I. Of Maps and Beavers

Making Maps Intellectually Accessible. Maps are complex: they are shaped by social attitudes and cultural beliefs. To understand old maps we must therefore do more than relate their content to modern maps; we must also read “between the lines.” A good way to start doing so is to consider how “decorations” actually convey specific meanings within the map’s overall image. (See also section X.)

The three eighteenth-century maps in this section — one French (item 1), one British (item 2), and one Dutch (item 3) — supplement the geographical outlines of the Americas with prominent decorative vignettes (or, small views). In particular, they all show the same vignette of beavers building a dam. What made this image so appealing and worth copying?

This vignette greatly magnified Europeans’ appreciation of the beaver as a model of hard work and natural skill. First, it imagined a well-orchestrated army of beavers, each identified as having a specific job; in this, it mimicked the carefully regulated division of labor that was by 1700 increasingly common in the construction of major public works. Second, it set the beavers’ work against the dramatic backdrop of Niagara Falls, whose size and splendor truly amazed Europeans.

The meaning of the vignette lies in the parallel readily drawn between these elements: the industry of the beavers in building dams, the efficiency of regulated work gangs, and the tremendous natural presence of the falls. Were Europeans to apply their industry in such a manner to American landscapes, the vignette suggests, they could construct new works of similar magnitude! This powerful sentiment converts otherwise strictly geographical images into ambitious images of empire.