Blog Post

Empty Spaces?: Indigenous Peoples and Euro-American Maps of the Colonial Southwest

In my research on eighteenth-century Spanish Louisiana and Texas, I ask how ethnicity and race shaped discourses on migration and border-security. I examine how Spanish officials engaged native communities as border patrols to control Anglo-American immigration, while at the same time recruiting European immigrants to infringe on native territories. When I started this research last year, I tried to find maps that would help me understand the settlement patterns of Euro-American and indigenous peoples in the area I was looking at. While it was fairly easy to find historical or contemporary maps on Spanish or U.S. settlements, finding detailed maps on indigenous peoples proved more difficult.  

In the eighteenth century, European empires expanded into the area between Mississippi River and Rio Grande, a region that eventually became part of the United States. White cartographers illustrated this narrative of colonization by producing maps of competing Spanish, British, and U.S. claims to the territory. These tales of Euro-American competition silenced the region’s native populations by depicting indigenous controlled areas as empty spaces – a pristine wilderness awaiting “civilization.” This interpretation of “empty spaces” devoid of settlement appeared even more biased when I looked at the estimates of colonial populations: native people outnumbered Louisiana’s Euro-American population by about eight to one! Colonial officials in Louisiana and Texas were painfully aware that they often operated from small outposts and footholds within Indian territory. 

The omission of native peoples from maps of colonial America does more than just produce a gap in the scholarship; it continues a pattern of silencing and displacement that indigenous peoples have endured for centuries. Noting the absence of Indian borders on historical maps, historian Juliana Barr has pointed out that “Euro-American maps functioned as geopolitical statements of territorial appropriation that erased Indian geographies by replacing Indian domains with blank spaces of pristine wilderness awaiting colonial development.”

This presents historians and mapmakers today with the challenge of how not to silence the native population. Indigenous peoples in North America also had a different understanding of territoriality than white mapmakers had – and have. Simply redrawing a map of North America by adding native spheres of influence as European-style bordered territories does not do justice to how indigenous peoples understood their homelands and exercised power within them. Barr therefore calls for a reconceptualization of native territories as “spaces of control” instead of territories with European-style borders. One alternative for representing indigenous spaces of control then would be a delineation of native townships, hunting territories and sites of (temporary) settlement. This is an intriguing proposal, but one that is challenging and time-consuming to implement. However, I’m already looking forward to when we can find detailed maps of indigenous settlement patterns as easily as we can find maps of colonial Euro-American towns and posts. 


If you’re interested in the topic of indigenous spaces of control, the following articles and books might be of interest to you:

Juliana Barr. “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the “Borderlands” of the Early Southwest.” William and Mary Quarterly 68.1 (2011): 5-46.

Jeffrey A. Erbig, "Borderline Offerings: Tolderías and Mapmakers in the Eighteenth-Century Río de La Plata," Hispanic American Historical Review 96.3 (2016): 445–480.

Jean M. O’Brien. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, Indigenous Americas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.


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