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Imagining the West

"Few people even know the true definition of the term 'West'; and where is its location? -- phantomlike it flies before us as we travel…" — George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1859)

America was in the way. It was not made up of islands, as the 16th-century cosmographer Sebastian Münster would have had us believe, nor was there a clear sailing passageway to Asia. America, with its mysterious Western shore, was a continent to be reckoned with. Still, Europeans of the 16th and 17th centuries wanted easy access to Asia. Might there be a passage across the pesky new continent? If such a passage was drawn on the maps, perhaps it could eventually be found. The fantasy of an easy passage from Europe to Asia, by going west and bypassing Dutch-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-controlled areas and the Ottoman East, lasted into the 19th century, becoming somewhat of a reality as the railroads crossed the American continent.

Maps in this section display both an imaginary West that never was, and, bit by bit, an increasingly sure awareness of the actual width and solidity of the continent, portions of which were under the control at different times, and sometimes even at the same time, of France, England, Spain, Russia, and the Netherlands. As power shifted across the continent of Europe, tremors were felt in North America: Napoleon acquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain, and the French threatened to chokehold the United States from New Orleans to Hudson's Bay. The Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson ended that threat in 1803, and expanded U.S. options westward into unknown lands.

Tabula Nouarum Insularum… Occidentales & Indianas Uocant   1
[Sebastian Münster]
Tabula Nouarum Insularum… Occidentales & Indianas Uocant, [1540]
NYPL, Map Division

America, [1626]   2
John Speed
America, [1626]
NYPL, Map Division

Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi   3
Guillaume de L'Isle
Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi, [1718-1730]
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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