Monday, August 17, 2015

That Supposed Map of Pre-Contact North America

There's a map making the rounds on Facebook right now, which is being shared as if it's a map of pre-contact North America. You can find it here. But it doesn't show pre-contact North America at all — it's trying to show what the boundaries of the First Nations & Inuit would look like in 2015 if contact had never happened. And it's not even an accurate representation of that alternative history: the borders it uses are borders that were formed, in part, as a result of European contact.

The map above — which is from the 1970 edition of the National Atlas of America (and is hosted online by the University of Texas); you can find a full-size version of here — is a more accurate attempt to show what it looked like before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, although it bizarrely only shows the land below the (then, of course, non-existent) border between Canada & the United States. And it doesn't give a date.

NPR writes about another attempt here and there's another one here, too — both of which include the territories where Canada is today. But they face challenges too. Some Indigenous people, for instance, were nomadic. And there is no set date for first contact: Indigenous nations encountered Europeans at different times in different ways.

It's also important to remember, I think, that the borders between the First Nations weren't static: they changed over time just like any other borders do — lots after the first Europeans arrived.

The Wendat (Huron) were at Toronto when the first French explorers turned up in the early 1600s; by the 1660s, the Seneca (part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — which the Europeans called the Iroquois) had villages on the Humber & the Rouge; by the time the British came to found our modern city at the end of the 1700s, the Mississauga were here — which is why we refer to the land where the city of Toronto is today as "the traditional territory of the Mississauga."

You can read more about the complex history of the First Nations in the Toronto area in this post from Suzanne Methot, a Cree writer and editor who also runs a consulting service aiming "to build understanding and awareness of Aboriginal histories, perspectives, and experiences."


Thanks to Adriana Alarcón for pointing out the lack of a fixed date for first contact and the way nomadic cultures complicate attempts to make fixed maps like these. And to the commenter below for sourcing the map above.


  1. The map hosted on the University of Texas website and shown in this article is from the 1970 edition of the National Atlas of the United States.