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Exploring the West

"Any observations of your own… in the Western country, will come accceptably to me.… Descriptions of animals, vegetables, minerals, or other curious things, notes as to the Indians, information of the country between the Missisipi [sic] and waters of the South sea &c. &c. will strike your mind as worthy being communicated." — Thomas Jefferson, writing to George Rogers Clark, November 26, 1782

The European or American approach to understanding the West required detailed mapping, but early attempts to map the West were fragmentary and scattered in nature. The vast area west of the Mississippi was mapped only in stages, over many decades. Easily transported from one place to another, maps imposed "order" and enhanced the understanding of the region by outsiders, from East Coast settlers to those in Congress and assorted halls of power.

Geographical understanding of the West changed after gold was discovered in California in 1848, when massive exploratory expeditions were funded and organized by the federal government to find railroad routes to the Pacific coast. These expeditions resulted in maps that filled in pieces of the Western mosaic for Easterners. Nothing equivalent comes to mind, unless we think of the federal money and attention expended on the space race.

Scientific and military expeditions to study and map the West particularly suited the sensibilities of the Victorian era, which was a time of intense interest in exploration, geography, and knowledge of the earth and all its creatures, plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and deserts. Everything was examined, cataloged, described, and illustrated.

The need to create detailed mapping of wide-open spaces may wrongly imply emptiness and non-inhabitance before the cartographer appeared on the scene. Yet in the West, Native Americans, because of their relation to the land and sense of space, did not require paper maps and technical surveys. Their knowledge of the land was valued, sought after, and recorded on maps, usually to their own later detriment. Incorporated into maps based on data from official surveys, Native American information complements and enhances the data on military and commercial maps throughout this online exhibit.

Geographical, Statistical and Historical map of Arkansas Territory   1
Stephen H. Long
Geographical, Statistical and Historical map of Arkansas Territory, 1822
NYPL, Map Division

United States of America compiled from latest and best authorities…   2
John Melish
United States of America compiled from latest and best authorities…, 1818
NYPL, Map Division

Map Exhibiting All the New Discoveries in the Interior Parts of North America   3
Aaron Arrowsmith
A Map Exhibiting All the New Discoveries in the Interior Parts of North America, 1795, updated to 1839
NYPL, Map Division

Refer to Map of the United States and Mexico (1859), which details explorers' trails, transportation routes, and settlement patterns.

Controlling the West Map
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