Post 2: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence

This week’s readings focused on Native American cartography. There’s a lot to ground to cover in a discussion of Native American culture as it relates to the concepts of land, ownership, and mapping; I’m going to focus on a few key points:

In his discussion of colonial mapping, Harley noted that Native American concepts of “maps” were more relational than spatial.  Place naming conventions often described how the land could be used (which makes sense for relational concepts of space).  In contrast, European settlers chose names that were arbitrary (Main Street), recalled more familiar places in their homeland (New York), or reflected the staked out parcels of European claims (Prince George’s County, Maryland).  Functional names, for European settlers, are often business related (Haymarket, Mill Creek).  I found an interesting list of colonial cities with their original Native American names published by The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut.  (I’m not sure how far you can take this argument, though. Oriskany, New York gets its name from the Iroquois word for nettles. Nettlecombe, in Somerset, England is derived from the Old English nethel cumb, translated as ‘valley where the nettles grow.’  A Nettlecombe in the US may be assumed to be chosen for a settler’s association with the English city, but if the landscape is a valley filled with nettles, one has to reflect on the possibility that the name has at least a dual significance.   I’ll accept Harley’s general point and move on.)

Early colonial maps reflect some accommodation of Native American place names, but attitudes hardened as conflict grew over occupation and ownership of land. Harley’s example of the destruction and dispersal of the Pequots after the 1637 massacre at Fort Mystic suggests a complete obliteration of Native American names (the river was renamed “Thames” and the Pequot village became “New London.”  Today, Pequot Avenue is a significant road through the city; it would be interesting to know when that name was adopted. (As if I need more tangents to pursue.)  Increasingly, maps either ignored the presence of Native American populations, or used symbology that served to make them less important or civilized than the European settlements. Areas that were not settled by the Europeans were often left blank, suggesting an emptiness that did not exist, fueling the assumption that land was just there for the taking.

Chief Keokuk. Circa 1826. National Museum of Denmark. Linked from Flickr under Creative Commons License, 15 Sep 2105.

Going back to the same bit of geography used in last week’s post, I examined the streets and place names of Keokuk, IA and Hamilton, IL.  Keokuk is named for the Sauk Chief Keokuk, who had kept peace with the Europeans moving into the area.  He and his tribe were in the area until 1845, when they moved to Kansas.  Chief Black Hawk, defeated in the BlackHawk War of 1832, lived in a cabin on the nearby Des Moines River until his death in 1838.  Chief Keokuk is buried in the city and a statue of him is prominently placed in Rand Park, overlooking the Mississippi River.  Other than that, I can find no significant place names reflecting the presence of the Sauk in the city. (Unless one counts the Chief Motel.) Across the river, in Hamilton, IL, street names are a tidy cross grid of streets named after trees and by number.

In 1837, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee surveyed the Des Moines rapids, a 12 mile stretch of river between Keokuk, IA and Nauvoo, IL.  His task was engineering and his observations of the area primarily reflect that.  He did stop long enough to admire the heroism of western women and appreciate the excellent quality of the soil.  Of the Native American population present near his base at Fort Des Moines just north of Keokuk, he was, so far as I have found, silent.

Update:  I commented on April’s examination of the railroad line through Renova, PA and thanked Dale for his overview of a tutorial site for Adobe Illustrator.

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