English Fantasies of Indigenous Deeds: The Strategic English Employment of Maps and Algonquians

by Nathan Braccio

New England in the 1600s was a place of regularly overlapping territorial claims imagined by colonists. Land represented many things to colonists: new colonies, farms for future generations, and prosperity. For a few acres of land, colonists ferociously argued and fought. Disputes over the territory along the Connecticut and Rhode Island border were particularly acrimonious. Starting in the 1650s, colonies, towns, and speculators all sought to confirm their claims with violence, in the courts, and with appeals to the king. Some of the first maps produced in either colony appeared in relation to this border. Everyone from farmers to representatives of the colonies made maps, which served as tools to visualize an ownership which they had been unable to legitimize. Maps allowed colonists to contest the borders of modest farms or fabricate entire colonies. However, the drawing of borders alone failed to persuade. Mapmakers had to be more creative, using images and text on map to present detailed histories of purchases from indigenous people or to criticize the behavior of other claimants.

The maps assembled here show the different ways in which ambitious colonists relied on indigenous deeds, amongst other arguments, to claim legitimate ownership. The first two focus on the disputed territory of Eastern Connecticut/Western Rhode Island, while the third looks at a more local dispute in which maps helped make fiction reality.

Boundings of New Cambridge County in New England

Boundings of New Cambridge County in New England. M.C. 1697. Image courtesy of The National Archives, Kew.

Through this detailed map, the Hamilton family argued they were the rightful owner to almost half of present-day Connecticut. The Duke of Hamilton, who had the original claim, had never lived in North America. Text on the map directly criticized the religious intolerance of rival claimants in Massachusetts Colony. Despite imagining a new colony and describing its prosperity, the Duke’s claim never came to fruition. Notably, the map includes almost no details on indigenous occupation of the lands. The map’s text indicates areas within the red lines have been “improved.”

[Sketch outline showing tracts in Connecticut, belonging to the Naragansett and Pequot Indians, as affirmed by Woncase (Uncas) Sagamore of the Mohegans and two other Indians at New London Connecticut]

[Sketch outline showing tracts in Connecticut, belonging to the Naragansett and Pequot Indians, as affirmed by Woncase (Uncas) Sagamore of the Mohegans and two other Indians at New London Connecticut]. Uncas and George Denison. 1662. Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Archives.

In 1662, in the midst of land disputes between Connecticut and Rhode Island, Connecticut authorities summoned the Mohegan Sachem, Uncas, to help them. An unattributed mapmaker (almost certainly Uncas) produced a map of the territory in question. Strikingly, the English wanted to know the location of tribal boundaries, to which each colony linked their own borders. In making this map, Uncas both helped the English and argued that his rivals, the Narragansett, did not have a legitimate claim to territory past Weexcodawa Brook.

[Map of Windsor]

[Map of Windsor]. John Allyn and Jonathan Gilbert. 1666. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Archives.

Disagreements between towns over borders frequently led to “controversies.” Colonists quickly realized the visual arguments made by maps could be persuasive. After the 1660s, disputing parties regularly constructed crude maps. This map represents far greater sophistication than most, and attempts to use a history of land purchases directly from indigenous people to legitimize its claims.