Quassaquanch’s and Shaumpishuh’s 1639 Map of the Connecticut Coast – Nathan Braccio

In 1639, two Algonquian sachems (leaders), Shaumpishuh and her uncle Quassaquanch of Kuttawo and Totoket, met with a few English colonists and created a map of the Connecticut shoreline that would become a site of cultural contest. This artifact is a rare example of an Indigenous map from New England–despite an Algonquian tradition of cartography. Although most of the surviving Algonquian-produced maps come from later in the 1600s, this one (Fig. 1) helps us understand how maps facilitated cross-cultural communication in early encounters between the Algonquians and English colonists.

Figure 1. An original map made by Quassaquench and Shaumpishuh that attests to Quassaquench’s authorship. Shaumpishuh and Quassaquench, [Untitled Map of Guilford], 23 August 1639. Miscellaneous Bound, 1629-1658, Ms. N-2196. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Photo by author.

The map is oriented in the opposite way of most twenty-first-century maps, with south at the top and north at the bottom. It is also distinct from English cartography at the time in its use of straight rather than contoured lines to represent physical features. The straight, horizontal line across the center of this map, for example, depicts the shoreline between present-day East Haven and Clinton, Connecticut. The space above the line is Long Island Sound and the space below is Connecticut. Each vertical line represents a river or stream. Circles in the water signify islands. Symbols on the land mark Shaumpishuh’s village of Kuttawo and the English settlement then under construction in the area Algonquians called Menunkatuck.

Shaumpishuh and Quassaquanch sketched the map using English-supplied ink and paper during a meeting with the English colonist Henry Whitfield, when Shaumpishuh sold specific parts of the land to him. The map was their way of defining who owned what land and which lands Shaumpishuh would retain control over after the sale. After sketching it, the sachems relayed the names of various territories that existed between the rivers and stream to Whitfield and his scribe, who labeled the map. Whitfield then made his own document–an English-style deed–to record the transaction. Eventually, the land he purchased would become the colonial town of Guilford.

Figure 2. The style of mapping employed by the Catawba in the American South is distinct from that of the Algonquians in the Northeast. [Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina], c. 1721. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3860.ct000734.

Few scholars have given Indigenous mapmaking in colonial America the attention it deserves and this needs to change.1 While the famed and arresting Catawba map (Fig. 2), which uses circles connected by lines to depict different communities and their relationships, has received substantial scholarly attention, many other Indigenous maps such as this 1639 example have been ignored or misidentified as the work of English colonists. As windows into Indigenous mapping practices, these rare physical objects are our only glimpse into a largely ephemeral cartographic tradition. Furthermore, as one of the only surviving sources that had Algonquian authorship in the early 1600s, the 1639 map gives important insight into societies which we understand mostly from biased European writings. Yet, such sources also present interpretive challenges and need to be approached carefully. These maps were generally preserved and altered by Englishmen who sought to transform them into tools of colonization and strip them of their original Indigenous meanings. Furthermore, to decipher the meaning the symbols on these maps hold requires deep, Indigenous, cultural knowledge that is largely inaccessible to non-Indigenous historians.

The map produced by Shaumpishuh and Quassaquanch exemplifies the possibilities and challenges Indigenous sources such as maps present. As a unique cultural manifestation of these Algonquian people, it represents their view of the physical land and waterways they inhabited. English colonists in New England during the 1600s favored written declarations when purchasing land or negotiating treaties. These sachems chose instead to draw a map to generate shared meaning. While they used symbols such as straight lines to indicate rivers and coastline that were recognizable to both cultures, a closer examination of the map hints at the particularities of Algonquian spatial culture and mapping. Unlike English mapmakers, Shaumpishuh and Quassaquanch did not include any lines to mark imagined borders. Instead, they used river lines to divide territories and names to communicate their relevance and status.

For example, Totoket, Quassaquanch’s territory, is defined only by a label and three straight lines representing the coast and the Tomakis and Oicckocommock rivers. Other places on the map, such as Nammiauk and Pasboshanks, are not referenced in any of the English documents related to the land deal. Place names on the map conveyed tremendous connotative meaning to the Algonquians who were familiar with them. Quassaquanch, Shaumpishuh, and their communities knew where the boundaries of these territories lay. As Roger Williams noted, “The Natives are very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.”2 Scholar Margaret Wickens Pearce found that Algonquian place-names evoked “an ecological and spiritual map, which is ‘read’ through both recitation of place-names and experience.”3 Documents from the 1600s confirm such understandings. For example, when the Pequot sachem Cassacinamon described territorial boundaries to English colonists in 1662, he included a description of driving “deere into that neck of land.”4

Figure 3. Present day Tomakis Creek, one of the locations on the map. Photo by author.

The place names Shaumpishuh and Quassaquanch included on the map also reflect the unique purpose they hoped this map would serve. The powerful Mohegan sachem Uncas, whose village was forty miles to the east, sought to claim overlordship over Shaumpishuh and her land. Shaumpishuh used the map in a clever attempt to protect her territorial claims by maneuvering the English into accepting her claim and legitimizing it over her rival, Uncas.5 As Whitfield noted on the map: “From Tuckshis to oicocommock River the land wholly and only belongs to the Squaw Sachem [Shaumpishuh] and is at her dispose.”

Finally, this map illustrates the challenges that arise when trying to interpret European involvement in the making and preservation of these maps. For example, next to the markers representing Shaumpishuh’s village, Whitfield and his scribe wrote: “This place the Indians do reserve to themselves….” However, based on other conventions on the map and territorial practices among Algonquian-speaking people, the area Shaumpishuh reserved was almost certainly the entire region between two rivers, not the single village that the English-labeled location claimed. Whitfield also used this statement to assert that he was obtaining outright title to the land, which ignored or obscured Shaumpishush’s counter-claim to maintain some degree of sovereignty over it. Through close reading of texts archived with this map, I found that Shaumpishuh reserved the right to hunt on the lands the English claimed to have purchased. Hunting was a sontimmoowonk, the right of a sachem who ruled land, even if they had given settlement rights to others. Ultimately, Whitfield’s text obfuscated much of Shaumpishuh’s intent in favor of his own interests. 

Figure 4. A copy of Figure 1 that was likely made by Whitfield and his scribe John Higgenson. Whitfield, Henry and John Higgenson[?], [Untitled Map of Guilford], 29 September 1639. Miscellaneous Bound, 1629-1658, Ms. N-2196. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Photo by author.

English colonists also altered the map in another significant way. When they produced a copy, they claimed authorship (Fig. 4). The first version of the map (Fig. 1) states “the description of it being given by Quassaquanch her [Shaumpishuh’s] uncle,” implying that Quassaquanch was its primary author. The second copy, dated the same month but likely produced at a later date, changed “by” to “to.”6 Furthermore, the very act of preservation by colonists shows that they appropriated the knowledge on this map. For Whitfield in particular, the map was evidence of his legal acquisition of a tract of land for settlement that he could use as a tool against colonial competitors. By weaponizing the map for his own purposes and profit, Whitfield stripped it of Shaumpishuh’s and Quassaquench’s original intent. 

Ultimately, then, we are left with a rare and frequently misidentified source that tells a story of struggle between the English and Algonquian people. This preserved map from 1639 is a site of Indigenous knowledge and power, but also a contested document. Its existence should inspire us as scholars and students of history to locate and catalog other misidentified and unidentified Indigenous maps that remain in colonial archives. Investigating these maps and the historical processes that obscured their authorship and meaning will not only help us better understand the Indigenous claims to and presence on land, but will also encourage our society to stop replicating the erasure of Indigenous landownership. In a time in which Indigenous communities around the United States are seeking redress for stolen lands, this is essential.

Nathan Braccio (he/him/his) is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental History at Utah State University. His research investigates Algonquian and English mapmaking cultures in 17th-century New England.



Read Nathan Braccio’s article, “Map Scarcity in Colonial New England,” in the Summer 2021 issue of Early American Studies.

  1. For examples see G. Malcolm Lewis, ed., Cartographic Encounters: Perspectives on Native American Mapmaking and Map Use (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Mark Warhus, Another America: Native American Maps and the History of Our Land (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); Margaret Wickens Pearce, “Native and Colonial Mapping in Western Connecticut Land Records” (Ph.D. Diss, Clark University, 1998); G. Malcom Lewis, “Indicators of unacknowledged Assimilations from Amerindian ‘Maps’ on Euro-American Maps of North America: Some General Principles Arising from a Study of La Vérendrye’s Composite Map, 1728-29,” in Imago Mundi 38 (1986): 9-34; Barbara Belyea, “Inland Journeys, Native Maps,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 33, No. 2 (June 1996):1-16.
  2. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, ed. Howard M. Chapin (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1936), 95. Williams’ work was originally published in 1643.
  3. Margaret Wickens Pearce, “Native Mapping in Southern New England Indian Deeds,” in Lewis, ed., Cartographic Encounters, 159.
  4. Casasinamon, Uncas, Nesahegen, George Denison, John Tinker, “Uncas’ Map of a Portion of the Pequot Territory,” August 4, 1662, Yale Indian Papers Project, accessed 8 March 2020,http://findit.library.yale.edu/yipp/catalog/digcoll:3475.
  5. John Menta, The Quinnipiac: Cultural Conflict in Southern New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 124; Ralph D. Smith, The History of Guilford, Connecticut: From Its First Settlement in 1639 (Albany: J. Munsell, Printer, 1877), 65-69; Samuel Wyllis, For hearing Uncas his Complaints, 13 November 1665, Yale Indian Papers Project, http://findit.library.yale.edu/bookreader/BookReaderDemo/index.html?oid=10682788#page/1/mode/1up.
  6. Emphasis added by author.