One of the first tasks of the young American republic was to create and to circulate geographical knowledge of itself, a task made difficult by the fact that the United States was constantly growing in size and changing in shape. The “United States” of the early nineteenth century was not nearly the United States of today. Native American land would through both violence and fraud be turned into “territories” and then “states” as the United States crept westward across the Mississippi River.
American atlas maps conveyed the foreignness of the vast North American west. Mathew Carey’s 1805 atlas could describe the newly purchased Louisiana Territory only as extending west and north to “undefined territories and boundaries.” In 1823 his son’s atlas cited new military maps of the “Western Territories” — from the “Lewis and Clark Expedition” to the northwest, and the “Pike Expedition” to the southwest — while conceding that “the geography of that extensive tract of country cannot yet be considered as definitively settled.” For decades enough of the “United States” was foreign to itself, more imaginary than real.
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Upon facing the world as a newly independent nation, many Americans felt themselves to be surrounded and vulnerable. The British empire loomed to the north; the Spanish empire lurked to the south; Native Americans inhabited the west; and even the Russian empire had a foothold in distant “Alaska.” Americans’ defensive worry about encroachment would yield to an aggressive drive to expansion once the 1803 Louisiana Purchase inspired endeavor at the far edge of American exploration and settlement: the Pacific coast.
By the 1820s American cartographers routinely stretched their national maps to the Pacific coast. For all his territorial aspiration, atlas maker Anthony Finley could in 1826 conjure up a detailed map only as far west as “Arkansas Territory.” Beyond that was nearly blank. Thomas Bradford could describe the United States as extending to “Columbia or Oregon” but as late as 1838 still managed no detailed map of territory beyond “Missouri.” Assertion of sovereign territory rushed ahead of the most basic geographical knowledge, never mind human settlement on the ground.
Then there was the wider world beyond the North American continent. In 1569 Gerardus Mercator invented his historic new cartographical projection with Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea at world’s center. One of the unusual aspects of enough world maps published in the young United States is that they used Mercator’s by-then standard projection method, yet they centered the world on the Pacific instead of the Atlantic Ocean.
This orientation betrayed the abiding influence of British cartographers like Aaron Arrowsmith who in 1805 positioned the Pacific Ocean at world’s center to celebrate British explorer James Cook’s three famous voyages throughout the Pacific. Purporting to present an American alternative to British atlases, Mathew Carey nevertheless relied upon “recent European publications” for the maps in his 1816 world atlas, except those of America. Britain and Germany remained the leaders of geographical and cartographical knowledge production for decades into the nineteenth century before Americans managed to map the world without them.
By the 1830s American atlases favored a radically new way of envisioning both nation as well as wider world. No longer was the United States a vulnerable Atlantic nation sandwiched between the British and Spanish empires. Instead, a new breed of American world atlas by the likes of Thomas Bradford situated the country safely between two oceans, within a Western Hemisphere simultaneously connected to and disconnected from the wider world.
Henry Tanner was the first American cartographer to win recognition from European scientific societies. His 1836 “Globular Projection” of the world granted the United States oceanic opportunities, without any territorial threats. Americans stood increasingly confident in the world, proud to watch the United States Exploring Expedition explore the Pacific Ocean and circumnavigate the globe from 1838 to 1842, announcing the country as a global force to be reckoned with.
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Aaron Arrowsmith. A New and Elegant General Atlas. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1805.This American reprint of a British world atlas centered on the Pacific Ocean to celebrate British explorer James Cook’s famous voyages throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Mathew Carey. Carey’s American Pocket Atlas. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1805.Mathew Carey’s atlas ended with the newly purchased Louisiana Territory which he could only describe as extending west and north to “undefined territories and boundaries.”
Mathew Carey. Carey’s General Atlas, Improved and Enlarged: Being a Collection of Maps of the World and Quarters, Their Principal Empires, Kingdoms, &c. Philadelphia: Published by M. Carey, 1816.Because maps are “so liable to error,” Carey relied upon “recent European publications” for almost all the maps in his world atlas, except those of America.
A Complete Historical, Chronological, and Geographical American Atlas, Being A Guide to the History of North and South America, and the West Indies.... Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1823.Citing new military maps of the “Western Territories,” Henry Carey conceded that “the geography of that extensive tract of country cannot yet be considered as definitively settled.”
Anthony Finley. A New American Atlas, Designed Principally to Illustrate the Geography of the United States of North America; in which Every County in Each State and Territory of the Union Is Accurately Delineated, as Far as at Present Known.... Philadelphia: Published by Anthony Finley, 1826.Stretching his continental and national maps to the west coast, Finley could conjure up a detailed map only as far west as Arkansas Territory.
Thomas G. Bradford. A Comprehensive Atlas Geographical, Historical & Commercial. Boston: William D. Ticknor; New-York: Wiley and Long; Philadelphia: T.T. Ash, 1835.Adding extensive textual descriptions to his maps of every country and region in the world, Bradford included no map of the world in its entirety, only hemispheric maps instead.
H.S. Tanner. A New Universal Atlas Containing Maps of the Various Empires, Kingdoms, States and Republics of the World. Philadelphia: H.S. Tanner, 1836.Tanner’s “Globular Projection” of the world amounted to a hemispheric projection, so that the United States seemed only to have oceanic opportunities, and no territorial threats.
Thomas G. Bradford. An Illustrated Atlas, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical, of the United States, and the Adjacent Countries. Boston: Weeks, Jordan, and Company, 1838.Bradford provided geographical descriptions of the United States extending as far west as “Columbia or Oregon,” but no detailed map of territory west of Missouri.