SHSND Home > North Dakota History > Unit 1: The Natural World > Set 2: Mapping the Land & its People

Unit 1: Set 2: Mapping the Land & its People - Introduction

Introduction | List of Maps

If you look at a current highway map of North Dakota, you will see roads of different qualities, towns, county lines, reservations, rivers, hills, lakes, and parks. The scale of inches to miles gives reliable, visual information on distance between points of interest. The modern map is very scientific, and with the exception of the distortion created by applying the curve of the earth to a flat piece of paper, very accurate.

Maps weren’t always so reliable. The map in this document collection dated 1772 shows a great blank space where we live today. The mapmaker, using the best information available could not accurately place our two most important rivers, the Missouri and the Red, nor identify major lakes, hills or the continental divide.

And yet, it is important to acknowledge that the mapmaker’s information was not complete. There were people living on the northern Great Plains in 1772 who knew how to find rivers, hills, neighboring towns and villages, and traveled along well-known trails to get from here to there. They had met Europeans and Native Americans of other cultures and exchanged much information with them about the lay of the land. The only conclusion we can draw from this information gap is that map-making is a cultural exercise.

Native Americans did not usually draw maps on paper or hide. They kept their knowledge of land forms, river courses, and villages in their minds and transmitted the information orally from one generation to the next. At the prodding of Europeans and European Americans they sketched the landscape features in dirt or snow or on paper or hide. Most of their knowledge was personal acquired from their own travels, but some was acquired from conversations with visitors from distant villages and cities.

Western Europeans created maps with specific features such as political (nation or state) boundaries, mountain ranges, rivers, valleys. They were drawn to scale as accurately as possible with knowledge available. They use latitude and longitude to measure distance. North is always up which gives a common reference point in viewing maps, but also suggests the way Western Europeans viewed themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Interest in the Northwest, as the northern plains were known throughout the 19th century, grew and more details filled in the map. Details included villages such as those of the Mandan, or Mantannes as the French spelled it, where men engaged in the fur trade business sought profits in furs and other trade items. The maps also indicate conquest of the northern plains and the people who lived there, but also indicated which Western nation assumed control through exploration and claim. The conquest was not only of the land and the people, but of competing nations in the process of “discovery.”

After statehood, maps of North Dakota have a very different appearance. Twentieth century maps show technological innovations such as paved highways, power lines and missile sites as well as such important resources as coal and oil deposits.

The series of maps presented here have been selected to provide insight into the process of changes wrought by human interaction with the land as well as changes in human occupation of the region over a period of several hundred years. They represent only a small portion of the map collection of the SHSND.

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