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How the West Was Drawn: Mapping, Indians, and the Construction of the Trans-Mississippi West

How the West Was Drawn: Mapping, Indians, and the Construction of the Trans-Mississippi West

by David Bernstein

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How the West Was Drawn explores the geographic and historical experiences of the Pawnees, the Iowas, and the Lakotas during the European and American contest for imperial control of the Great Plains during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. David Bernstein argues that the American West was a collaborative construction between Native peoples and Euro-American empires that developed cartographic processes and culturally specific maps, which in turn reflected encounter and conflict between settler states and indigenous peoples.

Bernstein explores the cartographic creation of the Trans-Mississippi West through an interdisciplinary methodology in geography and history. He shows how the Pawnees and the Iowas—wedged between powerful Osages, Sioux, the horse- and captive-rich Comanche Empire, French fur traders, Spanish merchants, and American Indian agents and explorers—devised strategies of survivance and diplomacy to retain autonomy during this era. The Pawnees and the Iowas developed a strategy of cartographic resistance to predations by both Euro-American imperial powers and strong indigenous empires, navigating the volatile and rapidly changing world of the Great Plains by brokering their spatial and territorial knowledge either to stronger indigenous nations or to much weaker and conquerable American and European powers.

How the West Was Drawn is a revisionist and interdisciplinary understanding of the global imperial contest for North America’s Great Plains that illuminates in fine detail the strategies of survival of the Pawnees, the Iowas, and the Lakotas amid accommodation to predatory Euro-American and Native empires.      


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496207999
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Series: Borderlands and Transcultural Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 402
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

David Bernstein is a historian and photographer.

Read an Excerpt


Constructing Indian Country

In the late summer of 1844, Lt. Henry Carleton sat on the floor of a Pawnee lodge, watching an Indian draw a map in the dirt. Sharitarish, a chief of the village, was illustrating the region's geopolitical and topographical landscape to Carleton; his commander, Maj. Clifton Wharton; and a complement of American dragoons. As Carleton described in his journal:

[Sharitarish] drew a mark with his finger upon the ground introducing the Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska Rivers. Then he placed a mark for Fort Leavenworth, and then in a manner surprising accurate, located the different tribes in their proper places — cutting them off by names as he went along, at the same time touching the exact spot each one occupied, thus "Shawnee," "Delaware," "Kickapoo," "Ioways," "Otoes," "Omahas," "Pawnees." All this was done in half the time it has taken me to describe it.

The Pawnee chief was elaborating on an exchange of hand signals, during which he had inquired what route the Americans traveled to his village, in what is now southern Nebraska. "It was curious," Carleton wrote of the Indian's response, "to see how readily he understood our explanations." Perhaps wanting a more complex representation of the region than hand signals allowed, Sharitarish drew his map.

For Carleton, Sharitarish's simple but elegant communication in a geographic language compatible with his own was both "curious" and "surprising." Geographic knowledge was, after all, one of the defining characteristics of Enlightenment thought, a worldview that — to men like Carleton and Wharton — separated civilization from savagery. This Indian was not only able to relay geographic information in a way Carleton understood, but he did so with a talent that was exceptional even among Americans.

Many twenty-first-century scholars would understand Carleton's surprise. Like the American dragoon, many researchers have held that indigenous territorial constructs were incompatible with Euro-American cartographic conventions. Such arguments posit that, unlike the measured mathematical space of traverse surveys and Ptolemaic maps, Indians understood and represented their spatial existence in very different ways than Euro-Americans. Barbara Belyea, a leading scholar of Native maps, has written that "the Native sense of space and ground is the complete antithesis of European map construction. ... There is no 'common ground.'" Similarly, Martin Brückner explains that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark got lost on their famous Louisiana expedition not in spite of their Mandan informants but because of them: "Reading Native American maps with the goal of translating them into the code of European scientific geography inevitably became an exercise in misreading." In this interpretation, the creation of any map of the United States would mean the erasure of indigenous ways of understanding their place — literally — in the geographic creation of the American republic.

What, then, should we make of the interaction between the Pawnee and American diplomats on the banks of the Platte in 1844? Cartographic scholars agree that one defining characteristic of Native maps is a lack of internal scale; the distance between two points on a map is irrelevant. In Native maps, the argument goes, there is no spatial connection between a map's design and the ground it represents. Yet, Sharitarish seemed to be literate in the Euro-American convention of establishing a direct correlation between actual distances on the ground and those represented on the map. There was what was called spatial equivalence, when the surface of the map represents a portion of the earth's surface. Sharitarish's map was "surprising accurate," according to Carleton, and even blank spaces had geographical meaning.

Further confounding the distinction between Euro-American and Indian mapmaking conventions, the Pawnee depicted Indian groups as having distinct territorial claims. We do not know if Sharitarish drew explicit lines, but Carleton's description that the Indian touched "the exact spot each one occupied," and "cut them off by names," implies an understanding of linear boundaries. Such an acknowledgment contradicts the standard characterizations of Native maps, which are partially defined by their "absence or weakness of linear boundary concept."

The Pawnee's delineation of discrete geopolitical spaces is particularly interesting because three of the seven groups that Sharitarish named had been living in the region for less than a decade. The Shawnees, Delawares, and Kickapoos had all moved from their lands east of the Mississippi River to new, bounded territories west of the Missouri, under the auspices of an American program to create a permanent Indian territory west of the Missouri. Sharitarish's map thus contradicts standard interpretations of Indian territorial claims — which have been understood to be free of distinct borders — and how these territories have been cartographically represented.

If we assume that there is no "common ground" between Native and non-Native cartographic practices, we must conclude that Sharitarish's map was an aberration: a unique appropriation of a foreign system that would displace and ultimately erase Native spaces. But what if Sharitarish's drawing in the dirt represented an accepted spatial understanding of the plains and prairies by the Siouan and Caddoan peoples living there? Suddenly, the story of the mapping of the trans-Mississippi West in the nineteenth century becomes more than just another tale of colonialism. There is room for stories of negotiation and cooperation, in addition to the instances of coercion and contestation that have been so well documented.

The primary purpose of this chapter, therefore, is to examine some of the ways in which the Caddoans and Siouans living in the trans-Mississippi West understood the world around them, both as they lived it on the ground and how they chose to represent it (in Sharitarish's map, this was also literally on the ground). This examination will consider how these representations were compatible with Euro-American cartographic practices. In this way we can create the narrative space into which new stories of American mapping can emerge.

Unfortunately, as was the case with Sharitarish's construction, few Native maps exist beyond Euro-Americans' interpretations of them, limiting our "astonishment." Such an ephemeral existence, however, was normal for Indian cartography. If not performed through song or dance, Native maps of the Plains usually took the form of Sharitarish's creation: lines in the dirt. As such, descriptions of these maps reach us via the interpretations of a secondary or tertiary party, making their analysis more difficult. Yet a few Indian maps from the nineteenth-century trans-Mississippi West have survived in physical form. Such extant maps allow us the opportunity for a closer textual reading of the document itself than cartographic descriptions provide and give us the opportunity to understand the role Indians played in the spatial, cartographic, and geopolitical creation of the trans-Mississippi West.

One such map was created by an Iowa Indian named Notchininga. Unlike Sharitarish's map, which was drawn in the context of a specific meeting, the Iowas' map was created beyond the purview of Euro-Americans. Though the Iowas had American treaty commissioners in mind, the map's creation was apparently completely unsolicited. As such, Notchininga's map is a valuable document with which to examine how these Siouan people expressed their spatial imaginings and territorial constructs. In the second half of this chapter, I examine this map and assess the Iowas' territorial constructs as they related to other political and cultural concerns. The ultimate goal of this chapter is to show that the way Native and Euro-Americans spatially imagined their lived environment left room for the same negotiation in the mapping process that historians have elucidated in other cultural, social, economic, and political settings in the trans-Mississippi West.

"These Boundaries Here Named Are Not Imaginary"

In his work on Indian land tenure in Nebraska, geographer David Wishart has written that "it is wise to forget about the concept of hard boundaries and to consider Indian territories as grading out through a village core, through a hunting range, to a far-flung trading and raiding periphery." The same can be said about the territorial claims of all nonemigrant groups living in the trans-Mississippi West, whose overlapping hunting and raiding lands became areas of bloody conflict in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, this definition of land use does not mean that the Siouan and Caddoan people did not understand the concept of boundaries. Simply because territorial claims overlapped did not mean that these claims were amorphous; they were simply contested. In fact, there is considerable evidence that Indian groups living on the eastern Plains recognized distinct boundaries.

John Dunbar — the son of a missionary by the same name who spent much of the 1830s and 1840s living with the Pawnees — described "Pawnee territory" as extending from the Niobrara River in present-day Nebraska south to the Arkansas, while "in the east they claimed to the Missouri." In the west, "their grounds were marked by no natural boundary, but may be described by a line drawn from the mouth of the Snake River on the Niobrara southwest to the North Platte, thence south to the Arkansas." Dunbar emphasized that these were not generalized claims made after the fact but were, rather, the territorial boundaries the Pawnees actively defended. "These boundaries here named are not imaginary," he wrote. Instead, they were the limits of a territory where the "Pawnee remained proud masters of the land."

A map created in 1816, titled A Map Exhibiting the Territorial Limits of Several Nations and Tribes of Indians, reinforces Dunbar's description. Drawn using the notes of fur trader Auguste Chouteau, the word "Pawnees" is the only label within a territory bounded by the Kanzas (Arkansas) River, the Missouri River, and a now renamed river labeled "Potato Fork," which lies between the Platte and Missouri in the approximate location of the Niobrara. Thus, with the exception of the Omahas' and Otoes' inclusion within this territory (most likely due to their proximity to the Missouri, the fur traders' main thoroughfare), the two descriptions are remarkably similar.

Further demonstrating the concept of distinct territorial ownership, the Pawnees complained throughout the 1820s that other groups were "killing buffalo on their lands." This was not simply a linguistic misinterpretation by Euro-Americans but the declaration of specific territorial claims of the Pawnees. Evidence for this comes from the fact that these claims were frequently recognized by other groups, who either asked permission to hunt on Pawnee lands or, as in the case of Kansa chief White Plume, asked for protection from American soldiers when they hunted in "Pawnee Country."

The Pawnees were also aware of the boundaries established by Euro-American powers. In 1826, twenty Pawnees angered the regional Indian agent when they robbed an American trading party returning from Santa Fe. The Pawnees moderated any potential American reprisal by making it clear that they were acting "more for the sake of plunder than blood," in the words of the Indian agent. Further, the Pawnees picked the spot of their offense — "just beyond the line of the United States" — quite deliberately. "The great bulk of these robberies [are] committed upon the Simeron, a branch of the Arkansas, and beyond the jurisdiction of the United States. Why this particular spot should be selected for their depredations I am unable to say unless it should proceed from a belief in them that they can cannot be punished for an outrage committed beyond our borders." The Pawnees quickly learned to use Euro-American borders to their benefit by altering their raiding patterns.

It was intertribal contexts, however, in which these boundaries were most relevant. In 1823, Auguste Chouteau reported that, when Pawnees wanted to hunt below the Arkansas, they held a council with an Osage chief "to obtain permission to hunt on their land." The chief consented, under the condition that they "must leave hunting as they went." More evidence of territorial ownership can be found in a letter from Indian agent John Dougherty to Superintendent William Clark in 1830. In it, Dougherty created what amounted to a territorial map when he relayed the following delineations:

I understand their [Omaha, Otoes, Ioway, Sacs of Missouri and Sacs of Mississippi] languages and have heard them converse repeatedly on the subject of their several limits and claims. ... The following statement of claims is as correct a one as you will be able to procure from the Indians themselves or anyone else. The Ioway tribes claim all of the land lying north and west of the state of Missouri and east of the Missouri River and as high up the same river as the entrance of the Nodoway and back east following the Nodoway to the Desmoines river. The Otoes claim from the entrance of the Nodoway to that of the Bonjeau below Council Bluff and back to the sources of the Bonjeau and Nodoway to the divide between their waters and the waters of the Desmoines. The Omahas claim from the entrance of the Bonjeau to that of the Big Sioux or Calumet River opposite their old Black Bird village on the Missouri and back following the Bonjeau and Big Sioux rivers to their sources.

As alluded to in this description, such claims could and often did overlap, fostering decades of violence. The fact that the claims overlapped did not mean that boundaries were not fixed, only that they were not agreed upon. The following example of just such contestation demonstrates the compatibility of Native and Euro-American constructions of space in the trans-Mississippi West.

One of the most intriguing stories of Indian geopolitics in the nineteenth century was the near creation of a massive territory on the eastern Plains to be set aside for "fixed permanent homes" where Indians would live as they acculturated to Euro-American society. Though never passed by both the House and the Senate, between 1824 and the middle of the 1840s, the creation of a permanent Indian territory west of the Missouri River was the de facto government policy. Its premise was that Indians east of the Missouri could exchange their lands for "equal" holdings in the west, where they could remain "as long as the sun shall set." Exactly where in this vast territory a "suitable" place for Indians could be found, however, was limited by the current state of American geographic knowledge.

Between 1826 and 1846, the responsibility of locating such a place fell largely to Reverend Isaac McCoy. Though none of his maps were printed for commercial uses, they became the standard interpretation of the region for Euro-Americans, turning the vague space of the eastern Plains into bounded place. Unlike Henry Carleton — who was surprised by his ability to understand Sharitarish's map — McCoy seemed unfazed by the common cartographic language that many Euro-Americans and Natives shared. On one of his tours to bring emigrant Indians west to find their permanent homes, the group met an Osage Indian who was "wholly ignorant of English, and I knew nothing of his language." Yet, through signals, McCoy was able to discern the distance from the Indian's village and the names and locations of three surrounding streams. McCoy then explained to him where they had camped the previous night and where they were going to camp that night, and he asked the Osage to join them. When they reached camp a few hours later, the Osage was waiting. According to McCoy, "the extent to which ideas may be communicated by signs ... would appear almost incredible to one who has no experience in this mode of intercommunication." Cartography required little translation. Yet conceptual compatibility did not necessarily mean practical success when it came to establishing boundaries.

Before Indians could be removed to their new homes, the office of the U.S. secretary of war had to obtain clear title to the land to which they were going to be moved. So, in 1823, William Clark recommended to Secretary of War Calhoun that it would be "good policy to purchase at once, from the Osage & Kansas tribes, a tract of country ... extending from the Missouri river to the head of the Canadian Fork of the Arkansas." In June 1825, a treaty was signed: the tribes would cede to the United States all of their land west of the Missouri, with the exception of swaths of fifty and thirty miles wide (their distance west was not determined), which would become their permanent territory.


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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Section 1: Living in Indian Country
1.  Construction Indian Country
2. Sharitarish and the Possibility of Treaties
3  Non-Participatory Mapping
Section 2: The Rise and Fall of “Indian Country”
4. The Cultural Construction of “Indian Country”
5.  Science and the Destruction of “Indian Country”
Section 3:  Reclaiming Indian Country
6. The Metaphysics of Indian Naming


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