Society for the History of Discoveries


Benson, Guy Meriwether, et al.  Lewis and Clark.  The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814. Foreword by John Logan Allen.  Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Library, 2002.  88 p., 32 maps, 6 illustrations.  ISBN 1574271385.  Cloth, $24.95

     When Lewis and Clark set out on their historic expedition, much of the landscape they were to encounter was shrouded by mystery.  Not long before, many believed that California was an island, that the waves of the Pacific crashed on beaches just west of the Appalachian Mountains, and that the Mississippi flowed into the South Sea.  For generations after the first sighting of the New World, cartographers continued to show the new discoveries as islands between Europe and Asia.  The earliest explorers of Columbus’s New World left much of it untracked and in the ensuing competition for a mostly unclaimed continent, the various Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English explorers often guarded their maps as state secrets.  This secrecy, combined with language differences and miscommunication with native Americans, led to the wide-ranging fantasy and inconsistency that characterize many early maps of North America.

     The well-known Lewis and Clark scholar, John Logan Allen, notes in his preface that “maps are the capstone of the landscapes of our imagination”  [and that this]  “exhibition of map imagery…showing the collective depictions of the American continent in general and the American West in particular over the centuries preceding the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 allows us to view the West as Lewis and Clark, and their sponsor Thomas Jefferson, would have viewed it on the eve of the transcontinental journey.”

     The exhibition on which this book is based examines the planning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the cartographic tradition that made the expedition possible.  It shows the evolving views of the American continent and the “Passage to the Indies” as they appear in maps up to that time, focusing especially on the earliest cartographic representations of America and the Northwest Passage. Thirty-two maps dated from 1575 (Sebastian Münster) to 1810 (Paul Allen), all either in the personal library of Thomas Jefferson or well known to him, are discussed and illustrated in four sections.  The maps in Section I, covering a period from just after Columbus to 1650, reflect the expectation of geographers and explorers to find either a water route through or around the new landmasses or a short land passage over them to the Indies.  The maps in Section II examine the French contributions to cartographic knowledge of North America as they pursued their quest to find a passage to Asia.  Section III, “Albemarle Adventurers,” explores the contributions to western exploration by the Virginia gentry that included the families of Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis and a group of Albemarle County residents who planned an expedition to the West via the Missouri River.  Section IV presents the maps used in planning the Lewis and Clark Expedition, notably the map of the American West drawn by Nicolas King in 1803.  Its purpose was to crystallize in one cartographic document the information on the West and the Passage to the Pacific that was judged to be the best by Jefferson.

     Published on the occasion of the exhibition, “Lewis and Clark:  The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814” by the University of Virginia Library, the work is an outgrowth of the 1995 exhibition “Exploring the West from Monticello:  A Perspective in Maps from Columbus to Lewis and Clark”; it is an extensively revised version of the original catalog.  Despite some unnecessary duplication between the Preface and the Introduction, probably caused by a lack of coordination between the authors involved, this scholarly yet lucidly written and attractively illustrated book is a useful addition to the Lewis and Clark literature on the occasion of the Expedition’s 200th anniversary.

Eric W. Wolf
Falls Church, Virginia


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