanitarian disasters. Today’s event aims to highlight the role that geospatial data and GIS technologies can play in creating positive change in the face of global humanitarian challenges. Geography enthusiasts, […]

Mapping Disko Bay

This is a guest post by Diane Schug-O’Neill, Digital Conversion Coordinator, in the Geography and Map Division.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Greenland. 1976. Geography and Map Division.

In 1925, Silas Sandgreen was commissioned by the Library of Congress to create a map of Disko Bugt (also seen as Disko Bay), Greenland. Disko Bay is a large bay located on the western coast of Greenland, along the southeastern side of Baffin Bay.

The southern coastline of the bay has multiple waterways flowing into the bay and many small islands. To the north lies the largest island, Disko Island, on the western coast of Greenland. Qeqertarsuaq (meaning “the big island” in Kalaallisut and previously named Godhavn) is the port town on the southern end of the island.

Disko Bay is the largest open bay in western Greenland, measuring 150 kilometers x 100 kilometers. It has an average depth of 400 meters and an average water temperature of 3.5° Celsius (full temperature range is roughly -1.75° C to 12° C); this is rising with the general warming of Earth.

Silas Sandgreen. Map of the Crown Prince Islands, Disko Bay, Greenland. 1926. Geography and Map Division.

Lt. R.E. Byrd, U.S. Navy with Rubber Life Boat. 1925. Prints and Photographs Division.

George W. Rice, Photographer. Godhaven, Disco Island. 1881–83. Prints and Photographs Division.









Chas. Beseler Company. A Northernmost Man and his Wife, Mec-oo-sha and Ah-ma, Standing next to Sledge, Two Inuits who Served as Helpers to Frederick Cook during his Expedition to the North Pole. 1907. Prints and Photographs.

While the Inuit presence in Disko Bay dates back to between 2400 and 900 BC; the bay has been an important location to Europeans since the days Erik the Red placed a settlement there in 985. These settlers relied on the resources of the bay such as ivory from walrus tusks, seal pelts, and whales, whose body parts were used for many purposes. These resources sustained the settlements with trade goods for many years.

A variety of officials were involved in the commissioning of the Map of the Crown Prince Islands, Disco [sic] Bay, Greenland: the offices of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Commander R. E. Byrd, an American Aviator, Mr. Philip Rosendahl, the  Administrator of North Greenland, and Dr. M. P. Porsild, the Chief of the Danish Arctic Station at Disko. The capital for North Greenland was Godhavn, also the location for the Arctic Station.

While many Europeans requested this map, none provided any assistance in its creation. Silas Sandgreen relied wholly upon his own observations from his home in the Crown Point Islands, utilizing sledge and kayak to visit remote islands. He mapped 83 islands and 10 reefs in a more traditional map.

William Pierce, Photographer. Inuit Man Holding Oars in a Kayak at Shore. 1864. Prints and Photographs.



This commissioned effort was created with sealskin and driftwood. Individual islands were whittled from Siberian driftwood. The wood was then sewn onto the sealskin. Next, the sealskin was painted. Yellow on the islands represents grassy and swampy land; blue indicates lakes; black shows the extent of country covered with black lichens. Tidal areas are left uncolored. Reefs are demarked by pencil. The map encompasses an area of approximately 70 square miles at a scale of 1 in to 1,760 feet and is a wonderful representation of indigenous mapping in Greenland.


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Virtual Orientation to the Geography and Map Division

Please join us for the third session in a new series of virtual orientations from the Geography and Map Division! Date: Tuesday, October 11th, 2022 Time: 3:00-4:00 pm (Eastern) Location: Zoom Register for this session here! Reference librarians Carissa Pastuch and Amelia Raines will present an introduction to the collections of the Geography and Map Division at […]

Mapping the Northern Pacific Railroad

In mid-19th Century America, an expanding nation had a major transportation need: rail lines that could stretch from coast to coast. Western explorations and survey crews began to sketch out potential railroad routes in the decades before the American Civil War. Lloyd’s American railroad map of the US, seen below, shows three proposed rail routes: […]

Antietam: “The Most Terrible Battle of the Age”

This is a guest post by Manuscript Division reference librarian Lara Szypszak. On September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate forces met just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle, known by Union forces as the Battle of Antietam (after the nearby creek) and by the Confederates as the Battle of Sharpsburg (after the nearest […]