Paulett publishes book on colonial trader mapping

Dr. Robert Paulett

Assistant History Professor Dr. Robert Paulett has recently published a book: An Empire of Small Places: Mapping the Southeastern Anglo-Indian Trade. His work focuses on trade between the English colonials and the Native Americans during the 18th century in southeastern North America and the mapmaking that reflected the trade practices.

The book is part of series called Early American Places, which consists of other books written by historians like Paulett who are focusing on a specific region or area in America from 1750 to 1800.

“Each of the presses are putting up books like this that are looking at these relatively small spaces as a way of looking at big changes in early America towards the end of the Colonial period and into the early U.S. National period,” says Paulett.

An Empire of Small Places has been featured in Perspectives on History, which is a premier magazine published by the American Historical Association. This interesting aspect of American history, though a smaller picture of the whole, speaks of the broader story of how the United States came to be.

In his book, Paulett details how, in matters of travel and cartography, the English colonials adapted to Native Americans and how these two groups had to, as Paulett puts it, “create this common idea of geography.”

“Each side has its own idea about how people relate to each other. [Each side] has its own way of mapping that, drawing that, and depicting that,” Paulett explains.

While the two mapping practices of the cultures remained separate, and the English did not directly borrow mapping practices from Native Americans, Paulett found that the two geographical views of the groups created a way for effective mapping practices.

“They found just enough commonality between their two respective traditions to make it work,” Paulett explains. “It’s never a perfect fit. It’s not like there’s a sort of hybrid culture that they create between them, but the Indians stretch out their notions toward the English enough, and the English stretch their notions toward the Indians enough that they can…make it all happen.”

While the area that Paulett focuses his research on is a “relatively small” portion of North America, this area was expansive to the English traders. Augusta, Georgia, was the hub for English traders and from there, they would embark on journeys as far west as the Mississippi River to trade with Native Americans and settlers.

These journeys would take about two years, and in their travels, they learned their ways around the regions that are now organized as states. These long journeys were new for English traders, as they were used to traveling longer distances within England, but never in a new land that took so much more time to navigate.

This concept is what is of primary interest to Paulett. In his book, he addresses how traders deal with traveling such a long distance “in an era where the maps aren’t so reliable.” To make their trade routes successful, the traders had to be familiar with the Native Americans’ geographic understanding of the area.

The Native Americans understood the area as a clustering of communities. Their maps emphasized the locations of tribes and with simple broken and unbroken lines, they showed whether tribes were civil or hostile to one another.

“The English had to adopt this place-to-place, people-to-people sense of geography,” explains Paulett. “They had to basically live in this world, and Europeans were used to traveling from place to place.”

When the English wanted to make maps of the Southeast, the traders were a major source of information, as the traders traveled extensively and knew the land as well as the Native Americans. This concept of knowing the land was the reason that maps were needed, though.

“Very few people had maps in the colonies. You knew where to move just by knowing who lived where,” Paulett says, “so it wasn’t something that the English had to invent. It was something they had to emphasize over a new mapping tradition.”

The English then incorporated the traders’ view of mapping. English maps primarily emphasized accuracy of physical features so that they could set up boundaries and fix laws and regulations according to regions. The traders’ contribution to the mapmaking of the Southeast was innovative.

“The traders’ sense of geography is a series of connected spaces that actually comes out of their verbal accounts and gets printed into the English maps,” Paulett says. “It becomes a geographic feature in its own right, a certain way of arranging a space.”

These colonial mapmaking practices were groundbreaking during the 18th century, and the methods from this period still resonate with mapmaking practices today.

“What we’re looking at here is…this idea that maps can show reality, that we can so accurately map the landscape that we see the world as it really is through a map,” says Paulett.

Paulett’s dedication to researching colonial cartography is a deeply rooted endeavor. His research featured in An Empire of Small Places began with his dissertation in 2002, and in his research, he has studied both published and manuscript maps, the letters and reports from the actual traders, and newspapers from the time period he studied.

Paulett is currently working on his next book, which is still focused on 18th century colonial southeastern North America, but more specifically focuses on the life and work of John William De Braum, a cartographer turned mystic.

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