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An early map on skin of the area later to become Indiana and Illinois

G. Malcolm Lewis


THE British Museum's Department of Ethnography, presently at the Museum of Mankind, London, has on permanent loan a large map made on skin (Plate VII and fig. 2). Centred on the long axis of a diagrammatically straightened Wabash River, when redrawn on a modern map it covers most of what are now the states of Indiana and Illinois (fig. i). Although occasionally featured in the Museum's own displays or included as a loan item in exhibitions elsewhere, the artefact is little known and has not been an object of serious research. This might at first seem surprising. Maps on skin, though frequently reported from the North American frontier, are rare. Furthermore, this one must have been made and used before 1825, in which year it was brought to England as an ethnographic artefact. There is, however, no immediately obvious intrinsic evidence of its provenance; no title, endorsement, date, personal names, key, or revealing associated document. By tracing the artefact's descent retrochronologically it is possible to establish an intermediate, early nineteenth-century provenance. Thereafter, careful examination of the artefact's physical characteristics and the map's information content has associated them with negotiations with or by Indians prior to a neverimplemented major land purchase of approximately fifty years earlier.

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