Showing the distribution of First Nation Tribes in the new and expanded United States of 1852.
The best way to describe this map – at least in scope – is that it is a map of “The West.” Its purpose, nevertheless, goes far beyond simply detailing the geography of America’s great frontier. Instead, this map identifies and localizes the many Native tribes about which most Americans had only read or heard. The number and density of labels indicating a tribal presence are impressive and comprehensive for the time, revealing that the source of this map was very well informed.
The map was printed in 1852, only four years after the United States had expanded massively into Mexican Territory and only a year after the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty. Many of the states and territories shown on this map were consequently entirely new regions of the country, and most people in the East would have been entirely unfamiliar with both the lands and their indigenous inhabitants.
In addition to locating roughly where tribes resided, the map also helped delineate all of this new land coming under the American aegis. Brand new territories such as Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico have all been included and clearly delineated. In other newly incorporated areas, things were still up in the air. Northern parts of the Great Plains, where the Nebraska Territory, which in 1854 would subsume this enormous frontier, remain a largely unorganized region dominated by Indians. As with Oklahoma, which in 1825 had officially been classified as ‘Indian Territory,’ the northern plains are so densely inhabited by First Nation peoples that their lands have been color-coded to distinguish between their respective domains. In addition to the smaller but still significant territories of the Black Feet and Assiniboine peoples, we note how at this stage, Crow country still extends from northern Wyoming beyond the Yellowstone River and to the Missouri River.
The map was compiled shortly after the Fort Laramie Treaty began defining formal boundaries for each tribe. This organization of lands would end up having a devastating effect on the indigenous peoples of America, who, despite showing massive adaptability, were unable to adjust to the restrictions of a sedentary lifestyle dependent on exterior forces for survival. The consequences of the Fort Laramie Treaty were a demographic and territorial organization that would decimate Native American peoples.
Essentially, this map illustrates the new organization. The fluidity of territorial affiliation and control for Native Americans was suddenly gone. Instead, it was replaced with an ordered and predominantly Protestant view of the world, in which there had to exist fixed boundaries between things. In the minds of most easterners, the Fort Laramie Treaty made it possible to establish order in chaos, and our map is, in many ways, a direct manifestation of this idea.
Yet maps are also evocative and romantic compositions, which draw upon preconceptions to create mental images and sustain particular narratives. We, therefore, have a range of legendary landscape features and outposts marked on the map as well. In this way, any curious student could become privy to pinpointing critical locations on the great frontier. Important outposts are plotted – such as Fort Union at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers – just as notable features like the Santa Fe Trail have made it onto the map. These elements help anchor this enormous frontier in the minds of viewers.
This fascinating map was issued as part of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s six-volume study of Indian Tribes of the United States: Historical and Statistical Information respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, published between 1851–1857 (OCLC nos. 474733551; 1176348688; 931765815). In the upper corner, we see that our map constitutes Plate 21. Our mapmaker, Capt. Seth Eastman, was responsible for most of the illustrations and maps in this seminal publication.