North American buckskin map

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 3

This buckskin map depicts a vast area of the American Midwest between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It was probably drawn by Piankshaw Indians and the red circles and semi-circles represent Native American settlement Native American maps are conceptual different than those of European settlers, containing more symbolic elements and reflecting different notions of space and time. Rivers were vitally important to Native Americans and the Wabash River runs along the spine of the deerskin, following the animal's life force.

Why was the map created?

Written phrases, like 'Piankashaw sold', on the lower right hand side of the map, suggest it was used as an intermediary tool to communicate between Europeans and Native Americans. It was probably created to aid negotiations during an attempt by the Wabash Land Company to purchase territory from the Piankashaw Indians in 1774 - 5. As European trappers and traders expanded west, private companies sought to purchase land from Native American nations. Such negotiations ignored the existing treaties with Native American people and this sale of land was declared void by the British colonial government.

This map was once part of a collection of Native American objects at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school in Lancashire

Cross-cultural map for a changing world

This map was made by an Algonquian speaking group of Native North Americans of the Ohio River Valley area around the 1770s, most likely the Piankashaw. The Piankashaw were one of the six constituent groups of the Miami people, but became independent of them around 1700. Some decade after the making of this map the Piankashaw merged with other Miami-Illinois related groups, the Wea and Kaskaskia, to become the Peoria.

The map is drawn on deer hide, which was prepared through a process known as brain tanning. This process consists of removing the hide from the animal, cleaning the hide (e.g., soaking, racking and fleshing) and then treating the surface by rubbing a mixture of various things over the surface of the hide, this mixture typically including the brain of the animal, grease, bone marrow, liver and other plant materials. In this way, the hide becomes saturated with collagen from the brain and the other materials creating a semi-tanned hide.

The lines, markings and words drawn on the map were made using commonly available commercial inks - red (vermillion) and black (carbon) – and not native pigments and mordants.

The use of this ink, in combination with the inclusion of the use of European (English) language words on the map, and the overall context of time and place where the map was made indicate that this map was created as a collaboration and/or negotiation – a land transaction - between the indigenous Miami people and Europeans.

In such a transaction it is likely that land was purchased by Europeans in return for trade goods. This transaction also would have taken place in a time of great political tumult and contention , with the recent end of the Seven Years War. This was also a time when English law actually forbade land sales and purchases west of the Allegany’s, and such a land sale would not have been legal, though entrepreneurs making such deals tried unsuccessfully to find complicated ways around these laws..

While the European handwritten words, as well as perhaps the use of commercial inks, indicate the participation of Europeans in making this map, the conventions are Native American. The lines and symbols on the map are drawn in a symbolic and cosmological manner, as opposed to topographically. The Wabash River, drawn down the middle of the hide, is not rendered literally, but rather follows the spine of the deer, mapped out following the life force of the animal as an indication that this river would have been the life force of the people who drew this map.

The other rivers are also represented symbolically, and in a manner reflecting the time it would take to travel on rivers from each village marked out on the map, rather than the actual space. Additionally, there are 14 Native villages on this map, at a time when only two of these 14 are to be found on European maps – and very notably, St Louis is not depicted on this map, though it falls within the topographic area covered.

The combination of all of these things on the map reflects native perspective, European contribution, and is a product of cross-cultural negotiation in a world that was changing rapidly.

Devorah Romanek, curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 16:24 on 9 September 2010, wolfsong wrote:

    @Devorah: Thank you very much. Very interesting! Fantastic piece showing the tunnel vision of the European settlers on material gains and the greed with which they flooded into Native American lands. As a European with relatives in the USA and having lived myself on native lands as a guest several times, I still feel deeply ashamed of this epoch so often depicted as heroical ...

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  • 2. At 09:22 on 6 October 2010, Brian wrote:

    Please fix your schoolboy howler - the word is "treaties" not "treatise"

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  • 3. At 13:38 on 6 October 2010, fuzzarelly wrote:

    I'd like to point out how we pronounce the word Wabash in Indiana. We say wah-bash', each syllable distinctly uttered, as if they were two words. It was odd to hear Mr. McGregor say it almost to rhyme with rubbish.

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  • 4. At 17:30 on 16 October 2010, barefoot doc wrote:

    I'm sorry to play the grumpy old spellchecker... but there are errors here, and in something emanating from the BM, poor literacy won't do.
    Cologen (para 2) should be collagen.
    Mordents (para 3) should be mordants (dyestuffs); a mordent is a musical decoration.
    And there's a grammatical error in para 5: 'forbid' should be past tense, forbade.

    It's great to have this resource of cultural-historical exhibits. But the English usage needs to be exemplary. Cheers.

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  • 5. At 13:53 on 26 October 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    Quite right - thanks for pointing it out.
    @barefoot doc
    Thanks also to you - these have now been corrected.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 6. At 15:33 on 23 November 2010, darfieldboy wrote:

    Has anyone noticed how the omnibus episodes are out of step with the podcast numbers? Where's the omnibus edition with Durer's Rhinocerus?Counting in fives from the beginning, it should be episode 15. By the way, it's Mohammed, not Mahommet
    Still, it's a blinding series, well done

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