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Plan of the rapids of Ohio, at low water, showing the islands, rocks, sands, currents, shores, and the route of the canal

State and Federal Mapping of Infrastructure and Movement

by: Susan Schulten

From the 1790s forward, the United States Government’s role in mapping movement extended across several areas of life, including reconnaissance and exploration, internal improvements and infrastructure, national defense, and overseas expansion. Yet this wide-ranging activity was by no means coordinated or well-funded, particularly in the early decades of US history. Instead, the population largely avoided large public works, while state and federal commitments were weak and often driven by local interests. By extension, early governmental mapping of infrastructure and movement was usually the result of individual efforts and particular alignments rather than any larger vision. By the twentieth century this ad hoc approach had been replaced with one that was more regular, permanent, and systematic.

Each of the maps discussed here represents an instance when governing agencies responded to the need to protect citizens, advance national power, or foster commerce. They graphically illustrate techniques used to confront human and natural threats including unpredictable rivers, a vast and seemingly insurmountable West, and wartime enemies. They also suggest a close relationship between governing bureaucracies and private interests, such as railroad and canal companies. The maps are organized into two broad (though overlapping) categories below: Maps for reconnaissance and exploration, and maps for infrastructure and development.

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A map of Lewis and Clark's track across the western portion of North America from the Misissippi [sic] to the Pacific Ocean

Maps for National Reconnaissance and Exploration

President Thomas Jefferson’s decision to seek a transcontinental passage had important consequences for geographic knowledge of the interior. Between 1803 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark conducted an expedition from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River and back, the first federally-sponsored scientific expedition of the territory west of the Mississippi River. Lewis and Clark may not have discovered a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean but they utterly transformed contemporary knowledge of the flora, fauna, topography, Native life, and geography of the West, all of which was part of Jefferson’s original vision for the expedition.

William Clark’s “A Map of Lewis and Clark’s Track” (1811) outlines the extensive and complex mountain range and river systems that had been so poorly understood before the expedition. This is a reduced copy of the original map drawn by William Clark himself, in 1810-1811. Its purpose and origin remain somewhat mysterious, but it may have been designed to guide Samuel Lewis as he engraved the printed version of the map published in 1814. The map traces the entire drainage system of the Missouri, Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater Rivers. The map also reflects Lewis and Clark’s extensive exploration of the Rocky Mountains. In profiling the entire drainage basin of the Missouri River and topography of the Rocky Mountain Range, the map ended the persistent belief of a brief portage between the headwaters of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. This hope was based in part on Jefferson’s own assumption that rivers remained large even close to their sources, while Clark’s map documents the opposite (Allen 2002). Clark’s track map is somewhat less accurate in the southern reaches of the Rockies, which were well beyond the reach of the expedition. He used the best available knowledge of the time to render these areas, showing the headwaters of the Platte River very near to the Grande and Yellowstone Rivers. He also drew extensively from other sources when mapping the area beyond his expedition with Lewis, including the maps and explorations of Zebulon Pike, and Clark’s own experience as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis (Cohen 2002, 91-2). Much of this reconnaissance work depended upon maps that were compiled from Native American sources, though these contributions were rarely recognized or acknowledged.

The published map of the Lewis and Clark expedition remained authoritative until the 1840s, when the explorations of John C. Fremont, Charles Wilkes, and others improved geographical knowledge of the region. Before he led the Bear Flag Rebellion in California in 1846-7, and became the Republican Party’s first candidate for President in 1856, Fremont undertook several dramatic expeditions through the west in the early 1840s. In 1842, aided by an able though reluctant Prussian cartographer named Charles Preuss, Fremont left the Missouri River for a contested part of the Pacific Northwest that Americans called the Oregon Country, but which was known to British interests, who also claimed it, as the Columbia District of the Hudson’s Bay Company. A second expedition departed in June 1843, this time joined by William Gilpin, who was so taken with the Interior West that he spent the next several decades celebrating its commercial potential. The overland migration to Oregon Country grew substantially that same year, as did the increasingly vocal support for the annexation of Texas. Perhaps encouraged by this culture of westward expansionism, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton began to demand that the United States press Great Britain not just on the Oregon question but also a more favorable boundary with British Canada. The Republic, it seemed, was bursting westward.

By 1844, Democrat James Polk campaigned for the presidency on a platform to annex more land in the American northwest, while thousands continued to make the overland trek to Oregon country. This migration gave Fremont’s reports and Preuss’s maps special relevance, for they brought new precision to western geographical knowledge. Preuss’s detailed 1845 “Map of an Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains,” for instance, was one of the first to be drawn entirely from firsthand knowledge of those on the expedition. The map also influenced Mormon history. As historian Richard Francaviglia notes, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were desperate to find a religious homeland apart from American persecution. As such, when they ventured west out of Illinois, they were particularly drawn to the blank spots on Preuss’s map, far from Oregon and California. Ironically, while the Mormons were migrating out of the United States to the hopeful land they named Deseret, US settlers in Oregon Country began to petition Congress to extend federal jurisdiction into the Pacific Northwest, as President Tyler had just done in Texas.

All this attention to the West led the historian Bernard DeVoto to dub 1846 “the year of decision.” Fremont, Preuss, and Gilpin did much to fuel this attention. In January, Gilpin wrote a long letter to Missouri Senator David Atchison arguing that an overland mail route to the Pacific Northwest would launch a new era of American commerce in Asia by establishing the first US port on the Pacific coast. Atchison shared Gilpin’s letter, thereby stimulating interest in such a project. In response, the Senate began investigating a continental mail system, both overland but also through Panama and up the West Coast to Oregon Country. Later that year, Gilpin was asked to provide more information on the area based on his experience with Fremont’s second expedition. His report to the Senate circulated widely in the capitol and in newspapers across the country.

That same year, the Senate asked Fremont to create a map of the Oregon Trail, a wagon road that stretched west to Oregon Country from the Missouri River Valley. This map would show more detail than Fremont’s previous efforts and would focus on the overland migrant routes. Though Fremont was away on his third expedition at the time, Preuss earnestly took up the task of compiling the first large-scale map of the Oregon Trail. The result was an extraordinary seven-sheet map designed such that the angle of the road formed the axis of that particular sheet, each of which covered about 250 miles. Anyone who has struggled with a folding map while driving can appreciate Preuss’s sensible design (Wheat 1959, v.3, n.523, pp. 25-30; Karnes 1970, Ch.5; Cohen 2002). As Preuss was compiling his maps of the overland trail in April, the US entered into war with Mexico after a border skirmish in the newly annexed State of Texas. By June, the US signed a treaty with British authorities that established a northern border of its jurisdiction in the area, and by 1848 Congress had organized the Oregon Territory. Senator Atchison, who had publicized Gilpin’s proposed overland route to the Pacific Northwest, was so impressed by Preuss’s seven-sheet map that he requested 10,000 copies for the Senate. This nicely captures the way that individual projects to map movement often grew out of particular relationships and patronage rather than from any larger comprehensive vision of development.

If Fremont and Preuss substantially expanded Federal knowledge of western geography in the 1840s, they were aided greatly by the simultaneous coastal reconnaissance, chiefly the US Exploring Expedition. This was headed by Charles Wilkes, who had been instructed to survey the Oregon Territory and Columbia River as well as the coast of California and in particular the Bay of San Francisco. Wilkes arrived off the coast of Oregon in 1841 to conduct extensive surveys from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Puget Sound and east across the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River Valley. This four-year expedition yielded detailed knowledge of the complex coast and waterways of what would become California and Oregon, neither of which were US territory at the time.

Wilkes’s final report included nautical charts, topographic maps, and thematic maps. The most important of these was the “Mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon Territory” (drawn 1841, published 1844). The map was magnificently detailed, and issued just as the United States was beginning to engage Great Britain over control of the region. Moreover, the map of Oregon and the Columbia River also had implications for geographical knowledge elsewhere. Most importantly, Fremont had used the Columbia River survey to prepare his master map of 1845 of the Trans-Mississippi West. Reciprocally, Fremont’s expedition and map of 1843 had also influenced Wilkes’s “Map of the Oregon Territory,” the most comprehensive map of the Northwest to that point, and one that revealed a new picture of the northwest to Americans. Wilkes’s final report of the expedition made a strong case for the US expansion into the Pacific Northwest. He advised an immediate takeover of the Oregon Country to deflect British influence in the region, though in 1844 the attention of many in Washington DC was focused on Texas. Ongoing US emigration to the Northwest forced the issue, however, and by June 1846 the republic successfully established an Oregon Territory with a northern border at the 49th Parallel (Viola and Margolis 1985, 160, 170-171, 180, 223; Wheat 1858, v.2 n.457 and pp. 177-179).

Although the maps of the Exploring Expedition were important when first issued, soon they were supplanted by more detailed surveys undertaken by the US Coast Survey (Stanton 1975), the most important federal scientific agencies prior to the Civil War. Under the direction of Alexander Dallas Bache, the Survey produced thousands of charts and maps of coastlines and rivers, and in the process raised the standard for accuracy in chartmaking. Throughout the 1850s, Bache lured exceptional talent to the Survey, including skilled German immigrants with valuable cartographic experience who had fled the failed revolutions of 1848. Yet even with this formidable strength, Bache faced reluctant support from Congress. Indeed the cartographic output of the Coast Survey in the 1850s says as much about Bache’s ability to procure funding as it does about any systematic federal commitment to surveying the nation’s coasts and waterways.

This calculus shifted substantially when the sectional crisis of the 1850s led to war after the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Coast Surveyors became invaluable to the Union war effort against the Confederacy. One example of this is the work of the Blockade Strategy Board, a secret Union effort in the summer of 1861 to mount a successful blockade of Confederate-controlled ports and trade. Bache brought tremendous knowledge of the southern coastline to the Board, which enabled it to produce a series of five volumes distributed in July and August. Each of these “memoirs” (as they were known) focused on a particular stretch of Confederate-controlled coast, from Virginia in the northeast to Texas in the far southwest. The reports included not just detailed geographic information, but also valuable data gleaned from prewar reconnaissance to aid naval blockade squadrons. During the war Union officers often cited the Coast Survey maps and charts as the most valuable cartographic intelligence available, both of coastlines and the interior. These efforts to facilitate movement during the war included maps designed for Commanding General George McClellan’s invasion of the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, or those of the Mississippi River designed for his successor, General John Pope, that same year.

While the federal government was using maps to defeat the rebellion in the American south, it was also creating maps to control Native people in the Trans-Mississippi West. Consider the map of the Great Plains made under the supervision of Grenville Dodge as he worked to establish the route of the transcontinental railroad. The map was made just as Dodge left his post as Commander of the Plains to become the Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. His position in these two positions underscores the close relationship between the military and railroad development: indeed, the former made the latter possible. Dodge’s map was designed to both explore possible routes over the Rockies and—more urgently—to pacify local Indian populations. In this way his map reveals the ways that western exploration both advanced infrastructure and subjugated Native peoples. Moreover, it captures the fundamental conflict between American expansion and the integrity of Indian claims to lands in the American West.

The tenuous relationship between Native Americans, territorial settlers, and the federal government deteriorated further during the 1860s, prompting calls for reform of Indian policy. With the advent of the reservation system, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Nathaniel Taylor commissioned a map of the western territories that focused on the Native American life, compiled from existing public surveys as well as mining and railroad maps. W.J. Keeler’s “National Map of the Territory of the United States” (1868) became the government’s first attempt to map the locations of Indian reservations across the West, though it reflects the contemporary enthusiasm for mineral resources more than anything else. The “Indian troubles” became but a footnote in the larger story of the “hidden treasures” that awaited Anglo-American development and exploitation. Just a few years later, Census Superintendent Francis Amasa Walker, who also succeeded Taylor as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, issued his “Map of Indian Population in the Western United States” (1874), which identified newly-organized reservations and hunting grounds as well as the creeping encroachment of white settlement. In his map and accompanying report, reservations were rendered as both practical and peaceful alternatives to the Indian Wars of the time (Walker 1874).

This flurry of activity related to reconnaissance and exploration, however, does not add up to a systematic program sponsored by the state or federal government. That would change in the twentieth century, once federal sponsorship of surveying became more established and assumed (Edney 1986). Moreover, the imperative to protect a nation not just in the West but also abroad provided the impetus for a much more organized approach to mapping movement in the military. Particularly relevant here is the advent of aviation in the early twentieth century, which brought cartography into yet another dimension: That of aeronautical charts. The US Army had led the effort to chart military effort through its Signal Corps, which developed a system of signs and symbols that would facilitate air travel. Most of these charts, however, were published by the Rand McNally Company, the US Post Office, and the US Geological Survey. An especially unusual type of “air map” was introduced toward the end of the Second World War: Cloth charts designed to aid downed pilots in enemy territory, particularly in the Pacific theater. The Army Map Service began producing these on a large scale in the summer of 1943, and by February 1945 was issuing 250,000 per month. This example is from the Eastern Asia series, which were initially printed in early 1944, though may not have been issued to troops given that the surrender of Japan ended the need for an invasion. Most of the maps (printed on both sides of the cloth) included information relevant to escape and evasion, such as landmarks, language, the location of small villages and transportation networks (Doll 1988).

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New map and profile of the proposed canal from Lake Erie to Hudson River in the State of New York

Maps for National Infrastructure and Internal Improvements

The term “internal improvements” was initially used in the 1780s to indicate any effort to strengthen US prosperity and security, but soon thereafter the term came to mean canals, roads, schools, and other public projects. Significantly, as historian John Lauritz Larson writes, the concept became synonymous with public works to advance transportation, “because in the sprawling continental Union nothing threatened the mutual interests of the citizens and their states like geographical isolation” (Larson 2001, 3). The sheer territorial reach of the new republic made transportation networks particularly important. Yet like the history of reconnaissance and exploration discussed above, efforts to build infrastructure only gradually moved from sporadic and ad hoc projects to a more systematic commitment on the part of the federal and state governments. The maps reveal this trajectory.

The achievement of independence from Britain keenly brought home the need to address the nation’s infrastructure. Yet because few privately produced maps adequately covered the national transportation network, Congress directed the Postmaster General to survey and map the system of roads. Abraham Bradley, a clerk in the Post Office, responded by creating a comprehensive picture of infrastructure and movement through his national map of the nation’s post offices and roads. Such a map profiled not topography or borders—as most maps do—but rather a web of communication that networked the new nation. Bradley issued new editions of his map several times over the next two three decades (Caldwell and Buehler 2010, 7).

Bradley’s maps suggest attuned to the demands of infrastructure, yet Americans arguing for internal improvements generally faced an uphill battle. President Washington expressed enthusiasm for a more comprehensive system linking the waterways of the Ohio River with eastern rivers, yet grand visions such as these faced ongoing resistance from localism and regional agendas. Indeed it was this persistent parochialism that led Congress to ask Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin to survey the new nation’s entire transportation system in 1807. Gallatin’s extensive research prioritized the improvement of communication and transportation along the coast as well as connecting the seaboard to the interior. More specifically, he stressed the importance of a road that would traverse the Appalachian Mountains and a canal that would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Finally, Gallatin believed that eastern geography could facilitate inland navigation, for the coastline was largely protected from storms as well as enemies. From Massachusetts to southern Georgia, he observed, the coast was interrupted by four necks of land; four canals could exploit this natural geography and vastly improve inland navigation (McLaughlin 1973,173).

Though not all of these recommendations were ultimately taken up by the federal government, the nation went through a boom in canal building in subsequent decades, and many of these closely followed Gallatin’s recommendations. In light of this, it makes sense that Carter Goodrich has called Gallatin’s report the “greatest planning document in American history” (Goodrich 1960, 3; Gallatin 1808, 725). Yet the ambitious nature of the plan also limited its implementation. The sums requested were enormous, and the plan required a level of coordination across states and regions that simply did not exist in the new republic.

Once the US again went to war with Great Britain in 1812, however, Gallatin’s emphasis on internal improvements in such a geographically extensive republic looked increasingly prescient. Though the war delayed action on his specific proposals, it immediately drew attention to the need for improved roads to move armies rapidly. Thus one of the first aspects of Gallatin’s report to receive material attention was a national road, ultimately completed in 1818. The next year, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun reaffirmed the need for a national system of roads and canals, which in turn prompted President James Monroe to appoint a Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements, which lasted only seven years but which was continued by the Topographical Bureau. The Bureau oversaw the survey and construction of basic transportation, and in turn spawned the Corps of Engineers and the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which profoundly influenced the planning and surveying of roads, canals, and railroads. Yet obstacles to a national plan of improvements continued, rooted in “local jealousies, rival jurisdictions, vested interests, straitened purses, and the preferences of local capital for less extravagant (and more immediately rewarding) projects” (Larson 2001, 69).

A few of the proposals outlined in Gallatin’s report were eventually carried out at by states rather than the federal government. Near Louisville, Kentucky, navigation of the Ohio River was nearly impossible due to its rocky shoals. Limestone underlay the entire width of the river for a stretch of two miles, essentially forming a natural dam that left the river low and navigation hazardous if not impossible for much of the year. Settlers had noticed the problem as early as the 1770s, but only with the growth of river traffic at the turn of the century did the concept of a canal to bypass the shoals gain any traction. Several private companies—charted by the bordering state and territorial legislatures—studied possible improvements, but could not agree on the location for the project (Robinson 1983; Johnson 1974).

In 1804, the citizens of Louisville organized a state-chartered company, the Ohio Canal Company, and hired a former officer of the Corps of Engineers named Jared Brooks to survey the falls and propose a canal for the Kentucky side of the river. Brooks produced a detailed survey that laid out the route that would be realized many years later. In December 1805, the Kentucky governor and legislature sent Brooks’s report and map to Congress, arguing that such a canal was in the national interest and merited federal support. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay authorized further study under Gallatin’s inventory of the nation’s transportation network in 1807. Gallatin learned of the Louisville Canal proposal and asked for further information, which Brooks supplied in the form of a lengthy report as well as several maps. In response, Gallatin recommended that $300,000 be appropriated for the project, though no action was taken (Johnson 1974, 59, Gallatin 1808, 821-826).

The economic importance of steamboat navigation after the War of 1812 made navigational improvements to the falls imperative. A commission representing all the states of the Ohio Valley united behind a Kentucky canal based on Brooks’s earlier surveys and maps. In 1825 the Commonwealth of Kentucky chartered the Louisville and Portland Canal Company, which, with state and federal funds, constructed a canal that circumvented the falls. The canal was completed in 1830 and opened for navigation that December. Many hoped Congress would make this a national project, while others vehemently insisted that this was well beyond federal control and the authority of the US. Decades later, the federal government’s investment in the canal had increased to the point that it was almost entirely in control, and after the Civil War the canal was transferred to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

An even more impressive engineering feat was the construction of the Erie Canal. Gallatin had proposed two shorter canals rather than the single canal extending all the way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Many thought the idea of a 350-mile canal an impossibility, especially one built through wilderness, but the allure of capturing the trade of the upper Great Lakes and the American West beyond was undeniable. To pursue this goal the State of New York organized a Canal Commission in 1810, and attempted to enlist the help of the Federal government and neighboring states. When no cooperation was forthcoming, New Yorkers undertook the project themselves, led by Canal Commissioner (and eventual New York State Governor) DeWitt Clinton. Construction began on Independence Day, 1817, and the canal opened in late 1825, when Clinton famously poured a keg of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean. Soon thereafter, the tonnage transported on the canal began to rival that of the entire Mississippi River system, stimulating eastern commerce as well as the growth of regions connected to the canal. (Goodrich, 1960, 53)

There was an equally intense period of canal building on the other side of the Great Lakes. For instance, in the 1810s Secretary Calhoun proposed a canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River (and thus to the Mississippi River and ultimately New Orleans), though construction did not begin until 1836. After several delays, the canal opened in 1848, and immediately began to siphon the Illinois River Valley agriculture away from its market in St. Louis to a new one in Chicago. The success of this canal brought more commerce from Lake Michigan through the Chicago River, but the situation of the Chicago Harbor remained an obstacle to growth: The River was notoriously difficult to navigate where it met the Lake, particularly given a persistent sandbar that returned despite repeated dredging attempts by the military (Holland 2005).

The Corps of Engineers sent James Duncan Graham to address the problem in 1854. Graham had been involved in settling boundary disputes on the nation’s northern and southern borders for several years before supervising harbor improvements in its northern lakes. He made detailed surveys of the harbor as part of a larger report to the Corps that included a map, one of the first achievements of the famed lithographer Julius Bien. The map details the complicated contours of the harbor and river, as well as the proposed improvements. Once the Civil War began, Chicago became an important supply center for the Union Army, which ensured ongoing maintenance of the harbor.

The essential role of the military in initiating the improvement of the Chicago Harbor underscores its more general role in advancing infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the transcontinental railroad, which became a national goal when Congress authorized the survey of possible routes in March 1853 under the supervision of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. These ambitious surveys generated remarkably detailed reports that served as topographic and scientific documents but also blueprints for western development. The large “Map of the Territory” (1857) made by Gouverneur Kemble Warren (later famed for leading the defense of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg) stands as one of the most impressive maps that emerged from these surveys, a synthesis of prior federal exploration and a master map of the West. The individual surveys were also notable, documenting the various features of the seen and unseen landscape. For instance, Isaac Stevens used the cutting-edge technique of using lines to map average temperature in his “Isothermal chart of the region north of the 36th Parallel” (1859). Here the continent was profiled not through the familiar lenses of topographic contours or political boundaries, but in terms of environmental dynamics, which in turn allowed for an assessment of the region’s potential for settlement and development.

In the end, however, the path of the transcontinental railroad was determined not by the extensive efforts of the Pacific Railroad Surveys but the decision of eleven slaveholding states to secede from the Union. This ensured that any transcontinental route would be a northern one, yet the exact path remained to be determined. The process of settling on that precise route is at work in a manuscript map made under the direction of Union officer Grenville Mellen Dodge, military commander of the Missouri at the end of the Civil War. The leaders of the Union Pacific Railroad were keenly aware that they must address the threat of Indian attacks in order to construct the line itself. The several territories (as well as the state of Kansas) that were connected to the proposed route were all put under the direction of Dodge, whose task was to survey the geography and people of what was to both government and industry a relatively unknown region. The resulting “Map of the Military District” was completed in January 1866 and based on information gathered from scouting parties as well as military and railroad engineers.

During an 1865 campaign against Indians in Wyoming, Dodge claimed to have found a route over the Rocky Mountains, west of the Platte River through the future locations of Cheyenne and Laramie. In May 1866 he left the military entirely to become chief engineer for the Union Pacific, bringing his considerable surveying expertise with him. Thus the map ended up not only detailing the topography of a relatively unknown region, but also played a role in persuading the directors of the Union Pacific in the fall of 1866 to consider an alternate route through the Rockies. Though he exaggerated his role in constructing (as opposed to surveying) this route, it is indeed Dodge who appears at the center of the famous photograph of Promontory Point, Utah, where the Central and Union Pacific Railroads were joined and commemorated with a symbolic Golden Spike in 1869.

The growth of transcontinental rail networks in the late nineteenth century was both a cause and consequence of industrialization. Such explosive development drew US attention beyond the Great West to markets overseas, and reintroduced the prospect of an interoceanic canal in Central America. The idea of an interoceanic passage had been vigorously discussed in the United States and Europe throughout the nineteenth century. The success of the Suez Canal in 1869 revived interest in a similar project in the Americas, and French interests capitalized on that momentum by authorizing Ferdinand De Lesseps to create another sea-level canal at Panama. But various challenges, both human and natural, foiled this second act, and by the 1880s the French had given up. By the turn of the century, American expansion into the Pacific, with the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines, and into the Caribbean made clear that an isthmian passage could bring tremendous rewards.

Congress authorized the construction of an isthmian canal in 1902, and President Roosevelt gave broad latitude to a board made up of civilian and military engineers to consider the advantages of a sea-level canal (as in Suez) versus the lock-canals, which Americans had so frequently built in the 1820s and 1830s. After visiting the isthmus, the Board of Engineers produced a report supported by several maps and cross-sections that illustrated plans for a sea level canal as well as different heights of lock canals. The report considered both commercial and defensive priorities, as well as the cost and speed of construction. Ultimately, however, the commissioners deadlocked over which option to recommend. Both the Isthmian Canal Commission and the Board were divided, with the European engineers solidly supporting of the sea-level canal, and the Americans (as well as the chief engineer) squarely in favor of the lock-canal. President Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Taft, also backed the lock-canal, with a preference for a surface of eighty-five feet above sea level. After it opened in 1914, the canal allowed ships to travel between the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time it had taken to go around the tip of South America.

If the Panama Canal illustrates how engineering can transform nature, there are equally dramatic examples of the limits of human power to subdue the same. Consider the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, when heavy rains swelled the river beyond its banks and broke the existing levees that had been constructed to prevent just such a catastrophe. In the aftermath of the floods, the Army Corps of Engineers carried out flood control and bank stabilization through the work of the Mississippi River Commission. A young geologist working for the Louisiana Geological Survey, Harold Norman Fisk, persuaded the Commission to support his ambitious effort to map the geological history of the entire lower Mississippi River. Fisk was not just interested in improving movement on the river, he was attuned to the evolution of the river. Through creative fieldwork, archival research, and aeronautical photography, Fisk was able to reconstruct the deep history of the river over thousands of years. Through his massive report and dozens of maps, Fisk brought a new level of sophistication to mapping the river, and thereby opened up new ways for engineers to think about its behavior.

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Map of the Oregon Territory

Maps as Historical Clues

Even this brief consideration demonstrates the ongoing—if inconsistent—federal and state use of maps for exploration, reconnaissance, and the development of infrastructure. At no time in the nation’s history was government shy about using cartography to advance these interests, though certainly its ambitions often outpaced its resources and collective will. To examine even these ten examples is to see moments where particular interests aligned to enlist federal and state resources to advance their purposes. The twentieth century brought a much greater and more consistent investment of federal and state resources, and the output far more systematic. Consider also the many examples of mapping movement treated elsewhere in this online collection, such as the great geological surveys in the American West, particularly the efforts of the Bureau of Topographical Engineers and the Great Surveys; maps used to lure railroad companies and individual settlers into the West after the Civil War; Signal Corps maps of the expanding telegraph system both at home and abroad at the turn of the century; the development of highway maps by state and federal agencies to match the public’s boundless demand for automobile travel in the twentieth century; and planning maps to reckon with the resulting urban growth. Gallatin’s vision of a government dedicated to advancing the national interest and economic welfare would arrive, just much later than he expected.

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Topographical map of the road from Missouri to Oregon, commencing at the mouth of the Kansas in the Missouri River and ending at the mouth of the...

Further Reading

For more on the early development of internal improvements to the era of the railroads, see John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement. An excellent overview of mapping movement in general can be found in James Akerman, ed., Cartographies of Travel and Navigation. Westward expansion has been the subject of several excellent studies, including Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision, William Goetzmann, Winning the West, Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own, and Bill Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis. On individual internal improvements, see David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: the creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, and Peter Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation.

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Chicago harbor & bar, Illinois from survey made between the 17th of August & the 2nd of September 1858
  • Akerman, James, and Robert Karrow, eds. 2007. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Akerman, James,, ed. 2006. Cartographies of Travel and Navigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Allen, David Yehling. 2011. “Mapping an Expanding Empire State, 1790-1830”. The Mapping of New York State: A Study in the History of Cartography. Retrieved from

  • Allen, John Logan. 2002. “The Maps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” In Mapping the West: America’s Westward Movement, 1524–1890, edited by Paul E. Cohen, 74–96. New York: Rizzoli.

  • Bradley, Abraham. 1796. “Map of the United States.” Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

  • Caldwell, Larry, and Michael Buehler. Spring 2010. “Picturing a Networked Nation: Abraham Bradley’s Landmark U.S. Postal Maps.” In The Portolan, 7-25.

  • Cohen, Paul E. 2002. Mapping the West: America’s Westward Movement, 1524-1890. New York: Rizzoli.

  • Conzen, Michael P., and Diane Dillon. 2007. Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West. Chicago: Newberry Library.

  • Cronon, Bill. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton.

  • DeVoto, Bernard. 1942. The Year of Decision: 1846. New York: Little Brown.

  • Dodge, Grenville Mellen. 1910. How we built the Union Pacific Railway, and other railway papers and addresses, by Major-General Grenville M. Dodge, chief engineer, Union Pacific Railway, 1866-1870. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

  • Doll, John G. 1988. “Cloth Maps of World War II.” In Western Association of Map Libraries Information Bulletin, v. 20, n.1, 23-35.

  • Edney, Matthew. November 1986. “Politics, Science, and Government Mapping Policy in the United States, 1800-1925.” In American Cartographer, v. 13, n.4, 295-306.

  • Farnham, Wallace D. March 1965.“Grenville Dodge and the Union Pacific: A Study of Historical Legends.” In Journal of American History, v.51, n.4, 632-650.

  • Francaviglia, Richard. 2015. The Mapmakers of New Zion: A Cartographic History of Mormonism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

  • Gallatin, Albert. April 6, 1808. “Roads and Canals.” In American State Papers, Miscellaneous I, 724-921. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

  • Goetzmann, William. 1966. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: A. Knopf.

  • Goodrich, Carter, ed. 1967. The Government and the Economy, 1783-1861. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

  • Goodrich, Carter. 1960. Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads, 1800-1890. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Grossman, James R., et al, eds. 2004. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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