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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Seeing History Through George Washington's Maps

Throughout his life, George Washington always had a strong connection to the land. Before he was a soldier and the country’s first president, he was a surveyor, measuring and mapping parcels of land for settlers and speculators.  Historian Barnet Schecter offers a fresh take on Washington’s life through the maps he drew and collected over the years. Schecter’s new book is “George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps.”

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  • Christina

    Altho this show was extremely interesting and well done, several very important historical factors in George Washington’s interest in maps were left unmentioned — mainly, the role of Native American wisdom and helpfulness, and the role of enslaved Black labor.

    By the time George was doing his surveying, the Tidewater Indians of his native Virginia had long since been decimated, either physically (as in “death”) or thru the racist policies of the English colonials. The western limits of those Tidewater Native American lands had created a “wall” past which the earlier colonists could not go. Once the Powhatan Confederation of tribes was tragically brought to its knees, a little over a hundred years before George tried to get up into the Ohio River Valley, both alliances & enmities between various tribes west of Virginia’s Fall Line and up into New York and Canada caused both opportunities AND thwartings for the land ambitions of George and other landed gentry of Tidewater Virginia and other colonies.

    Without the knowledge and direct help of Native American guides, the colonial Euro-Americans and later the American citizens could not have made the progress that they made, going out into land they prospected for themselves, with so little sense about the fact that it was already inhabited and/or used by various, sometimes warring, sometimes allied, Native American tribes. Eventually, the Indians sometimes sold their land, but the “deals” and “contracts” were often composed via “forked tongue” by the encroaching Whites. Many, many scholars describe this better than I ever could!

    Also, the picture we have in our heads is of colonial Whites, and later the new Americans, scrunching their way thru the vast American woodlands. I do not know the percentage of times, nor do I know if that figure is even known, but many times, the Whites venturing “west”, even when that was no farther than what we now call “West Virginia”, took their Black slaves with them to do the work of creating paths clear enough for their needs. Most often, those Euro-American paths were created on top of long-standing Native American paths, wisdom, and, often, HELP!

    I’m not a historian myself, but I have been reading the works of many skilled historians whose research has uncovered new understanding about American history, and whose literary skill makes reading their work a pleasure. I’m pretty sure I have accurately abbreviated this story from the wealth of work I’ve been privileged to find. Thanks so much!

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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