Today, maps are more complex than ever before, but at the same time, taken for granted. We expect maps to look a certain way and for our GPS to tell us how to make our way through the landscape to our destination step-by-step. Today, the most important thing a map has to be is accurate – it must be a true representation of where things are.
Maps, however, were not always so easy to come by or so accurate. When we look back at history, maps can tell a story about the societies that produce them. How does that society imagine, understand, and move through the world around them? Just as our space-age maps say something about our culture’s value of technological progress, historical maps can reveal the values, beliefs, and intentions of the mapmakers of the past.
For example, Europeans produced maps of the Americas as part of their colonial endeavors. The English soldier Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay region and made a map that was used as a tool in the following decades for those working to establish a colony there. Smith’s map of this foreign land was decorated with symbols of English royalty and religion.
On the other hand, Native people along the Chesapeake Bay did not use maps. Theirs was a spoken rather than a written culture that employed different methods of placemaking and navigating. Though we may not recognize these methods as maps, they are just as useful and serve a similar purpose. In the articles below, we look in detail at how different people made maps of the Chesapeake Bay throughout history, and how maps are being used today to preserve history.