This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
  < West Site Home | First section >
< Heading West Intro | Image: 1 >



Introduction: Controlling the West

    Johnson & Browning
Map of the United States and Mexico
New York, 1859
NYPL, Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Map Division
Pointer to graphic links to enlargement Click here or on image to enlarge  

Much as reins control a horse, maps are about control of the land. Exuberant graphics, strong color, bold boundary lines, and text proclaiming ownership all work together to gather in and brand the entire country, the control of which, from ocean to ocean, was seen as America's "manifest destiny."

While many of the government maps are very plain, large, black-and-white technical productions, this Johnson & Browning commercial wall map is alive with state and territorial boundaries, notes, illustrations, and color, used aggressively as a symbol of possession. Seemingly no part of the country is left untouched, or in a "frontier" condition. The vivid coloring reflects a particular point of view, an East Coast commercial perspective rather than a Western documentary sensibility. Many of the details on this map -- explorers' trails, transportation routes, and settlement patterns -- recur on other maps in this online exhibition.

This mid-19th-century map displays settlement patterns still seen today: densely populated Eastern states contrast with the more sparsely populated West. But the nation is on the brink of war, and everywhere the map seems in motion. Wagon roads follow paths of least resistance, the river valleys, as do the railroad lines, both existing and planned. Sailing ships dot the oceans, symbolizing trade and worldwide access to goods and markets. The stagecoach mail route to San Francisco from the railheads near St. Louis and Memphis is boldly marked, suggesting that this map was designed for use in places of business or local post offices. The Butterfield Stage carried the mail across the southwest until the railroads were completed and took over express services.

At the lower left, the international importance and weight of the United States is pointedly symbolized by its central placement on the world map, which emphasizes shipping routes to and from the Americas.

Reproductions and Permissions

Privacy Policy | Rules and Regulations | Using the Internet | Website Terms and Conditions | © The New York Public Library