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Heading West: Mapping the Territory

According to an old adage, a place is not discovered until it is mapped. Through impressions of the West in maps from 1540 to 1900, this online exhibition presents an overview of the process, which continues today.

Many minds and hands were involved in the mapping process: the delineator in the map studio, engraver on copper or stone, lithographer, paper maker, printer/publisher, colorist, binder, book/mapseller, purchaser or government client, and, of course, the explorer in the field, who often drew on Native American knowledge of the land. New information from explorers or surveyors resulted in revisions or even entirely new maps. Often latching onto the mantle of government authority, commercial mapmakers trumpeted the authoritative federal sources for their particular maps.

Despite the myth that it was independent heroic spirits -- pioneers, cowboys, gunslingers, and marshals -- who conquered the West, it was more likely government powerbrokers who inspired, paid for, controlled, and benefited most from the capture of the West on paper. From Lewis and Clark in the first part of the 19th century to G. K. Warren in the latter, mapping expeditions were federally run topographical surveys or military operations. The copyright-free government maps that resulted from these expeditions facilitated the rise of commercial mapmaking, as they became fodder for mapmakers in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. At the same time, private commercial interests became involved in surveying and mapping the area, first because of the fur-trading activities based in St. Louis and the upper northwest and, later, as railroad investors raced to conquer the West.

Heading West: Mapping the Territory reveals the evolution on paper from an imagined West to a mapped West, seemingly defined yet still a fiction of sorts. Early on, imaginative maps implied an easy route across America to Asia -- a land of jewels and spices, to which access by traditional routes was blocked. Once aware of the immensity of the American continent, those in power sought to explore and to map it. The surveying and settlement of the territory west of the Appalachians aggressively changed the face of the land. The discovery and mining of gold, and the continuing desire for access to Asian markets, inspired exploration and improved means of transportation across the continent. The maps in Heading West have been organized into five thematic categories, but individual maps often provide information relating to more than one, or even all, of them.

Grids of property lines, township surveys, railroad lines, wagon trails, state and county boundaries -- all criss-crossed the land, in reality and on paper. The trails west are many; the maps show the way.

The materials in Heading West are drawn primarily from the Map Division, which includes the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection and the Levine Bequest.

Alice C. Hudson
Chief, Map Division, Humanities and Social Sciences Library

  This website is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and The Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc. in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein. Additional support was provided by The Mercator Society of The New York Public Library.

Support for the Exhibitions Program at The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library has been provided by Pinewood Foundation and by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts gratefully acknowledges the leadership support of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman. Additional support for programs and exhibitions has been provided by Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg and the Miriam and Harold Steinberg Foundation.

Controlling the West Map
Johnson & Browning
Map of the United States and Mexico, 1859
NYPL, Map Division

Many of the details on this map -- explorers' trails, transportation routes, and settlement patterns -- recur on other maps in this online exhibition.
Click here or on map image above to enlarge

westward expansion

American West
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