Historic Maps as Historian's Evidence

Carte des cinq Grands Lacs du Canada
Carte des cinq Grands Lacs du CanadaBellin, Jacques Nicolas, 1703-1772
World Fashions Make Aurora a Style Center
World Fashions Make Aurora a Style CenterZak, Karel J.
Cover of Clason's Touring Atlas of the United States and Canada
Cover of Clason's Touring Atlas of the United States and CanadaClason Map Company

>People create maps for many reasons—to help them visualize places, to pass on information about places to other people, or to calculate the time it takes to move from place to place. Road maps, ocean charts, and treasure maps help us find our way to specific destinations. Some maps are part of political conflicts over who owns or controls a particular piece of the world. Other maps work like advertisements, painting alluring pictures for potential consumers whether they are immigrant farmers or summertime vacationers.

Although maps often are full of practical information about particular places, many are also are richly illustrated with symbols of political, cultural, and religious power.  A map is not a direct image of the physical world, but one constructed by the mapmaker’s knowledge, the conventions of mapmaking, cultural and social influences, and the intended audiences of the final product.  In this way, maps suggest the ways their creators’ and users’ understood the nature of their society, the course of time, and their place within a landscape. Historic maps also help people today understand how our vision of the world has changed, either because we have more complete knowledge about the landscape, or because we think about space and time in ways that would have been foreign to past generations.

When you use a map as historical evidence, ask yourself: when was this map made and what else was happening at the time? Why was this map made, by whom, and for whom? How was it used? What did the mapmakers and publishers hope to communicate with the map? The clues to maps’ purposes and meanings are sometimes hidden within the artwork of the map itself. But you should also look for clues in any text on the map or in accompanying text (for instance, if the map is published in a book or pamphlet). If possible, look at other maps of the same area that were published at the same time to see how the map you are using is similar or different.