Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Mapping the Past

Created September 28, 2010


The Lesson


Mapping the Past: mapping_past

A detail of the so-called "Christopher Columbus" map.

Credit: Courtesy of Xpeditions at the National Geographic Society.

This lesson provides students with experience in working with historical maps as cultural artifacts that reflect the views of particular times and places. Students begin by examining European world maps from three eras -- the Middle Ages, the Age of Discovery, and the period of New World exploration -- in order to discover how people of those times understood their world and interacted with it. Then students look at maps that record the early exploration of the American West, noting how mapmakers kept alive hopes of finding a Northwest Passage and how this hope is reflected in what Lewis and Clark marked as significant on the map produced by their expedition. Finally, students collect present-day maps, using library and/or Internet resources, to investigate the range of perspectives we adopt toward our world and how our maps reflect our own cultural concerns and aspirations.

Learning Objectives

  • To examine historical maps as cultural artifacts that reflect the views of particular times and places
  • To trace the evolving world view from medieval times through the Renaissance as recorded in maps of those eras
  • To investigate how cultural assumptions influenced the process of mapping the American West
  • To discover what present-day maps can tell us about our world view and cultural aspirations

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Discover information about an historical map

Begin by providing each student with a copy of the Map Analysis Worksheet available through EDSITEment at the Digital Classroom website of the National Archives and Records Administration. At the website's homepage, click "Document Analysis Worksheets" in the blue sidebar and click Map. Discuss with students how they can use the worksheet to discover various kinds of information in an historical map, including facts about the map itself (date, creator, purpose, etc.) and facts about the past. Explain that in this lesson students will use the worksheet to examine a variety of historical maps, first comparing European world maps from different eras, then tracing the process of mapping the American West. (Note: Point out to students that some questions on the "Map Analysis Worksheet" (e.g., 6D and 6E) may not be relevant to this lesson.)

Activity 2. Use the "Map Analysis Worksheet"

Divide the class into small study groups and have each group use the "Map Analysis Worksheet" to prepare a class report on the significance of one of the following historical maps available through EDSITEment:

Activity 3. Display and report on map

Have each group display and report on its map, summarizing the findings recorded on their "Map Analysis Worksheets." As students present their reports, call attention to the following points:

  • Orientation: The medieval maps are oriented toward the East, which appears at the top; those from the Renaissance are oriented toward the North. How does this reflect a difference in the way people could tell directions in these two eras (i.e., by the rising and setting of the sun, by use of a compass)? How does it reflect a more profound shift in their view of the world (i.e., from an orientation based in nature and the symbolism associated with natural phenomena to one based in technology and rational analysis)?
  • Landmarks: The medieval maps highlight biblical places, like Jerusalem and the Red Sea, as well as seats of power, represented by castles. The maps from the Age of Discovery highlight geographic features and record sea and river ports in great detail. The maps of the New World begin to identify all places of settlement and to mark national borders. Discuss this transition from a religious and feudal outlook to a factual outlook based on seagoing exploration to an outlook reflecting political relationships.
  • Organization: The medieval maps are centered on Jerusalem and show a world of nearly contiguous land masses, reflecting perhaps a world view based in landholding and land travel. The maps from the Age of Discovery retain a medieval framework, centering on Jerusalem and placing Earth at the center of the cosmos, but they show a world in which lands are linked (or separated) by water, reflecting the seagoing preoccupation of the era, and a world open to further exploration at its edges, rather than closed in by a clearly marked ocean border. The maps of the New World continue this emphasis on the world's oceans but also impose a grid across lands and seas alike, reflecting an increasingly scientific and rational outlook.
Activity 4. Examine series of maps recording European exploration of the American West

Next, have students examine a series of maps recording European exploration of the American West, which show how cultural assumptions sometimes guided the mapmaker's attempt to "fill in the blanks." For this part of the lesson, have each study group use the "Map Analysis Worksheet" to draw information from all three maps:

Activity 5. Share observations for each map

Have each study group share its observations on each map and on the relationships between them in an informal report, then discuss as a class the sequence traced by these maps, exploring the points below:

  • How do hopes or expectations influence these mapmakers? Note, for example, how the Senex map resists extending the Rocky Mountains north and south from their known positions to create a barrier across the continent, and how even Arrowsmith thins the mountain range where it is unexplored while showing it as an imposing obstacle elsewhere. Clark, who had crossed that range, details its rigors, but his meticulous attention to waterways might be seen as a lingering hope for transcontinental transport despite the mountains.
  • How do cultural assumptions influence the mapmakers in their choice of landmarks? Which details of the region do they consider significant? For example, note in this regard how Arrowsmith, in contrast to the Speed map of 1627, excludes all but natural landmarks. To what extent is this scientific objectivity, to what extent does it imply that this region is an uninhabited wilderness? The same question arises even more insistently with regard to Clark's map, since he was obviously aware that the region was already settled by Native Americans. Are cultural assumptions at work here -- assumptions about the demands of science or the rights of nations -- eliminating all trace of the region's people from these maps?
  • To provide a counterview of the region, showing it as a land not only inhabited but possessed by different tribal groups, share with students an ethnographic map of the America West before westward expansion at the Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks, Western U.S.
Activity 6. Collect different kinds of present-day maps

Conclude this lesson by having students individually collect different kinds of present-day maps of the world and/or the United States -- road maps, vacation maps, political maps, satellite-image maps, computer-generated maps, ecological maps, etc. Let the class choose several examples from this collection for study using the "Map Analysis Worksheet" to find out what our maps might reveal about our world view and our assumptions about our relationship to our world.

Extending The Lesson

Historical maps can open an exciting chapter in the history of technology and science. For background on the scientific mapmaking skills used by Lewis and Clark, visit Exploring the West from Monticello on EDSITEment, and click Observations of Latitude and Longitude at All Remarkable Points on the website's homepage. For information on Galileo's efforts to improve navigation, visit The Galileo Project, click "Observing Terrace" on the website's homepage, and select Longitude at Sea.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Exploration & Discovery
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis