Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine
An 1803 map by the Ottoman Empire, which was translated by Nick Danforth for the purposes here.

Reading a Map to Cure Historical Amnesia

Steve Russell

I have a map to show you, a map that illustrates many different faces of what the world has come to call imperialism, the drive to empire, that has peopled the Americas with descendants of those who came, saw, and conquered (with a major assist from the inability of indigenous people to stand against foreign diseases). The original of this map lives in the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine.

I am indebted to Nick Danforth’s English translations, since I read neither Turkish nor Arabic script. Danforth is a Georgetown University graduate student in Turkish history who maintains a cartography blog that you don’t have to be a map fan to love. Danforth’s writing is engaging and generally first rate—proof that he has not yet finished his Ph.D. dissertation and learned the ways of boring prose.

This map comes from the Ottoman Empire in 1803. The Ottomans had reached their zenith at the end of the 17th century and in 1803 could hardly perceive the beginnings over 200 years of decline that would end with their defeat in World War I, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic from what remained.

The European expansion was running full steam in 1803, and the United States of America was called, on this map, “The Country of the English People.” This phrase could have been coined and certainly would be understood by any number of Indian nations that had become accustomed to playing off the English against the French or the Spanish or any minor colonial power that made itself available. The rise of the United States only made a new source of colonial threat over time, and the U.S. time had barely begun. In 1803, the colonists still understood that they were colonists and that independence on a “new” continent was uncharted territory in more ways than one.

The Western border is not exactly a crisp line because of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. The Western border of the U.S. would have been understood by the Ottomans to end where the Mississippi watershed began, and it was not easy from the other side of the world to tell which way the water flowed like you could if you lived on the ground. Charters for the original 13 colonies made vague and overlapping claims that got less tenable with distance from the Atlantic.

There had been decades of controversy over the nationality of the first European toes to dip in the Mississippi River and utter the magic words to place the entire watershed under Spanish or French sovereignty. There was no controversy over the process—except from the people who lived in the watershed—but over whether the Spanish or the French had perfected title by Christian Discovery.

The Ottoman map does make note that there were nations in addition to the colonial nations. The map describes territory as “Government of the Six Indian Nations” and divides the Great Sioux Nation into Eastern (Siyu-yu Şarkî) and Western (Siyu-yu Garbî). It’s not clear whether the cartographer understood “Algonquin” as a language group or how much territory Algonquin speaking peoples roamed. The Chippewa are noted separately, and they are Algonquin speakers.

The Pawnee are divided into the Black (Kara Panis) and White (Ak Panis). Perhaps ICTMN readers can shed light on what this means? The Arikara were sometimes called “Black Pawnees,” but it’s unclear who the “White Pawnees” were and how the distinction got on a map drawn at such a distance. Whether the details were understood correctly or not, the map appears to support that the existence of indigenous people with governments was common knowledge in 1803.

Since this map dates almost a generation before the First Seminole War, the line between the U.S. and Spanish Florida was so vague as to be unknowable. The U.S. and Spain had conflicting claims and the Seminoles recognized neither but were happy to deal with whichever nation would sell them arms and otherwise not molest them.

What was to become the longest un-militarized border between two nations in the world, U.S.-Canada, took a long time to settle because the parties knew too little of the land they were dividing. The Six Nations, having taken the British side in the American Revolution, were subjected to British treachery when the borders were drawn in Paris with no mention of the Indian nations affected. When it became obvious that the words of the Paris Treaty did not match the geography, the Jay Treaty established an International Boundary Commission in 1794 that remains to this day. It still had much work to do in 1803.

The supreme irony of the Ottoman map is the date, 1803, which is also the date of a transaction known in the U.S. as the Louisiana Purchase, a transaction certainly known by President Jefferson to exceed his authority. Robert Livingston and James Monroe were sent to Paris authorized to pay up to $10 million for the strategic port of New Orleans, located at the mouth of the Mississippi River and thought correctly to be the key to dominating the North American continent. Napoleon offered all of Louisiana Territory for $15 million.

Without authority in the terms of their appointment, Livingston and Monroe accepted. Without constitutional authority, the “strict constructionist” Jefferson went along. What was bought in the Louisiana Purchase was the first right to purchase the land—as among Christian nations—from the aboriginal occupants, should the occupants choose to sell. This detail is overlooked in most K-12 histories. Schoolchildren are told the “price” of Louisiana Territory was four cents an acre, which is only funny if you don’t know it was the price of an option to buy rather than the price of the land.

The Indian nations shown on this map as free and independent were about to face the determination of the English colonists that would be styled after the Texas Annexation “manifest destiny” to span the continent.

Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, would go on to be among a tiny number of nations in Asia and Africa that did not get colonized from Europe, but the empire itself would be carved up among imperial powers like a bird of the same name. The Ottoman Empire acquired the sobriquet “Sick Man of Europe” as it was sliced and divided.

Russia took Bulgaria and Romania. Britain took Cyprus and Egypt. Austria took Bosnia. Then Britain and France carved up the remaining Arab territories between them, drawing lines that cause wars to this day among the indigenous tribal peoples.

When Atatürk beat the Allied armies of WWI to keep Turkey on the map and establish a republic, the Ottoman Empire had been under assault for longer than the United States had existed.

The Indian nations on the Ottoman map, along with many others, were able to survive as long as they could make alliances of convenience among the colonial powers. When the U.S. succeeded in ejecting the European imperialists, they could then turn all their military might on subduing the free and independent Indian nations and absorbing them into the empire that forgot it was an empire. Most of the colonists that created the empire came across the Atlantic, and by the time their descendants reached the Pacific, they had forgotten that they had been colonists and that they hated empires.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Interesting and it's no surprise that a map created by a nation other than those who stole land and settled here would have a different viewpoint.

Joshua Alan Brown
Joshua Alan Brown
Submitted by Joshua Alan Brown on
It makes me sad that they forgot they hated empires..