There’s a democratic, progressive orientation that runs through the Atlas. Fewer of the maps in the atlas were focused on the actions of “great men” than on the activities of ordinary people: farmers and enslaved people growing corn, wheat, tobacco, and cotton; Christians worshipping in churches; immigrants (admittedly all European) migrating across the Atlantic; men (and eventually women) voting in elections.
However, the maps of Native Americans are another matter. At the time, at least one reviewer singled out the Atlas’s treatment of Native Americans for criticism. In his review of the atlas in the American Historical Review in 1933, Ralph H. Gabriel suggested that the atlas might have included “a map of the Mound Builder culture area” or perhaps one showing “the expansion and contraction of the Pueblo culture area.” Gabriel pinpointed a major shortcoming of the atlas: with one exception (the map of linguistic groups) the atlas included no maps that showed anything about the spatial relationships among Native Americans—their politics, culture, social norms, and religion.
The maps that were ostensibly about Native Americans were actually focused on European and American actions towards Native Americans. In the map of Indian missions, Europeans and white Americans were the actors bringing their religion to Native Americans. In the maps of Indian battles Europeans and white Americans vanquished the Indians ever westward over more than three centuries. The maps of Indian reservations depicted the results of that military conquest, mapping federal policies that recognized Native American sovereignty in increasingly smaller areas.
In all of these maps, Native Americans were not treated as subjects possessing their own independent agency but instead as objects of European and American religious, military, and governmental agendas and policies. They don’t act independently but are instead converted, defeated, or contained by others.
The atlas included one map that at least partially, if quite problematically, recognized Indians as agents: the map of Indian land cessions.
The accompanying text did make it clear that often the idea that Native American voluntarily ceded their land was a fiction. Paullin (though it’s not completely clear who wrote the text for the Indian section) noted that from the moment Europeans started colonizing North America to the present whites had often denied that Native Americans had any legitimate claims of sovereignty to land. Still, he repeatedly used the language of Native Americans actively and willingly “ceding” lands to Europeans and Americans, going so far as to use “Indian Cessions, 1750-1890” as the title of this map. When the atlas recognized Native Americans as actors who did something rather than had things done to them, it was to map their supposed cession of land over to the colonial, federal, and state governments. This language suggested that Native Americans were not involuntarily dispossessed or displaced but instead actively ceded their homelands.
It was not just the maps about Native Americans that are problematic. Those that disregard them entirely might be more so. The accompanying text for the cessions map noted that “Many of the early colonial grants ignored the Indians and by implication denied that they possessed any rights of ownership or occupancy.” Something very similar might be said about the population density maps in the atlas. In these maps, Americans moved ever westward into lands that, on these maps, are literally empty space.
Paullin and Wright were reliant on earlier maps that had appeared in census atlases, and the Constitution excluded “Indians not taxed” from the census; it wasn’t until 1890 that Native Americans living on reservations or under tribal governments were included in the census. So, Paullin and Wright could not have produced maps with comparably accurate Native American population figures if they had wanted to. Nonetheless, their maps have the effect of suggesting that Americans moved ever westward into an empty, uninhabited wilderness, disguising the fact that Native American inhabited those lands and were more often than not displaced or dispossessed by that process.
In the introduction they characterized North America as “a boundless domain [which] until recently lay open for governments, companies, and individuals to seize and subdivide and use.” Native Americans only had, they suggested, “shadowy claims” to this domain, “which in the long run were easily swept aside.” Maps can be remarkably powerful tools for shaping perceptions of the way the world looks and works. While the Atlas remains a great work of scholarship with scores of intriguing and useful maps, it more than fell short when it came to Native Americans. Despite the inclusion of a chapter on Indians, Paullin and Wright didn’t make much of an effort to grapple with Native Americans on their own terms. Far worse yet, perhaps the most damning critique of the atlas is that it arguably reinforced the idea that the appropriation of Native American lands was a natural, necessary, justifiable, progressive, and inevitable process.