Update:  Just got an email from Barb (Drew’s wife) with details of the upcoming publication of Drew’s book, Red Ink:  Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period.  Feel free to buy it as soon as you can.


At this stage in my life, making a map has become very much like writing or driving – it’s something I largely don’t think about.  These are all tasks that I usually just sit down and do.  Only rarely do I actually have to think about the process involved in what I am doing.  Recently, though, I made a couple of maps that I really thought about, beginning to end.

An old friend (Drew) stopped by for a visit a short while ago (by ‘old friend’ I mean one of those few who has been a good friend through thick and thin since high school and still seems magically blind to my faults).  He asked me to put together maps for a book he’s authored that’s heading for publication.  I assented, of course.  Hell – I would have done so even if we hadn’t been drinking.

Anyway, I anticipated questions about the maps, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the choices I was making and why I was making them.  The questions never materialized (I should have realized that someone who’s been a friend this long would know enough to just get out of my way and let me do what I do), but anticipating them forced me to articulate my creative process in a fashion I haven’t experienced in years.  I thought I’d share it with you all.

Disclaimer:  As a Map Dork, I am almost completely self-taught.  Those of you who have actually taken classes and/or earned degrees in this stuff may find this to be painfully obvious or stupidly off base.  My only response to this is:  “Hey – it works for me.”

As you may have guessed, I spend a lot of my time looking at maps.  All sorts of maps.  These days, I see a lot of ugly maps.  And you know what, kids?  Ugly maps don’t work.  Allow me to explain.

A map is a document.  Like any other document, the point of a map is to convey information to an audience (the audience being whoever is looking at it).  In order for this to occur, the audience actually has to look at the map long enough to absorb whatever information the map is intended to convey.  Since the overwhelming majority of humanity does not particularly enjoy looking at ugly things, chances are an ugly map will fail in its purpose.

Part of the problem (I’m sad to say) is the advent of geographic information systems (GIS).  GIS has taught us that maps are, in fact, collections of data.  While it is a good thing to know this Basic Truth, sometimes it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the map is about the data, rather than the other way around.  When this occurs, bad maps happen.  In an army hygiene film sort of way (“Men – don’t let this happen to you!”), allow me to demonstrate:

This hideous monstrosity is not something I cooked up just to make a point.  It’s a detail of a real map a company actually paid a GIS firm to produce.  It’s so damn ugly it’s almost beautiful.

Simple is good.  I cannot stress that enough.

I’m not entirely clear on the details of Drew’s book (I haven’t read it yet), but I know it has a lot to do with 17th- and 18th-century New England, specifically in regard to English settlements and Native ‘Praying Towns’ therein.  I know this because he needed me to produce maps that depicted these things (a lot of e-commerce has bounced back and forth between here and Texas as of late.  That’s right – Texas.  Poor Drew and his family are Liberals In Exile).

Luckily, the sort of maps Drew wanted are the sort I like to make.  Maps of landscapes.  Coming to GIS through archaeology and history, I’m particularly drawn to maps that depict things as they are (or were) on the ground.  It may (but probably won’t) surprise you to know that maps do not always depict a physical landscape.  This is as it should be – not all maps are trying to convey physical information (such as maps of the internet or mind maps), while others only loosely refer to actual geography (like the annoying red/blue maps we Americans are stuffed into every four years or the iconic London Tube map).  Personally, I’m most comfortable when dealing with the actual face of the planet.

Drew wanted maps of two specific landscapes: one of the Boston/Cape Cod/Rhode Island area (Map 1) and one of the eastern New York/western Massachusetts and Connecticut area (Map 2).  The only restrictions being that the maps needed to be black and white (greyscale, technically), and they had to be easily readable at a size typical of a scholarly work (let’s say 8” x 6”).  I approached them the same way I approach any area I want to map.  I first looked for the Big Reality.

Every location has the Big Reality.  It is the single enormity that pervades life in a specific location.  The Big Reality is often a geographic feature of some sort (a volcano, a river, a mountain range, a desert, an ocean), but oft-times is of a different nature (making paper, the hostile neighbor to the south, winter, tourism, growing corn, jazz).  Every place has the Big Reality, though (some have more than one).  It is huge, and it affects almost all aspects of life, but usually not overwhelmingly so.  Generally the Big Reality runs in the background, as it were.

Living in close proximity to both areas (as well as having gotten a degree in history from a New England university) made determining the Big Realties for both maps a cakewalk.  For Map 1, the ocean.  Map 2, the mountains.

The problem with the Big Reality is that it can be rather tricky to map (this is especially true if the Big Reality is less tangible than a geographical feature).  It needs to be pervasive but not overwhelming.  Unmistakably present, but not hitting you over the head with its presence.  In a word, the Big Reality should be the background.  In Map 1, this was achieved with a simple drop shadow.  In Map 2 with a slight bump.  It pays to spend a lot of time thinking about a map before you begin to actually produce it.

Both maps needed clear distinctions between British settlements and Native ones.  The looming pitfall here was the lure to overdo it.  We often underestimate the human brain’s ability to notice subtle differences.  For Drew’s maps, I made the distinctions through slightly different symbology and separate fonts.

Which brings me to another point I cannot stress enough:  choose your fonts with care.

For these maps, I used two fonts – one for the English settlements and one for the Native settlements.  For the English settlements I chose a font I use often: Souvenir.  Souvenir has a few things going for it – it’s clean, it’s easy to read and (important for these maps) it has serifs.  In this case Souvenir has an added bonus that caused me to use it for the titles and other miscellany.  It is a font used regularly by the U.S. Geological Survey on their quadrangle maps.  Because of this, when many Americans see this font they automatically think ‘map’.  Also, it serves to lend a certain air of legitimacy to a map, which never hurts.

The second font I used to label Native settlements and spheres of influence.  To make a clear distinction from the British settlements, I wanted a font without serifs (sans-serif).  I also wanted a font that was more organic/natural looking.

A quick aside – many white people have funny ideas about Native American peoples (or any other aboriginal group, for that matter).  There is this tendency to think of them as Tolkein’s Wood Elves – living in an idyllic state, completely in tune with the natural world around them, at peace with all living things.

Crap.  This way of thinking presumes the existence of the ‘Noble Savage’, which is, in fact, a myth.  The truth is that Native Americans were and are human beings, and you know perfectly well that humans tend to be annoying, stupid and downright mean.  Put another way, there is absolutely nothing, then or now, stopping any particular Native from being an asshole.  In fact, if you compiled a list of the meanest people in human history, the Mohawks would clock in pretty high on it.

However, the simple truth is that most Native groups at the time lived considerably ‘greener’ lives than their European contemporaries.  Even more important – they did so by design.  In general, Native American peoples did not view the natural world as something that needed to be beaten into submission.

What I was really looking for was a font that would appear more as a part of the landscape than stamped over it.  Something rounder and smoother.  There are a ridiculous number of fonts to choose from, but my decision became easy when I stumbled across a font called Pigiarniq.  It’s a font adopted by the Government of Nunavut that allows for all of their spoken languages to be represented uniformly.  This isn’t the only Native font out there, but it’s the only one I’ve seen that includes English characters.

Yes – pretty much any clean, sans-serif font would have gotten the job done.  But using Pigiarniq has style.  Don’t underestimate it.

Giving the Native labels a ‘natural’ feel was enhanced on Map 2 due to the added bump.  By adding the labels before applying the bump, it gives the labels a subtle appearance of being ‘draped’ over the landscape, as opposed to the British labels which were applied flat after the fact.

At the end of the day, I have to say I’m pretty happy with the way these maps turned out.  Drew is very happy, which is even more important.  Here’s a detail from each:


Appendix: The nuts and bolts (for any of you who care):

The data used for these maps came mostly from just a few sources – MassGIS, USGS and Google Earth (because I am who I am, I endeavored to place the English settlements in as historically accurate a manner as possible.  The easiest way to do this was to locate the town hall, town common, or original church.  Searching for a town hall, though, often gets you directed to a structure that was built in the 1990s.  I got around this by using Street View in Google Earth to get a look at the building in question.  In New England, it’s a pretty simple matter to identify the structure that’s three or four centuries old [I told you I found a use for Street View, Bill]).  Other data came out of Drew’s brain, based on extensive research.  I filled in a gap or two myself.  The projection used was NAD83 Stateplane.  Software used was QuantumGIS, Bryce and Photoshop.  No British or Native American settlements were harmed in the making of these maps.