Mapping the Americas

Geographies, Empires, and Nations from Alaska to Argentina (since ca. 1400)

History 300/Geography 300

Kilian Harrer


In this course, we will uncover the long and turbulent history of something that nowadays seems perfectly obvious: the place of the Americas on the globe. On today’s world maps, America corresponds quite neatly to the western hemisphere. We know equally well the usual internal divisions of this landmass; we normally distinguish U.S. (or North American) from Latin American history, and the U.S.-Mexican border functions as a divide not just between two countries, but also between the wealthy Global North and the much poorer Global South. How have these ways of representing a continent come to appear so self-evident?

Five hundred years ago, learned Europeans slowly realized that the lands which had recently been named after Amerigo Vespucci actually existed, and that they were not identical with the “Indies,” as Columbus had famously believed. In this course, we will seek to understand how geographical representations of the “New World” changed over time. This goal will also lead us to examine the cosmologies and maps of indigenous American peoples that differed drastically from both the world-views of late medieval Europeans and the kind of map that most inhabitants of today’s United States know and understand best. The first half of our survey ranges from the pre-Columbian period to the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans in 1492, to the long process of European conquest, colonization, and exploration. In the second half, we will turn especially to the consequences of national independence in the late 18th and early 19th century and to the emergence of the U.S. as the foremost power of the western hemisphere.

I explicitly welcome students of geography with an interest in historical questions alongside students of history. What is more, we will not limit ourselves to purely historical reflections; rather, toward the end of the semester, we will examine the boundaries as well as internal organization of the Americas as an issue of present contention. What is at stake in U.S.-Latin American relationships of the 21st century? How do rival Argentinian, Chilean, and British claims to parts of Antarctica, or Canadian-Russian quarrels over the Arctic Ocean in times of climate change, challenge our ideas about where the Americas begin and where they end?

The course offers a fresh perspective on teaching the globe through an historical investigation of how the Americas found their way onto early modern and modern world maps, and of how they came to occupy the Western half of those maps. The idea of splitting the globe in two hemispheres is very old: it dates back to the Portuguese-Castilian Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), and it has always been heavily charged with geopolitical meaning. Hence, we can fulfill a critical task by having students unearth the influence of the political on representations of global space. At the same time, the course integrates smaller scales (from the local to the national) in order to expose the American hemisphere as an internally uneven and heterogeneous space. Ultimately, the aim of the course is to help students think more deeply about the place and role of the U.S. both in the Americas and in the world.

Overarching Learning Objectives

At the end of the semester, class participants will be able to:

  • Summarize the most important historical developments of mapmaking and geographical imaginaries that relate to the Americas and their place in the world
  • Differentiate—as well as interpret the interactionsbetween Native-American, European, Euro-American, and (to a lesser extent) African-American cultures of creating material and mental maps of the Americas
  • Define and actively apply, mainly through discussion of various primary source materials, the fundamental concepts that underlie human approaches to representing space (whether those approaches be cosmological, cartographical, or something in between)
  • Analyze and, when appropriate, critique the assumptions that have motivated people to privilege some styles and contents of spatial representation over others
  • Question their own preconceptions about what a useful, sound, or objective map of the Americas ‘ought to’ look like


Participation in class, 25 %

While the first class of each week will usually resemble a traditional lecture, the second class of each week will be largely based on discussions and student activities, and your active participation in those will count toward your final grade.

Midterm exam, 25 %

This 75-minute exam will take the form of an in-class essay assignment (Week 8, see course plan below).

First paper, 20 %

At the end of Week 6, a short paper (4-5 pages) will be due. For this paper, I will ask you to respond to one of two essay questions using the primary and secondary sources that constitute the readings for Weeks 5 and 6.

Map project, 30 %

Early in the semester (Week 5) we will visit the local archives and meet with the director of the map collection. Each student will choose one map and provide a thorough contextualization and analysis of it. I expect you to write an essay of 5-6 pages, roughly comparable in style and intent to a section in the “Mapping Latin America” reader (for the exact bibliographic reference, see course plan below, Week 1). The essay will be due at the end of the semester; it may require some additional reading but the good news is that it replaces the final exam. Of course, throughout the semester I will be happy to provide guidance with this assignment; please see the weekly course plan (Weeks 7, 10, and 12) for information on the intermediate steps of the project and the dates by which I would like you to complete those steps.


No purchases suggested; most readings will be in the course pack, and those which are not will come as PDF files attached to e-mails that I will send out to all students (this is to make sure that you will be able to look at adequately reproduced colored maps).


Week 1: Introductions

Karl Offen and Jordana Dym, “Introduction,” in Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, ed. Jordana Dym and Karl Offen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1-18.

This reading exposes students to some basic concepts (e.g. map, scale, projection, Latin America) and problems (Eurocentrism and other geographical imaginaries, culturally specific foundations of cartographic conventions). It sets up an extended and activity-based discussion in the second class of the week.

Week 2: Native American Mapmaking and Cosmologies before and after 1492

Aztec pictogram from the early sixteenth century, showing the founding of Tenochtitlan and the conquest of Colhuacan and Tenayucan.

Peter H. Herlihy, “Indigenous Mapmaking in the Americas: A Typology,” in Cultural and Physical Expositions: Geography Studies in the Southern United States and Latin America, ed. Michael K. Steinberg and Paul F. Hudson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2002), 133-150.

Selections from Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing, and Native Rule, ed. Mary E. Miller and Barbara E. Mundy (New Haven: Yale UP, 2012): x-xv [plates showing the Beinecke Map], 1-8 [Mary E. Miller, “Introduction”], 31-52 [Barbara E. Mundy, “Pictography, Writing, and Mapping in the Valley of Mexico and the Beinecke Map”].

Isabel Yaya, The Two Faces of Inca History: Dualism in the Narratives and Cosmology of Ancient Cuzco (Boston: Brill, 2012), 137-157 [“The Ancestral Rulers of the Dry Season: The Journey from Lake Titicaca”].

Native Mesoamerican map from the late sixteenth century, depicting the Culhua-Mexicas on their way from their homeland of Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico, where they would found Tenochtitlan ca. 1325.

These readings serve two related purposes. First, together they constitute a useful basic reminder that the diverse cultures Europeans encountered in the Americas after 1492 possessed techniques of mapmaking and sophisticated cosmologies of their own. Second, maps such as the one discussed in Miller’s and Mundy’s edited volume will challenge students’ understanding of cartographic conventions because they are likely to strike a modern U.S. audience as strange and hardly “legible.”

Week 3: Columbus

Nicolás Wey Gómez, The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 1-57 + 435-440 [“Introduction” and accompanying notes].

Selections from The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-93), and Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real, trans. with notes and introduction by Clements R. Markham (London: Hakluyt Society, 1893): 3-11 [“Sailing Directions of Columbus. Letters of Toscanelli”], 15-18 [preamble of the journal], 35-47 [Oct 11-16, 1492], 86-91 [Nov 26/27, 1492].

Wey Gómez’s book is, to my knowledge, the most recent detailed account of the worldview and motivations that formed the context to Columbus’s voyage. It is also innovative in that it puts the long history of tropicality center stage, which will give students some useful background to later discussions of Caribbean history (Panama Canal, Weeks 12 & 13). The selections from Columbus’s journal cover a number of important themes, including the first contact, the experience and representation of alterity, and coexisting Spanish quests for gold, the establishment of trade, and the Christianization of native peoples.

Week 4: Amerigo Vespucci; the Northwest Passage, Part I

Selections from Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America, ed. Luciano Formisano (New York: Marsilio, 1992): xix-xl [Luciano Formisano, “Introduction”], 3-18 + 171-176 [“Letter I to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici” with notes], 45-56 + 183-186 [“Letter V Mundus Novus” with notes].

Glyndwr Williams, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009), 1-12 [“Prologue: ‘There is no land uninhabitable nor Sea innavigable’”], 13-55 [chapters dealing with early voyages from Frobisher to the discovery of Hudson Bay].

Vespucci is a crucial early figure in the European process of recognizing the Americas as a separate landmass, a fourth major continent, the sheer existence of which seriously undermined medieval knowledge of the shape of the world. His letters also enable students to pursue their exploration of many topics I have mentioned above with regard to Columbus’s journal. The search for a Northwest Passage is another important aspect of that same problem faced by Renaissance Europeans: how to wrap one’s head—and trading routes—around this New World?

Week 5: Tordesillas and Magellan; Early Modern European World Maps

Juan de la Cosa’s map of 1500, showing several islands in the Caribbean.

Arndt Brendecke, Imperium und Empirie: Funktionen des Wissens in der spanischen Kolonialherrschaft (Cologne: Böhlau, 2009): chapters on “Walks through the World: The Epistemic Setting of the Court” and on “Imperial Authorities” [an English translation of this book is forthcoming in 2016].

Martin Waldseemüller’s and Juan de la Cosa’s world maps (both very beautifully reproduced in Wey Gómez, Tropics of Empire, 20-21, 54-55).

Martin Waldseemüller’s world map (1507), showing America.

Out-of-class event: visit to the map collection of the local archives

The chapters from Brendecke’s book touch on both the Treaty of Tordesillas and the voyage of Magellan; they are especially valuable because the author pays consistent attention to the historical phenomenon of European geographic ignorance, thereby making it easier to understand how the Spanish court managed the unknown. In other words, an unusual lesson about the uses, abuses, and limits of cartographic knowledge. Waldseemüller’s and De la Cosa’s maps deserve separate discussion as early cartographic milestones that helped to integrate the Americas into the European world view.

Week 6: Mapmaking and Early European Imperialism

Ricardo Padrón, The Spacious Word: Cartography, Literature, and Empire in Early Modern Spain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 1-44 + 239-243 [Ch. 1: “The Invention of America and the Invention of the Map” with notes].

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “Maps and Exploration in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” in The History of Cartography, Vol. 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance, Pt. 1, ed. David Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 738-770.

Assignment due: first paper

Maris Pacifici
Map of the Pacific in Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1589).

The chapter from Padrón’s book will be useful at this point of the semester, as it reframes the issue of European attempts to understand the New World on a more theoretically ambitious level. Just like Brendecke, Padrón is also concerned with the politics of mapmaking, driving home the point that even in the scientific revolution, cartography never turned into a purely scientific endeavor. Fernández-Armesto’s piece likewise deals with the complex relationship between cartography and European expansion; it comes with more than thirty maps, many of which are worth discussing as primary source materials.

Week 7: Exploring the Continent’s Interior—the Case of North America

G. Malcolm Lewis, “Native North Americans’ Cosmological Ideas & Geographical Awareness: Their Representation and Influence on Early European Exploration and Geographic Knowledge,” in North American Exploration, vol. 1: A New World Disclosed, ed. John L. Allen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 71-126.

Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 1-17 [“Introduction”].

John Smith’s 1612 map of Virginia.

John Smith’s 1612 [!] map of Virginia, available online:’s_map_of_Virginia_1624.jpg

Next stage of the Map Project: Turn in an image of the map you have chosen, together with an abstract (aim for 150-200 words) explaining your choice: What do you find most interesting about the map? What main angle for analyzing it do you propose?

After some inevitably Eurocentric and elite-focused weeks, these readings bring Native Americans and subaltern Euro-American groups (voyageurs or coureurs de bois) back into the story of how representations of the Americas evolved throughout the early modern period. In this week, students are expected to learn that American space was not apprehended and shaped by European cartographers alone, even long after the onset of colonialism. Smith’s map is a primary source complementary to, and briefly discussed in, Malcolm Lewis’s article.

Week 8: Eighteenth-Century Voyages—the Northwest Passage, Part II

Hugo Allard’s world map (1685) showing, among many other things, the ‘Strait of Anian,’ the supposed Northwest Passage.

Orcutt Frost, Bering: The Russian Discovery of America (New Haven, Yale UP: 2003), 127-149 [ch. 9: “From Kamchatka to North America”].

A. V. Postnikov, The Mapping of Russian America: A History of Russian-American Contacts in Cartography (Milwaukee: American Geographical Society Collection of the Golda Meir Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1995).

Assessment: midterms!

This week’s class (the one not filled by the midterm exam) presents a heterodox take on exploration in the age of Enlightenment by focusing on the Russian-American frontier. Frost is relatively light reading and Postnikov’s monograph has only 40 pages, so the workload is somewhat reduced to make room for students’ exam preparation. Besides, Postnikov not only discusses Russian efforts to sail the Northwest Passage but also makes a case for lasting Russian influence on the cartography of later (United States-owned) Alaska. This perspective helps to further de-center the history of how people came to comprehend the American continent.

Week 9: A Continent of Nation-States? The Early Nineteenth Century

Map from the Atlas geográfico e histórico de la República de Colombia (1890), showing the provinces of pre-independence New Granada.

Luis Alarcón Meneses and Jorge Conde Calderón, “Social Representations of National Territory and Citizenship in Nineteenth-century History and Geography Textbooks of the Colombian Caribbean Region,” Paedagogica Historica 43 (2007): 701-713.

Paula Rebert, La Gran Línea: Mapping the United States–Mexico Boundary, 1849-1857 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 1-15 [“Introduction”], 41-58 [ch. 2: “The Boundary Office: Mapmaking”].

Jordana Dym, “Initial Boundaries,” in Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, ed. Jordana Dym and Karl Offen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 144-147.

George A. Thompson, Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico (London: J. Murray, 1829), 441-507 [“Historical and Statistical Sketch of Guatemala”; very small pages!].

These readings all shed light on the novel problems that arose after most parts of the Americas had emancipated themselves from European colonial rule: how to carve out nation-states on the continent, and how to create persuasive geographical imaginaries on the national scale? As for the latter question, Alarcón Meneses and Conde Calderón’s article is especially interesting. The selection from Thompson’s Narrative (covering many problems of the emerging Central American nation-states, from “Situation and Extent” to “Boundaries of States” to “Commerce” to “Communication within itself [i.e. Guatemala] and with the Exterior”) will ideally be discussed in conjunction with Dym’s section in the Cartographic Reader.

Week 10: The New Role of the United States

Logo of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, 1901.

Rebert, La Gran Línea, 138-180 [ch. 5: “Controversy on the Boundary: Surveys of the Rio Grande”].

Gretchen Murphy, Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 1-31 [Introduction: “Writing the hemisphere”].

Next stage of the Map Project: Provide a sketch of the argument you would like to make about the map you have chosen (400-500 words). Attach a short bibliography of additional readings that you have used or intend to use. If you need help searching for helpful secondary literature, feel free to come and see me during office hours.

The Uncle Sam Hemisphere. Cartoon on page 1 of The Minneapolis Journal (March 18, 1904).

This week’s classes explore the rise of the United States to the status of an imperial power in its own right. This development had two major implications in the history of mapping the Americas and their place in the world: first, the propagation of an ideology revolving around the idea of a separate ‘western hemisphere,’ as discussed by Murphy in a theoretically sophisticated way that will enable students to understand the hemisphere as a political project rather than an innocuous geographic division; and second, the establishment of a clear-cut boundary between North and Latin America, covered by the chapter from Rebert’s book.

Week 11: Hawaii and Its Annexation by the United States

Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 123-163 [Ch. 4: “The Antiannexation Struggle”].

Laavanyan M. Ratnapalan, “Sereno Bishop, Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Americanism’ in Hawai‘i,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40 (2012): 439-457.

William D. Alexander, A Brief History of the Hawaiian People (New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: American Book Company, 1899), 288-324 [Ch. XXXV-XXXVIII, covering the time period from 1863 to 1898].

Preparation for Week 13: We will have a short discussion to find the best date and time for an out-of-class screening of the movie that forms one of the assignments in Week 13.

This week’s classes explore an area of intersection between American (or more specifically, U.S.) and Pacific history. Hawaii makes for an interesting test case here, as it is far from obvious how this group of islands in the middle of the ocean could become a part of the geographical imaginary that surrounds ‘America.’ The chapter from Silva’s book provides background knowledge, while Ratnapalan’s article focuses specifically on the problem of ‘Americanization’ in the late 19th century. The primary source reading, the chapters from Alexander’s book, gives an example of teleological writing that presented U.S. rule over the islands as the logical (and salutary) result of a longer development.

Week 12: A Failure of Imperialism—the French Canal Project in Panama

John R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010), 1-62 [Ch. 1, “The Argument (and Its Limits) in Brief”; Ch. 2, “Setting the Scene: Atlantic Empires and Caribbean Ecology”], 287-303 [part of Ch. 7, “Immigration, Warfare, and Independence, 1830-1898: Mexico, the United States, and Cuba”].

Wolfred Nelson, Five Years at Panama. The Trans-Isthmian Canal (New York: Belford Company, 1889), 120-135 [Ch. XIV: “Vital Statistics – Cemeteries – Modes of burial and unburial – The isthmus considered as a disease producing and distributing centre”].

Next stage of the Map Project: Turn in a draft of your final essay. I will provide feedback on the drafts by the end of the following week.

In this week, classes take up the theme of tropicality in the Americas. The first step consists in introducing McNeill’s concept of a Caribbean ‘disease environment’ in which some populations largely enjoyed immunity to yellow fever and malaria whereas others, especially the newcomers in European imperial troops, died like flies. In a second step (see lesson plan), students will consider the effects that these circumstances of environmental history had on the French attempt to dramatically reorganize the American landmass by building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The primary account by Nelson gives vivid impressions of the Panamanian disease environment and of mortality at the French canal.

Week 13: Between U.S. Imperialism and Pan-Americanism

Cartoon from The Omaha Daily Bee (January 29, 1914), depicting U.S. triumph and the shock of the rest of the world at the opening of the Panama Canal.

Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 93-119 [Ch. 6: “Canal Construction and the Politics of Water”].

Amy Spellacy, “Mapping the Metaphor of the Good Neighbor: Geography, Globalism, and Pan-Americanism during the 1940s,” American Studies 47/2 (2006), 39-66.

The Three Caballeros, Walt Disney movie (1944) showing Donald Duck’s visit to Latin America.

The first class of this week focuses on the next and ultimately successful attempt of an imperial power to construct the Panama Canal. U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs continued throughout the first half of the 20th century, even as the imperial aspirations of the new Northern superpower entertained complex relationships with notions of the hemisphere, cultural Pan-Americanism, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. These entanglements form the core subject of Spellacy’s article. The Disney movie is a fascinating cinematic (and political!) outgrowth of that latently imperialist Pan-Americanism.

Week 14: Imperialism, Pan-Americanism, and Nationalism after World War II

James G. Hershberg, “‘High-Spirited Confusion’: Brazil, the 1961 Belgrade Non-Aligned Conference, and the Limits of an ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy during the High Cold War,” Cold War History 7 (2007): 373-388.

Millery Polyné, From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan-Americanism 1870-1964 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010), 180-208 [ch. 6: “‘The Moody Republic and the Men in Her Life’: François Duvalier, U.S. African Americans and Haitian Exiles, 1957-1964”].

Carla Lois, “National Production,” in Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, ed. Jordana Dym and Karl Offen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 203-206.

Selections from The Kennedys and Cuba: The Declassified Documentary History, ed. Mark J. White (Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1999): 13-24 [documents related to the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961], 201-207 [JFK’s first letter to Khrushchev during the missile crisis and his address to the American people on Oct 22, 1962].

These readings reflect the complexity both of foreign policy (and, in the case of the chapter from Polyné, transnational) relationships within the Americas after 1945 and of global divisions that had a significant impact on how people in the Americas perceived the continent they inhabited. The Cuban missile crisis constitutes a crucial episode of this multi-faceted Cold War history; the selected readings from White’s documentary history are useful as starting points for examining U.S. ambitions to control Latin American affairs as well as the political use to which JFK put the notion of the western hemisphere. Argentinian nationalism and rivalry with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands and parts of Antarctica provide another lens through which to explore the contested boundaries of the Americas.

Week 15: Present-Day Issues (Including the Northwest Passage, Part III)

Abraham F. Lowenthal, “From Regional Hegemony to Complex Bilateral Relations: The United States and Latin America in the Early 21st Century,” Nueva Sociedad 206 (2006), available online under:

Bjørn Sletto, “Mapping the Pemon Homeland,” in Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, ed. Jordana Dym and Karl Offen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 298-303.

Williams, Arctic Labyrinth, 379-386 [“Epilogue: The Northwest Passage and Climate Change”].

“Arctic region likely to become the center of World War III,”, 06/09/2008, available online under:

“Mapamundi trágico,”, May 2015, available online under:

Assignment due: final paper

The last two lessons will wrap up many important themes of the course in a discussion that focuses on present issues in which the spatial imaginary of the Americas plays a more or less crucial role. Those themes include the present and future of U.S. hegemony on the continent (Lowenthal); indigenous land right struggles (Sletto); competing territorial claims in the Arctic ( for the classical gesture of flag planting, Williams); and the persistence of inequalities on both a continental and a global scale (the ‘Tragical World Map,’ created by a Mexican artist, that also invites the question: what or who is ‘the world’ in the 21st century?).


Comments are closed.