Works in Progress - Spring 2017

Spheres of Influence


Telling the story of Native American explorers

Library of Congress

By Elyse Graham

March 6, 2017


In 1849, Seminole chief Coacoochee (“Wild Cat”) left Florida to explore Texas and the southern Plains in search of new territory. Eventually, he led his people to northern Mexico, where he worked for the Mexican government, delivering information in exchange for land.

Coacoochee’s story will be part of a book by Cameron Strang, a historian at the University of Nevada–Reno, who is writing the first study of Native American explorers of the western United States. “I’m interested in how they generated knowledge in the West and reported the information back to the East,” says Strang. He’s studying southeastern Native Americans’ “circle-line maps” (right), which render space as adjacent circles representing alliances among social groups. Drawing on the maps as well as oral and written records from these literate, well-educated explorers, Strang sees “exploration as a creative activity among vulnerable people.”

Strang’s research focuses on a dark side of Native American exploration. The U.S. Army often hired Delaware Indians as scouts throughout the Plains. As auxiliaries to the U.S. Army, they sometimes assisted in the conquest of other Natives. Coacoochee, for instance, searched out and fought Comanches and Apaches along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“As a lot of eastern Natives moved west, they ended up becoming the agents of imperialism,” Strang says. “Their movement west created a new level of poverty among western Natives, which made them more vulnerable.”

Elyse Graham is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Yale University.

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