Last night's round table on the War of 1812 attracted an audience of 35, not bad for a rainy Friday night opposite a hockey game. We had faculty, students and people from town, and they were interested enough to stick around right up to 10 pm.
One of the most interesting discussions concerned the role of Natives in the war and diplomacy of the time, and whether that role has been ignored or misrepresented, and still is. One point at issue was the map above, which was being used to display basic geography. The priority of the maker was clearly to emphasize American expansion. Notice how solid the American states and territories look, and the lack of provincial boundaries in British territory. Even more remarkable is the absence of any Native settlements or territories. This led one participant to state that the map was "false."
Yes and no, say I. What practical meaning did the boundaries of the Mississippi Territory have in 1812? Weren't the Creek Indian settlements attacked by Andrew Jackson a lot realer? On the other hand the state boundaries established in the 1810s are real and practical today.
This returns me to a point I made to my Crusade and Jihad students in our first class meeting, when I was showing them various maps depicting Christian and Muslim expansion in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The maps "lied" (= "were false"), I said.
It is more accurate to say that ANY map, historical or otherwise, is very much an oversimplification for analytical or propagandistic purposes.
Thus I say that the appropriate response of a historian to a historical map is not to draw a quick conclusion but to ask more questions.
Which is pretty much what we were doing with this map last night.