Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America

Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America

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by Susan Schulten

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In the nineteenth century, Americans began to use maps in radically new ways. For the first time, medical men mapped diseases to understand and prevent epidemics, natural scientists mapped climate and rainfall to uncover weather patterns, educators mapped the past to foster national loyalty among students, and Northerners mapped slavery to assess the power of the

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In the nineteenth century, Americans began to use maps in radically new ways. For the first time, medical men mapped diseases to understand and prevent epidemics, natural scientists mapped climate and rainfall to uncover weather patterns, educators mapped the past to foster national loyalty among students, and Northerners mapped slavery to assess the power of the South. After the Civil War, federal agencies embraced statistical and thematic mapping in order to profile the ethnic, racial, economic, moral, and physical attributes of a reunified nation. By the end of the century, Congress had authorized a national archive of maps, an explicit recognition that old maps were not relics to be discarded but unique records of the nation’s past.

All of these experiments involved the realization that maps were not just illustrations of data, but visual tools that were uniquely equipped to convey complex ideas and information. In Mapping the Nation, Susan Schulten charts how maps of epidemic disease, slavery, census statistics, the environment, and the past demonstrated the analytical potential of cartography, and in the process transformed the very meaning of a map.

Today, statistical and thematic maps are so ubiquitous that we take for granted that data will be arranged cartographically. Whether for urban planning, public health, marketing, or political strategy, maps have become everyday tools of social organization, governance, and economics. The world we inhabit—saturated with maps and graphic information—grew out of this sea change in spatial thought and representation in the nineteenth century, when Americans learned to see themselves and their nation in new dimensions.

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Editorial Reviews

Syracuse University

“Susan Schulten has produced an impressive synthesis of some of the most important developments in nineteenth-century American cartography, tracing the ways that maps became tools of social organization, governance, and economics. Engaging and informative, Mapping the Nation is a novel and persuasive look at American history, visually and cartographically.”

— Mark Monmonier

Syracuse University - Mark Monmonier

“Susan Schulten has produced an impressive synthesis of some of the most important developments in nineteenth-century American cartography, tracing the ways that maps became tools of social organization, governance, and economics. Engaging and informative, Mapping the Nation is a novel and persuasive look at American history, visually and cartographically.”


University of Richmond - Edward Ayers

“In a work of deep scholarship and insight, Susan Schulten traces the origins of a now-ubiquitous presence in American life: maps with a story to tell. Schulten uncovers not only a fascinating panorama of maps but also a colorful array of characters who taught America to see itself in new ways. Read this book and maps will never look the same.”


Harvard University - Charles Rosenberg

“In this important study of the way in which nineteenth-century Americans represented their social and natural worlds, Susan Schulten illuminates how weather, disease, slavery, and the aggregate reality of the census could all be represented in visual and spatial terms. This is an important contribution not only to America’s cultural and disciplinary history, but to the history of government and our shared sense of history itself.”

H-Net Reviews

"Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation is physically attractive, based on sound scholarly work yet accessibly written, and effectively supplemented by a user-friendly website offering a good selection of high-resolution images of historical maps and charts."
Journal of Southern History

"In this innovative book Susan Schulten makes a compelling case for maps as both symbolic and material representations of change in the ways Americans viewed their nation, its past, and its potential for development. In conjunction with its companion website (, Schulten's book reveals the power of maps to shape history, policy, and national identity."
Terrae Incognitae

"Mapping the Nation is essential reading."
Journal of American History

“A major contribution in the history of Ameri­can cartography, Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation redefines our understandings about the mapping of the nation during the long nineteenth century. . . . The book is a compelling read, and its strengths are many. . . . [A] gateway for future discussions about how to study and teach American history.”
Western Historical Quarterly

“Schulten meticulously builds her central argument that state expansion and consolidation are inseparable from the mapping that calls them into being. Some geographers and historians of cartography have written of this before. But until now, no one has tackled the vital role thematic or statistical cartography played in the economic development of the United States and the expansion, absorption, and segregation of selected peoples. . . . Schulten has the enviable ability to discuss mapping and data classification techniques as well as writing of the lives and sociopolitical contexts of people. That is rare, and the book succeeds because of it.”

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History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-74068-3

Chapter One

The Graphic Foundations of American History

The American colonists rarely used maps to make sense of the past. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that maps of the past were not common until the Revolution made them relevant. After the creation of the Republic, maps became an important way to document a "national" past that extended back to the fifteenth century, most notably with David Ramsay's attempt to chart and map history in the 1810s. Thereafter, historical maps spread widely as a result of several trends. First, the capacity to design maps grew alongside thematic mapping and other graphic forms of knowledge. Second, these maps proliferated with the advent of inexpensive print technologies. Third, writers of history began to define the study of American history as that which explained the emergence of the United States, particularly in political and territorial terms. This made the historical atlases an appealing way to document national development in terms of territorial growth. Finally, the spread of education created a demand for atlases centered on the nation's history. Thus, maps of the past flourished because they were uniquely capable of visualizing the country's territorial growth and political development. In fact, historical cartography presented a self-fulfilling prophecy: by explaining "the rise of the nation," maps and atlases ordered the past around this narrative. As a result, maps structured American history as territorial growth, and, because the colonies and the nation never shrank in size (secession notwithstanding), its history was well suited to mapping. For the United States, unlike France or Germany, history was synonymous with growth, and the present could be framed as the fulfillment of past struggles. The past was never the story of loss, only gain. Historical maps, timelines, graphs, and charts transformed the unpredictable and contingent past into orderly stages of inevitable growth.

The Concept of Historical Cartography

The historical atlas has a complicated origin. The earliest document that can be called a historical atlas was the Parergon of Abraham Ortelius, first issued in 1579, which included a series of maps of both the classical and biblical world. By our own standards, this was not historical, for it lacked chronological organization and did not use maps to explain history; instead, it reprinted a series of maps from Claudius Ptolemy, the ancient geographer whose maps were rediscovered in the fifteenth century. The Ortelius atlas established a pattern that would remain for centuries. Atlases that attempted to document change over time appeared only intermittently well into the eighteenth century, which indicates that the understanding of history as a story had yet to be assumed. Contemporary atlases gestured toward history by including maps of ancient and biblical lands, occasionally juxtaposed with modern maps of the same terrain or Europe. Yet the absence of chronological order in these atlases indicates that they were not created to illustrate change.

Thus, as a document that purports to relate history through maps, historical atlases date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even by this loose definition, they were an odd collection of texts. They contained much that was not primarily geographic, such as tables and genealogy that were oft en more prominent than the maps themselves. Most of the maps were general and rarely explained history or geography. They were not drawn on scales large enough (that is, covering small enough regions) to explain development, and for the most part they did not incorporate sufficient geographical detail to illuminate a particular battle or its outcome. In this respect, Walter Goffart is right to term much of what passed for historical cartography in the nineteenth century as "maps for history." The maps usually depicted a particular political arrangement at a given moment in time but were not designed to shed light on the geographic dimension of the past. Jeremy Black concurs, arguing that geographers were less likely to make historical maps and atlases than historians. This distinction between "historical maps" and "maps for history" may seem minor, but it begs a relevant question: if these maps did not explain American historical geography in any useful way, why were they so popular? In fact, it was their lack of detail, depth, and substance—precisely what marks them as nongeographical—that accounts for their appeal. Historical maps and atlases were not used to explain geographical problems, but rather to cultivate a shared identity by offering tangible evidence of the nation's evolution over time. The purpose was not to explore the nuances of geography, but to document the evolution of the nation as a sovereign territory.

The growing popularity of historical atlases also owed something to shifting ideas about time and space. The French Revolution, by separating the past from the present, highlighted the degree to which even the recent past was now "history." Dorothy Ross argues that the Revolution forced Europeans to see history as a radically contingent force that directly affected their lives; in other words, it effectively brought history into the present. Before the Revolution, historical atlases were primarily classical, such as Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville's Ten maps for Rollin's Ancient history, initially published in the 1730s. By the nineteenth century, these atlases began to consider the modern era, symbolized by Christian Kruse's decision to replace maps of antiquity in his 1802 atlas with sequential maps of Europe from the close of each century, beginning in 400 AD. Kruse moved through 1700, then drew a map of 1788, and, in subsequent editions, added maps of 1811 and 1816. With these maps, he de-emphasized the ancient world and simultaneously drew history into the present. By arranging a series of maps of the same geographic area at different moments of time, he was among the first to suggest a pattern of historical change in the growth of civilization.

The French Revolution also brought tangible changes to the measurement of time (with proposed alterations to the modern calendar) and space (with the metric system). Both underscored a rupture between past and present, yet the Revolution also raised interest in the past, for history was now defined as the story of a particular nation. And while historical mapping may have originated in the ancient period, its maturation depended upon the rise of modern states in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The French Revolution profoundly elevated the importance of modern history by fueling the general awareness of the present as an outcome of the past. Though we now take it for granted that the past leads to the present, this was a relatively recent conception of history. The American experience was part of this development but differed slightly, for, while the French Revolution showed Europeans that history brought both progress and danger, the American Revolution enhanced American assumptions about their exceptional, predestined place in world history. The Revolution also moved the colonies toward nationhood, which generated a need for a unified past. This desire to see the origins of the nation became the raison d'être of historical atlases and the main reason that they spread so quickly.

The popularity of historical atlases in the nineteenth century also signaled changing concepts of space. The idea of sovereignty certainly does not date to this period, but its territorial dimension might: medieval understandings of territory were organized in legal and feudal, rather than geographical, terms. A more territorial approach to frontiers developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but this change was still incomplete by the time of the French Revolution. Maps were well suited to illustrate territorial forms of sovereignty that developed over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, the nationalism unleashed by that revolution raised attention to historical mapping by connecting power with the state as an entity whose success depended on the articulation of boundaries. Territorial integrity was essential to national coherence and stability; as Black writes, "the implementation of firm frontiers was bound up with the existence of more assertive states and growing state bureaucracies, which sought to know where exactly they could impose their demands for resources and where they needed to create their first line of defence." As nation-states grew, so did their need to mark and delimit their reach. The Revolution and Napoleonic Wars provided rich material for maps and atlases and brought intense attention to the recent past. But this new interest in boundaries also created anachronistic maps. When Christian Kruse emphasized clear borders on his historical maps of Europe, he revealed the concerns of his own day rather than those of the past. By stressing political boundaries, Kruse projected a nineteenth-century preoccupation with territorial control onto the medieval and early modern eras.

By establishing political borders, historical maps also fostered civic unity by demonstrating a common territorial heritage. The nation could even be said to rely upon geographical and historical knowledge: geography grounds the nation in space, while history roots it in time. National identity depends upon borders, and maps underscored these even when they remained obscure and contested, such as the western limits of the Louisiana Territory and the disputed border between the United States and Mexico. History traced the chronology of the nation and explained it as a logical, ordered process of change. Geographical and historical knowledge substantiated what might otherwise have seemed artificial: a national Union that superseded local, religious, or colonial loyalties. But to draw on history to legitimate the United States was difficult, for the nation did not have much history. In response, historical maps appropriated what was now the "colonial era" as part of the nation's heritage. Texts and atlases frequently began in the fifteenth century to chart the growth of the colonies, the succession of imperial wars, and process of the Revolution and to frame the Union as the culmination of these struggles.

Charts and Maps of Time in the Early Republic

Historical atlases and maps were related to the interdependence of geographical and historical knowledge. That is, to learn geography in the early nineteenth century was to learn history. The reverse was equally true, for little separated these two fields. Emma Willard wrote both geography and history texts, as did William Channing Woodbridge. The eminent historian George Bancroft served as the first president of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, and German émigré Francis Lieber relentlessly pointed out the importance of geographic literacy to historical knowledge, as did Henry Harisse. In the same vein, school histories relied extensively upon a geographical or, more precisely, a territorial, narrative. Few historical atlases incorporated the immense growth of geographical knowledge in the nineteenth century. Instead, they continued to emphasize the nation's absolute expansion and internal political borders. That is, historical maps only gestured toward topography, exploration, or the relationship of either of these to historical development. Historical atlases were expressions and assertions of national space rather than geographical explanations of development.

The most successful of these was the French atlas of Las Cases, printed in English as the Genealogical, Chronological, Historical and Geographical Atlas (1801) and adapted for an American audience in 1821. This influential volume contained fifty-three charts, tables, and maps and an overwhelming degree of detail. The sheer size of the atlas was typical of its time and echoed the title's assertion of comprehensiveness. Yet little space was devoted to the maps themselves. Only one of these maps engaged historical change and did so in a limited way by attempting to cover English settlements in North America from the sixteenth century forward. Most information was found in the margins and in a table divided along chronological and geographical lines. The atlas contained no sequential maps, nor did it map change over time. It was a catalog and gazetteer that indexed and organized material but made little attempt to illuminate the spatial or geographical dimension of the past.

Goffart and Black take a dim view of this atlas, for it contained few maps, relied upon charts and tables, and failed to integrate history and geography in any meaningful way. The maps were unconnected and did not explain how a particular landscape influenced historical development or how human behavior shaped that landscape—what we would call historical geography. Instead the maps in Las Cases were mnemonic devices for assimilating information. As Goffart writes, given the emphasis on memorization in schools, it did not matter much that disparate facts ended up on the same map. In his view, the publication was neither historical nor cartographic and can therefore hardly claim status as one of the first historical atlases. As he put it, the atlas was "a tool for cramming," full of "useful particles of knowledge," but hardly designed to convey the sweep of history or its geographical underpinnings.

Yet the Atlas Lesage was a publishing success and as such established the form for historical atlases. Goffart laments that it paved the way for histories that omitted maps entirely and geography texts that sidestepped history. Ironically, the atlas praised the integration of geography and history, sounding a common theme at the time. The atlas was followed by one devoted entirely to the United States, also issued by Carey, and with maps of each state. Yet it was no more historical than its predecessor, a reminder that historical atlases paid little attention to change over time. Goffart's frustration with these atlases overlooks the fact that they proliferated precisely because they spoke to contemporary needs. They met the pedagogical goal of inculcating geographic memory and cultivated a sense of national identity in a vulnerable young republic. William Darby's View of the United States (1828) professed to use history and statistics to "develop the present condition of the North American Union" and framed geography as a function of the nation and its history.

After the War of 1812, geographic education rapidly gained strength as a foundation for national identity, and this stimulated the demand for historical mapping. But these maps were also made possible by a growing interest in the graphic representation of knowledge, especially the emergence of timelines to measure change. One of the first attempts to use a line to represent time as a map represents space was made by the French physician Jacques Berneu-Dubourg. Like many after him, Dubourg spoke of chronology and geography as the "eyes" of history and hoped that the visual elements of the latter would enliven the dry, factual character of the former. To this end, his Carte Chronographie (1753) charted the life span of individuals on a chronological grid. The Carte reflected a firm Enlightenment sensibility, especially in its assumption that history could be plotted and measured against an absolute scale of time. Though celebrated by contemporaries, Dubourg's Carte was soon eclipsed by Joseph Priestley, whose Chart of Biography (1765) is mistakenly assumed to be the first representation of human lives as lines on a sheet of paper. Priestley drew from calendars, chronologies, and geographies to chart two thousand lives between 1200 BC and 1750 AD. Though timelines now seem intuitive, they were sufficiently unfamiliar at the time to prompt Priestley's explanation:

the abstract idea of time, though it be not the object of any of our senses, and no image can properly be made of it, yet because it has a relation to quantity, and we can say a greater or less space of time, it admits of a natural and easy representation in our minds by the idea of a measurable space, and particularly that of a LINE; which, like time, may be extended in length, without giving any idea of breadth or thickness. And thus a longer or a shorter space of time may be most commodiously and advantageously represented by a longer or a shorter line.

Priestley aimed to give viewers a sense of seeing history in action, not textually but visually. His success allowed later generations to assume that historical time could be represented by graphic space, and this spawned a new era in the organization of information. After Priestley, timelines flourished.


Excerpted from MAPPING THE NATION by SUSAN SCHULTEN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Susan Schulten is professor of history at the University of Denver. In 2010 she was named a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

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