John Winthrop's "City on a Hill," Mapped


August 24, 2023

This digital publication was supported by the Leventhal Map & Education Center’s Small Grants for Early Career Digital Publications program.

John Winthrop’s 1636 map of Massachusetts Bay was an object simultaneously unique and typical of the time.

His map was unique because the colonists rarely made maps. Between 1620 and 1642, English colonists in New England made just six that have survived. They were a people who relied on verbal and written descriptions of the land. The map was typical, however, in that it reflected a Puritan worldview that placed their settlement at the center of their world, peering out into the North American “wilderness.” Winthrop and the other colonists hoped their “City on a Hill” would serve as a beacon to the rest of the world and prove the merits of the restrictive and religiously-driven society that they were building. The map centers the colonists’ mission while presenting the colony as an inviting and economically prosperous landscape open for settlement.

However, as Winthrop sketched his “City on a Hill,” he also portrayed something else that was typical of the colonies: reliance on an Indigenous landscape and knowledge. Since landing in North America, the Puritan colonists had relied on the expertise of Indigenous peoples as they walked forests, farms, and pathways that Algonquian-speaking peoples had created. When the English got lost, Algonquians rescued them. When the English traveled, Algonquians guided them, in acts of friendship. They even described landscapes beyond the English settlements, providing crucial sources of knowledge that Winthrop used on his map. Indigenous pathways, towns, and other features pepper the map, creating an uneasy tension between Winthrop’s vision of a New England available for settlement and an Indigenous-controlled landscape. Ultimately, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” was a middle space defined by both Algonquian peoples who had lived there for generations and the newly-arrived English.

Nathan Braccio is an Assistant Professor of History at Lesley University. He received his PhD from the University of Connecticut in 2020 in American History and has published multiple articles on the history of English and Indigenous mapmaking in seventeenth-century New England. More on Nathan can be found on his website, and his further work on Indigenous mapping can be found at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Massachusetts Historical Society.