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The Mind of the Mapmaker: Purpose and Point of View in Maps

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What can we learn from maps? Students may be familiar with using maps to plan a route but fewer will think of them as having a point of view or any purpose beyond recording geographical features such as roads, towns, and waterways. In the January/February 2016 “Sources and Strategies” article in Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, Cheryl Lederle and I focus on helping students understand cartographers’ purpose through comparing two 16th century  maps: Americae sive quartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio by Diego Gutierrez and page 18 of Theatrum orbis terrarium by Abraham Ortelius.

Closely observing and analyzing what each cartographer included on the map can reveal his purpose for creating the map, and understanding  purpose can help students discern the point of view of the map. Students can continue the discussion on maps and why they were created using other maps from the collections of the Library of Congress.

A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills
A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills

Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670
Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670

Introduce students to A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it’s latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England by John Ferrar. This map was created roughly one hundred years after Gutierrez and Ortelius created their maps.  Students can use the primary source analysis tool to record their thinking as they study the map. Teachers can select questions from the Teachers Guide: Analyzing Maps to support students as they observe, reflect, and ask questions about the map. Encourage students to consider why this map was created in this way and what those looking at the map were expected to learn from looking at the map. Extend this activity by showing students other maps of Virginia created at the same time as the Ferrar map, for example Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670. How are these maps similar and different? If students require additional support, you might direct them to compare specific features, such as the compass rose and how waterways are drawn and labeled.

Engaging Students with Primary Source Maps offers additional strategies to help students think about how maps can be used to reflect and influence events.

What other maps might produce interesting insights into the minds of the mapmakers? We’d love to hear about any you’ve discovered.


  1. A wonderful and useful post, particularly apt for residents of the Old Dominion. Thank you!

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