Shoemaker on Tanner, 'The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present'

Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed. The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. New York: Macmillan Press, 1995. 208 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-614-08321-7.

Reviewed by Nancy Shoemaker (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire)
Published on H-Survey (March, 1997)

As might be expected from a book edited by Helen Hornbeck Tanner, who also edited the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (1987), American Indians are fully represented in this historical atlas of the diverse peoples who came to inhabit North America. Tanner and her contributors--including Henry Dobyns, who also works in American Indian history--feature Indian history prominently, both in the text and in a series of maps illuminating the distinctiveness of the American Indian experience.

The text of the atlas reads much like an abbreviated textbook for a survey course in American history with an emphasis on cultural diversity. Indeed, this atlas could easily take the place of a textbook but has an added visual advantage. Obviously, it has maps (and very innovative maps at that) with clear depictions of migration patterns, ethnic settlements by regions and neighborhoods, economic lifeways, and industrial growth. In addition to the maps, the atlas has well-selected photographs, drawings, and paintings.

In its mapping of Indian history, the atlas makes several important advances over the usual maps accompanying survey texts. First, Tanner's choices about what to map make Indian history visible in every century up to the present. Too often, Indians seem to drop out of the story of American history, but here there are several good maps depicting important developments for Indians in the post-World War II period: a map showing urban migration, which identifies cities selected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for urban relocation in the 1950s and 1960s, and a contemporary map showing major powwows held across the United States and Canada with 1990-91 population figures for Indians by state and province.

The second and most significant achievement of this atlas is its treatment of Indian history in the period before and shortly after the arrival of Columbus. The standard map one sees in practically any other book on this subject takes a culture-areas approach and divides North America into regions, such as Plains, Southwest, Sub-Arctic, Great Lakes, and so on, often with the names of many tribes also shown by location. Rarely are these maps historically accurate because the idea of culture-areas is in itself ahistorical. It is a composite constructed by anthropologists and indiscriminately synthesizes several hundred years of Indian history. Even those standard maps that claim to capture a particular point in time--such as 1492 or 1620--usually have errors: the Seminoles appear as a distinct people residing in Florida, the Ojibways are west of Lake Superior, or the Crows are already in Montana. Thankfully, there is no culture-areas map in Tanner's atlas.

The map that comes closest is one called "Ways of life in North America, A.D. 1515," but it divides regions much more finely into "pueblos with intensive horticulture" or "tidewater horticulturists" (p. 31). A trace of the culture-areas idea is evident in this map since the agricultural Iroquois are subsumed under "fishers and wild rice gatherers" as part of a region usually referred to by culture-area enthusiasts as Eastern Woodlands or Great Lakes. This map, and a few others, could use even more fine-tuning, but this is still one of the best of such maps I have seen: the Crows are in southeastern North Dakota, the Ojibways are east of Lake Superior, and Florida has many Indian peoples but no Seminoles.

In general, this atlas reflects careful effort to demarcate patterns of Indian migration and settlement before and after European contact. There are several excellent maps of the mound building cultures and one very useful map of the major Indian trade routes that existed around 1450. Maps covering the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries demonstrate the rapidity and extent of European expansion into North America and the consequences for native people. There is a particularly interesting map employing the perspective of a ship approaching the eastern seaboard from England, in which English settlements, clustered primarily along the coast and rivers, are interspersed with Indian towns and the earliest Indian reservations. In 1660, quite clearly, Indians and English settlers lived close together but in separate communities; they were neighbors. Other maps deal with Indian removal, the late-nineteenth-century wars in the West, and the emergence of the reservation system.

This atlas should be especially useful for teachers of Indian history. While it clarifies the process whereby European settlement dispossessed Indians of their land and ways of life, at the same time the text and maps ensure that readers realize the continuing vitality of Indian communities within contemporary American society.

Copyright (c) 1997 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact

Printable Version:

Citation: Nancy Shoemaker. Review of Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed., The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. H-Survey, H-Net Reviews. March, 1997.

Copyright © 1997 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at