Narrative Maps

Narrative maps are descriptions in words of where things are.  They can be as confusing as a response to a reluctant request for directions and recite a series of turns and stoplights, concluding with the words, “you can’t miss it.”  Or they can be highly developed, widely understood, and conventionalized ways of describing land in speech or writing.

Here is an example from 17th-century British North America.


Comment:  Here is a way of visualizing the narrative map in the Thomas Relfe land patent.


1. Pasquotank River
2. Small cypresse
3. Mouth of Swamp
4. Thomas Keele his land
5. the Woods
6. Marked Sypresse (one of Mr. Forsons marked trees)
7. Cod of a bay
8. Point of the bay

The expansion of Europe into North America generated thousands if not millions of records like Governor William Berkeley’s letters patent granting land to Thomas Relfe.  County clerks, secretaries of state, and other government officials kept custody of them for generations because they provided a means of taxing landowners and because reference to these records could settle conflicts over who owned land.

Precision in the description of a parcel of land on a continent without previous European history was, therefore, greatly to be desired.  However, today, the very typical narrative map in the Relfe land grant looks like a forest of data and a desert of decisive information.  For example, it required anyone surveying the land to locate a small cypress at the mouth of a swamp on the Pasquotank River in order to begin and to finish a journey around Relfe’s land.  How many small cypress trees might there have been?  The land grant gave no clue where to find the tree.  Therefore, all trees in the area became “data” of possible significance until the tree signified in the land grant could be discovered.  Furthermore, the compass directions in the land grant took no account of the variation of the Earth’s magnetic field.  These directions would not endure.

So, how could such a system of describing land in words have possibly worked?

It worked by creating “social space” on the land.  Relfe probably knew the starting and ending point already, and unless someone disputed it, he was the authority on the subject.  Those who lived on the land already knew the features of the land and their locations—the river, the swamp, the woods, the bay.  The neighbors, Thomas Keele and Mr. Forson, would certainly act if Relfe exceeded his boundaries.  In succeeding generations, boundaries would become a matter of local oral history, not requiring resort to a compass.

Traditional land surveying took a journey from a given point and traveled along the boundaries of a parcel of land back to the beginning.  So, the narrative map in Relfe’s land patent had a definite center to it—the beginning and ending point.  Its roughly circular journey moved clockwise.

A narrative map or verbal description of land represented a journey.  We can visualize these journeys today by the means illustrated above and gain some access to what have been called the “mental maps” of people who lived before us.

Gradually in North America, visualization became more important.  Plats started to accompany surveyors’ verbal notes and the narrative maps in land grant documents.  The absence of a long European presence on the land made social space increasingly difficult to create, especially as large areas of land came to be surveyed prior to large numbers of European Americans moving onto them.  The United States Rectangular Land Survey emerged by the beginning of the 19th century.

Eventually, a rich topographical vocabulary (suggested here in the distinction between the “cod” of a bay and the “point” of a bay) passed out of everyday discourse.  The two-dimensional representations of terrestrial space that we know as “maps” overwhelmed it.