New Visions of Ownership: Maps and Native Americans

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"Map of South Part of St. Louis County, Minnesota." Courtesy the Iron Range Research Center via the Minnesota Digital Library.

Throughout North America’s early history, native peoples lived in some of the largest and most desirable forests on the continent. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 forced Native American populations onto reservations, in effect changing American geography. The tribes’ ecological and spiritual relationships with the land, including its forests, often made them protective and territorial in the face of industrial pressures. Maps once depicted large American regions with a general identification of native populations. Once tribes were relocated to very specific areas, their resources were suddenly available to industrialists, and maps evolved to cover the locations and boundaries of the newly depopulated lands as well as reservations. The mapping of reservations, along with built infrastructure like railroads, became, in effect, an act of “taming” the American landscape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.