Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America
Sections: Prologue | Before Lewis & Clark | Lewis & Clark | After Lewis & Clark

Detail of Warren mapDuring the first decade of the nineteenth century, the geographic image of western North America began to change dramatically. Based on the observations of Lewis and Clark, information gathered from native people, and Clark's own cartographic imagination, this image evolved from an almost empty interior with a hypothetical single mountain range serving as a western continental divide, to an intricate one showing a tangle of mountains and rivers. A continent that had once seemed empty and simple was now becoming full and complex.

It would take another fifty years after Lewis and Clark to complete the cartographic image of the West we know today. Other explorers and map makers followed, each revealing new geographic and scientific details about specific parts of the western landscape. But this revealing process was not a simple one. New knowledge did not automatically replace old ideas; some old notions—especially about river passages across the West—persisted well into the century. In the decades after Lewis and Clark the company of western explorers expanded to include fur traders, missionaries, and government topographers, culminating in the 1850s with the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers surveying the southwestern and northwestern boundaries of the United States as well the potential routes for a transcontinental railroad. By the time of the Civil War, an ocean-to-ocean American empire with borders clearly defined was a fact of continental life.

The Journeys of Zebulon Montgomery Pike

In mid-July 1806 Lewis and Clark were on their way back from the Pacific. At the same time young army Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike left St. Louis with twenty-three men to reconnoiter the Spanish borderlands. Unlike the other expeditions commissioned by Jefferson, Pike did not travel by the command of the president. Instead, he took his orders from General James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory and sometime secret agent for the Spanish. Pike carried out two expeditions for Wilkinson. The first (August 1805-April 1806) took him up the Mississippi River into present-day Minnesota. The second expedition began in July 1806 and drew to a close in late June 1807. As drafted by Wilkinson, Pike's instructions took the explorer into lands that were part of the Spanish empire. And in February 1807, near present-day Alamosa, Colorado, Spanish forces took Pike and his men into custody. Pike was a spy but just who he was spying for remains an open question. Pike's account of his southwestern adventures, published in 1810, drew additional attention to the region and its possible future as part of an expanding American empire.

Pike's Survey of the Upper Mississippi River

General James Wilkinson, then governor of Upper Louisiana, chose Pike to lead an exploratory expedition along the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. Although instructed to chart the river and observe its natural resources and places suitable for military and commercial establishments, Pike also attempted to locate the river's headwaters. Leaving St. Louis in August 1805, he ascended the river as far as Leech Lake in Minnesota, missing its source by more than 50 miles. Upon Pike's return to St. Louis in April 1806, Anthony Nau compiled a large, four-sheet manuscript map of the Upper Mississippi River, based on Pike's field notes and sketch maps.

Anthony Nau, compiler. "A Sketch of the Mississippi from the Town of St. Louis to its source in Upper Red Cedar Lake. . . Taken from the notes of Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike . . . 1805 and 1806." St. Louis: ca. 1806. Page 2. Manuscript map. Courtesy of National Archives, Washington, D.C. (102)

Searching for the source of the Mississippi River

In the summer of 1805, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike extended his orders to include a search for the source of the Mississippi River. After spending the winter in present-day Minnesota, Pike and his party returned to St. Louis in April 1806, just months before his more momentous venture up the Arkansas River.Pike's journal is open to September 23,1805, when Pike reached the Rock River in northwestern Illinois and encountered the Sauk tribe and their chief Black Hawk.

Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813). "An Account of a voyage up Mississippi River from St. Louis to its Source . . . August 9, 1805 -April 30, 1806" [copied by Nicholas King]. Page 2. Manuscript journal, September 23, 1805. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (99)

Pike's Field Notes

This small notebook, which was among the papers confiscated from Zebulon Pike during his captivity in Mexico in 1807 and returned to the State Department in 1910, includes sketch maps and field observations from 1805-1807. It includes data from his expeditions along the upper Mississippi and into the Spanish borderlands. On the pages displayed above, dated September 8 through September 25, 1805, Pike recorded distances and observations as his party traveled along the Mississippi River. The entries conclude when the expedition reached the Falls of St. Anthony in present-day Minneapolis.

Zebulon Pike. [Notebook of maps, traverse tables, and meteorological observations, 1805-1807]. Field notebook, September 8-September 25, 1805. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (104)

Up the Arkansas River to the Rocky Mountains

Suspected of spying, Pike and his party were intercepted and detained by Spanish authorities in Colorado. In this letter to Secretary of State James Madison, President Jefferson urges him to deny that Pike had any role as a spy and explain that he was under orders to explore the watersheds of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. The president suggested that the Spanish forces who escorted him through Texas to Natchitoches, Louisiana, be reimbursed from the War Department funds.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to James Madison (1751-1836), August 30, 1807. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107)

The "Santa Fe Trail"

This small sketch map, with west located at the top, is reportedly the first American map depicting the Santa Fe Trail. Although the map is in Pike's hand, it does not depict the route he traversed but was probably prepared as a reference map showing a 1797 trek by three French traders, operating out of the St. Louis area, from the juncture of the Platte and Missouri Rivers to Santa Fe (identified as St. Affee at the top of the page). When Pike was detained in February of 1807, this map was confiscated by Spanish authorities who suspected that it depicted a military route to their settlement.

Zebulon Pike. [Map of the "Santa Fe Trail"], St. Louis: ca. 1806. Manuscript map. Courtesy of National Archives, Washington, D.C. (103)

Freeman's Survey of the Red River, 1806

In 1806, despite the threat of Spanish opposition, surveyor and astronomer Thomas Freeman and naturalist Peter Custis, set out to explore the Red River, the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Their objective was to locate the river's source, thought to be in the vicinity of the Spanish outpost of Santa Fe. After traveling approximately 600 miles, the small party was confronted by Spanish troops and the mission was aborted. The expedition's route is recorded on this manuscript map. The area explored by Freeman, in present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, was also incorporated into Zebulon Pike's official report map published in 1810.

Nicholas King (1771-1812). "Map of the Red River in Louisiana from the Spanish Camp where the exploring party of the U.S. was met by the Spanish troops to where it enters the Mississippi . . ." Washington, D.C.: 1806. Manuscript map. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (100)

"Map of the Red River in Louisiana from the Spanish Camp where the exploring party of the U.S. was met by the Spanish troops to where it enters the Mississippi . . ." Philadelphia.: 1806. Engrav'd by F. Shallus. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Surveying the Spanish Southwest

After exploring the region adjacent to the peak that bears his name in Colorado, Pike traced the north fork of the Arkansas and searched for the Red River's source. Ill-prepared for harsh winter weather, Pike and his men built a small stockade on the upper Rio Grande. Here they were captured by the Spanish in February 1807 and taken to Santa Fe and on to Chihuahua, Mexico. Pike was eventually released, but his notes and documents were confiscated. His 1810 published Account was largely created from memory. Although the text is poorly written and disorganized, it gave the public its first detailed knowledge of settlements and southwestern lands beyond the Spanish border.

Zebulon Pike. An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana . . . During the Years 1805, 1806, and 1807. And a Tour Through the Interior Parts of New Spain . . .in the Year 1807. Philadelphia: C. & A. Conrad, et al., 1810. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (108)

Pike's Published Maps of the Spanish Borderlands

The most notable features on this pair of maps are the principal rivers of the southern plains. While a dashed line highlighted in red shows the route followed by Pike's party, this is actually a composite map incorporating information from the earlier explorations of the Red, Ouachita, and Arkansas Rivers by Thomas Freeman, William Dunbar, and Lieutenant James Wilkinson. Pike also locates the "Highest Peak," later known as Pike's Peak, which he describes at the common source of western rivers.

Zebulon Pike. "The First Part of Captn. Pike's Chart of the Internal Part of Louisiana . . . ." and "A Chart of the Internal Part of Louisiana . . ." from An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and through the Western Parts of Louisiana . . . . Philadelphia: C. & A. Conrad, 1810. Engraved map with notations in red pen. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (105a,b)

Louisiana Boundary

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, whose explorations of South America, Mexico, and the North American Southwest were later published in thirty volumes, regularly corresponded with Thomas Jefferson about his findings. In this exchange of letters, Humboldt complained that Arrowsmith and Zebulon Pike had used his maps of Spanish America without permission or attribution. Jefferson responded, "That their Arrowsmith should have stolen your Map of Mexico, is in the piratical spirit of his country" and sought von Humboldt's forgiveness for Pike borrowing information in his report.

1 of 2

  • Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), December 20, 1811 (in French). Page 2. Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), Manuscript letters. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107A)

  • Jefferson to von Humboldt, December 6, 1813. Page 2. Manuscript letters. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107B)

Back to Top

Long's Expedition to the Central and Southern Plains

The Lewis and Clark expedition established the precedent for army exploration in the West. Major Stephen H. Long's Scientific Expedition (1819-1820) advanced that tradition of military exploration, this time centering attention on the central and southern Great Plains and the Front Range of the Rockies. For the first time an American exploring party included professional scientists (a zoologist and a botanist) and two skilled artists. While not every future American expedition took along such skilled observers, the pattern was set for increasingly scientific exploration.

Despite its valuable published narrative, important maps, and compelling visual records, the Long expedition continues to suffer from a misconception about its impact on the American settlement of the Great Plains. In his "General Description of the Country" Long branded portions of the central plains as "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and, of course, uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture." Most telling, he labeled part of the high plains on his 1821 map as "the Great American Desert." Some writers have concluded that the notion of the "Great American Desert" deterred Americans from settling on the plains. Although a handful of maps and textbooks picked up this phrase, most Americans continued to think about the West as Jefferson envisioned it—as a garden of the world, an Eden in the West.


Maps of Long's Explorations

These companion maps, both included in the published account of Long's 1819-1820 Scientific Expedition, delineate the expedition's route from St. Louis up the Missouri and Platte Rivers to the Rocky Mountains. Much of the information for the eastern half of the map (above left) was borrowed from commercial sources. The western half, based on Long's own explorations and earlier surveys, corrected many geographical errors made by previous expeditions. Boldly blazoned, however, on the southern plains is Long's faulty characterization,"Great American Desert."

1 of 2

Exploration and Science

Thomas Say, the father of American entomology, was appointed to the 1819-1820 Long expedition as the official naturalist. Out of his observations and those of his contemporaries, Say produced a three-volume masterwork entitled American Entomology: or Descriptions of Insects of North America (1824-1828). The illustrations were drawn by Say himself, or by the expedition's assistant naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale. Say, who also drew information from other expeditions to the South, the Rocky Mountains, the Minnesota River Basin, and Mexico, did much to advance the understanding of the continent's natural world.

1 of 3

First Western Expedition by Steamboat

Major Stephen Long led the first western exploration expedition to utilize a steamboat as its main means of transportation. Titian Peale, an artist and assistant naturalist on the Long expedition, recorded in his journal that the party left St. Louis by the steamboat "Western Engineer" on June 21, 1819. The steamboat failed to provide reliable transportation. After wintering near Council Bluffs, north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska, the expedition explored the Platte and Arkansas Rivers on horseback.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885). Manuscript journal [kept 1819-1820], June 21, 1819. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (110)

"Western Engineer"

Major Long helped design the steamboat "Western Engineer," which was built at Pittsburgh for the first exploration of western rivers by steamboat. This side wheel steamboat proved unsuitable for the expedition because it was underpowered, drew too much draft, and relied on unfiltered river water for steam that continually clogged the engines. In this delicate riverscape, Titian Peale sketched the steamboat on the wide Missouri River. The steamboat was abandoned at Ft. Lisa about 600 miles above St. Louis on the Missouri River. The expedition proceeded on horseback to explore the Platte and Arkansas rivers.

Titian Ramsay Peale. [Riverside with small view of "Western Engineer"], 1819-1820. Watercolor. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111)

Titian Peale, Assistant Naturalist

Although the Long expedition was chronically ill-equipped and, because of harsh conditions, had to abandon exploring the headwaters of the Arkansas River, the party did gather valuable data on the natural history and ethnography of the region. Titian Peale made 122 sketches on the expedition and collected birds, reptiles, mammals, and fish specimens along with Indian artifacts to add to the Peale Museum collections, which was under the direction of his father Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. The sketches shown above are typical of those made by Peale—small scale for easy portability and carefully rendered using a fine brush or pen.

1 of 5

  • Titian Ramsay Peale. [Lavender blossoms], August 3, 1820. Watercolor, pencil. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111A)

  • Titian Ramsay Peale. [Bison Hunt], 1820 [February]. Watercolor, ink. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111B)

  • Titian Ramsay Peale. "Ottoes (Siouan Indian)," May 1820. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111C)

  • Titian Ramsay Peale. [Sandhill crane], March 1820, Watercolor. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111D)

  • Titian Ramsay Peale. [Shell], May 1819. Watercolor. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (111E)

Account of the Long Expedition

One-time scenic designer, Samuel Seymour was recruited as the official artist of the Long expedition. Its official report, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, reproduces eight landscape views of the more that 150 sketches Seymour made while on the expedition. His "View of the Chasm through which the Platte issues from the Rocky Mountains"(above right) is considered the first published image of the Rockies made from direct observation. The report was compiled by Edwin James, the expedition's botanist and geologist.

1 of 2

  • Samuel Seymour (1796-1823). "View of Chasm through which the Platte issues from the Rocky Mountains" in Edwin James (1797-1861) Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains: Performed in the Years 1819-20 . . . Under the Command of M. Stephen H. Long from the Notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, Other Gentlemen of the Exploring Party. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1822 (1823). Hand-colored engravings [frontispieces]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (112b)

  • Samuel Seymour (1796-1823). "Distant View of the Rocky Mountains" in Edwin James (1797-1861) Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains: Performed in the Years 1819-20 . . . Under the Command of M. Stephen H. Long from the Notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, Other Gentlemen of the Exploring Party. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1822 (1823). Hand-colored engravings [frontispieces]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (112a)

The Prairie

The Prairie is one of five novels that make up James Fenimore Cooper's enduring Leatherstocking Tales. In this third novel of the Cooper series, protagonist Leatherstocking, despondent over the destruction of the forests, escapes to the Great Plains. Cooper's vivid descriptions of the central plains were deeply influenced by the published report of the Long expedition. This inspirational role was true of other expeditions. Publication of the actual experiences of nineteenth-century explorers consistently inspired writers and fueled the public's imagination.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). The Prairie. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1827. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (114)

Back to Top

The Fur Trade

Fur traders—whether working for themselves or for the great trading companies—were critically important for the exploration and mapping of the North American West. The 1820s and 1830s are often viewed as an interlude in the collection and dissemination of geographical knowledge of the West. The federal government sponsored no further scientific expeditions until the late 1830s. The Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers was not formally established until 1838. Instead, important explorations were undertaken by fur traders busy searching for new beaver countries. Traders like Jedediah Smith traveled extensively in the plains and Rockies, sharing their information at trapper's rendezvous and with army officers, missionaries, and overland emigrants. Most important, fur trade geographic knowledge was embedded in a number of popular books such as those written by Washington Irving and in maps produced for the government by David Burr, the geographer to the House of Representatives.

Missionary Map of the Pacific Northwest

Father de Smet, representing a long tradition of missionary explorers, was an indefatigable traveler and a keen observer of the Indian peoples and physical geography of the West. In 1851, de Smet prepared this manuscript map of the Upper Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain region. Tribal chiefs, Indian agents, military officers, and fur traders contributed to its contents. It is the most detailed and accurate record of the locations of mountain ranges, rivers, forts, and major trails of this region prior to the western railway surveys. Overlaying the map's physical features are boundary lines intended to define tribal lands and limit tribal rivalries.

Pierre Jean de Smet (1801-1873). [Map of the Upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains Region], 1851. Manuscript map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (131)


Winter Count

Chief Battiste Good, a Brulé Dakota (Sioux) made this copy of a Sioux winter count in 1907 while living on the Rosebud Agency, South Dakota. Winter counts were used to mark significant events. A circle of lodges represents a cycle of year. Individual events are depicted by buffalo hunts, fights with neighboring tribes, famines, and other particular occurrences. There are no discernible depictions to mark the passage of the Corps of Discovery or any of the other official expeditions that would have traveled through the region. But depictions of forts, encounters with missionaries, and fur trading ventures are marked throughout the calendar.

Battiste Good (1821-ca. 1907), Dakota Brulé Winter Count [1230-1907], ca. 1907. Watercolor, pen, and ink on paper. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135A)

House of Representatives Geographer

David Burr, geographer to the House of Representatives, was one of the most accomplished, early nineteenth-century American cartographers. In addition to government maps, he produced a large body of commercial maps and atlases, including this map of the United States, which is heavily dependent in its depiction of the West on geographic information provided by the St. Louis fur trade entrepreneur and Missouri Congressman William H. Ashley. In particular, Burr utilized the geographic knowledge and mapping of fur trader Jedediah Smith. The map specifically shows Smith's 1826-1827 and 1827-1829 expeditions.

David Burr (1803-1875). Map of the United States of North America with Parts of the Adjacent Countries . . . London: 1839. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (132)

Basin of the Columbia and Snake Rivers

Born in France but educated at the U. S. Military Academy, Captain Benjamin Bonneville, while on leave from the U.S. Army, led a fur trapping expedition into the Oregon Country in 1832. He spent the next three years dispatching parties of trappers. There is conjecture that Bonneville was also acting as a government agent gathering intelligence on the natural resources and British activities in the West. This is one of two maps published in an account by author Washington Irving based on Bonneville's experience with the fur trade. The map accurately depicts the drainage basin of the Columbia/Snake system and the other major rivers of the Northwest.

[Benjamin Bonneville (1796-1878)]. "Map of the Territory West of the Rocky Mountains " [western portion] from Washington Irving. The Rocky Mountains, or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West . . .. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1837. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (133A)

The Fur Trade Popularized

Captain Benjamin Bonneville sold the story of his adventures in the fur trade to Washington Irving, who, in 1837, turned it into a narrative entitled The Rocky Mountains, or, Scenes, Incidents and Adventures in the Far West. The two-volume publication was enormously popular and among the most important literary descriptions of the Rockies and the West prior to the reports of the government sponsored expeditions of the 1840s and 1850s.

Washington Irving (1783-1859). The Rocky Mountains, or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West . . .. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1837. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (133)

Map of Indian Tribal Distributions

Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under presidents Jefferson and Madison, also became an authority on North American Indian languages. From the time of his meeting with Alexander von Humboldt, when the German geographer visited Jefferson in 1804, Gallatin developed an interest in native languages and continued to collect information about tribal distributions throughout his career. In 1836 at age 75, he compiled this map depicting ten major ethno-linguistic families to accompany the publication of his findings on the classification of North American Indian languages. The map also incorporates information gleaned from the explorations of the fur trapper Jedediah Smith.

Albert Gallatin (1761-1849). "Map of the Indian Tribes of North America, about 1600 A.D along the Atlantic, & about 1800 A.D. Westerly . . ." from Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society. Cambridge: 1836. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (20)

Crossing the Sierra Nevada to California

Considered one of the great rarities of Western Americana, the narrative of Zenas Leonard vividly chronicles his 1831-1833 travels through the Rocky Mountains, trapping beaver with one of several rival fur companies, as well as his amazing adventures with Joseph R. Walker's expedition to California. Leonard captures the Walker party's struggle to survive on the crest of the Sierra during the brutal winter of 1833 and the thrill of finding Yosemite Valley and a southern pass through the Sierra Nevada. Leonard's account was originally serialized in his hometown newspaper, the Clearfield Democratic Banner.

Zenas Leonard (1809-1857). Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard: Native of Clearfield County, Pa., who spent five years in Trapping for furs, Trading with the Indians, &c., &c., of the Rocky Mountains, written by Himself. Clearfield, Pa.: D. W. Moore, 1839. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (135)

Fur Traders

Artist Alfred Jacob Miller accompanied British Captain William Drummond Stewart on a hunting expedition to the Northern Rockies in1837, attending a fur trappers' rendezvous on Wyoming's Green River. Miller returned to his home in New Orleans to turn the sketches he had made in the field into a series of paintings of western scenes, particularly of landscapes, hunting and trapping scenes, and Indian life. For the next thirty years, Miller would parlay his brief western experience into a career as one of the most prominent nineteenth-century painters of the American West.

No image available

Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874). Trappers, 1837. Watercolor, ink, pencil on paper. Courtesy of Josyln Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (134A)

Back to Top

Wilkes and Frémont Expeditions

With Americans beginning to settle in Oregon and because of the tensions that finally exploded in the Mexican War, there was growing national interest during the 1840s in further exploration of the Far West, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. Two explorers—Lieutenants Charles Wilkes and John C. Frémont—made major contributions to western exploration during this period. Their journeys were part of the nation's sense of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth-century belief that territorial expansion was a preordained right. Under the sponsorship of the U. S. Navy, Wilkes's United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) surveyed the Pacific Basin. While most of his attention was centered on the South Sea Islands and Antarctica, he did chart parts of the Pacific Northwest and the mouth of the Columbia River. Frémont, the nation's self-proclaimed "Pathfinder," led five scientific expeditions into the West from 1842 to1854. The first three of these were undertaken by the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, and the latter two were private ventures. Frémont's official reports, written with the assistance of his wife Jessie, daughter of expansionist-minded Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, gave Manifest Destiny a popular text. Frémont's maps, drawn in conjunction with cartographer Charles Preuss, were landmarks in an expanding appreciation for the complexities of western geography.

Wilkes' Map of the Pacific Northwest

The U.S. Exploring Expedition, a squadron of five ships commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., set sail in1838 on a four-year scientific expedition to collect scientific specimens from Antarctic waters, the Fiji and Hawaiian Islands, and the western coast of North America. Reaching North America in 1841, they spent considerable time in Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. The resulting map of the Oregon Territory, which was published with Wilkes's official 1845 report, displays the region's relief, drainage, and Indian tribes. It also includes a large inset of the Columbia River from its mouth to the Snake River.

Charles Wilkes (1798-1877). Map of the Oregon Territory. By the U.S. Ex. Ex . . . 1841 from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. . . . Philadelphia: 1845. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (116)

Charting the Oregon Waterways

Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes led his five-vessel fleet across the bar of the Columbia River on August 6, 1841, near the end of a four-year surveying expedition. Wilkes surveyed and charted 1600 miles of the coast of Antarctica, hundreds of Pacific islands, and nearly 800 miles of coastline and Oregon waterways. Wilkes and the United States government were very concerned with establishing a boundary claim to counter those of Great Britain in the American northwest. In the journal displayed above, Wilkes records the expedition's approach to the mouth of Columbia River.

Charles Wilkes (1798-1877). Journal entry, August 6, 1841. Page 2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (117)

American Claims to Oregon Territory

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes stressed the importance of exploration for American claims to the northwest coast in this letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Abel Upshur. Establishing a boundary claim to counter those of Great Britain in the American northwest was of great concern to the U.S. government. Wilkes sought "as much knowledge of this country as possible, being well aware of the importance of accurate information for the government in regard to the value of the country, pending the settlement of the boundary question." Britain and the United States settled the Oregon boundary issue by treaty in 1846.

Charles Wilkes to Abel Upshur, May 15, [1842]. Letterbook copy. Page 2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (118)

Narrative of the Wilkes Expedition

While anchored at Astoria in August 1841, the expedition visited the primeval pine forest along the Columbia River. As this illustration shows, the party marveled at the gigantic growth that produced trees more than thirty-nine feet in circumference and an estimated 250 feet high. The official government edition of Wilkes's Narrative was published in 1845 in a limited edition of 100 sets, 63 of which were given to states and foreign nations and 25 were destroyed by fire. The scientific data collected by nine expedition naturalists was published from 1846 to 1874 in twenty-one limited-edition folio volumes that included illustrations and atlases.

W.E. Tucker, after J. Drayton. Pine Forest, Oregon. Wood engraving in Charles Wilkes. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Philadelphia: C. Sherman & Son, 1858. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (119a-d)

Sutter's Fort

Titian Peale, who had been on the Long expedition, was also a member of the Wilkes-led Exploring Expedition. As on the Long expedition, Peale kept a journal in addition to his duties as artist-naturalist. When Peale and his party reach the prosperous ranch of Captain Sutter in California, Peale wrote: "The Mexican government have made a conditional grant of 30 square leagues of land to Capt. Sutter, a Swiss gentleman, for the purpose of Settling this portion of California. He commenced about two years since, and is now building extensive corrals and houses of adobes, by Indian labor for which he pays in goods." Peale also captured Sutter's "Fort" in the watercolor above.

1 of 2

  • Titian Peale (1799-1885). Manuscript journal, October 19, 1841. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (120)

  • Sutter's Fort, October 19, 1841. Watercolor. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (120A)

Plants Collected

William Dunlop Brackenridge served as horticulturist and Titian Peale as artist-naturalist for the U.S. Exploring Expedition. The two naturalists, along with mineralogist James Dana, formed an expedition party sent inland to investigate the interior geography and resources of Oregon and California. Wilkes's expedition returned to Washington, D.C., with tens of thousands of natural history specimens and ethnographic artifacts gathered in South America, the Pacific Islands, the Far East, and the Pacific Northwest and California. The bulk of the scientific specimens collected on the four-year voyage became the foundation for the collections of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

1 of 2

  • Herbarium of the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the Command of Capt. Wilkes. Balsamorhiza deltoidea, Oregon, Nasqually [Nisqually] (Northwest balsamroot). Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (120C)

  • Herbarium of the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the Command of Capt. Wilkes. Asclepias speciosa, Torr. ["Valley of the Sacramento, California"] (showy milkweed). Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (120D)

Botanical Specimens

The specimens displayed above were obtained on Frémont's third expedition to survey from the central Rockies, through the Great Salt Lake region, and to the Sierra Nevada. Despite the turbulence of the Mexican War, Frémont was able to reach California and obtain a few botanical specimens to add to those collected on his previous two expeditions. Calycodemia fremontii and Scutellaria antirrhinoides, on display above, were both obtained in California.

1 of 2

  • [Frémont's expedition to California, 1845-1847]. Calycodemia fremontii, Gray (Fremont's western rosinweed). Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (129a)

  • [Frémont's expedition to California, 1845-1847]. Scutellaria antirrhinoides var. californica, Gray (scullcap). Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (129b)

Landmark Map of the West

In 1842 and again in 1843-1844, John C. Frémont led expeditions to survey the route of the Oregon Trail from the Missouri River to the Columbia River. On his return in 1844, Frémont traveled into Mexican-held California and then headed east completing a 6,500-mile circuit of the West. Charles Preuss, the expedition's cartographer, prepared this map, depicting only geographic information collected during the expedition. Originally published with Fremont's 1845 report, the map was the first reliable depiction of the emigrants' route through the West since it was based on scientific measurements of latitude and longitude.

[Charles Preuss (1803-1854)]
"Map of an Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842 and to Oregon & North California in the Years 1843-44 . . ." from John C. Frémont (1813-1890). Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. . . . Washington: 1845
Hand-colored engraved map
Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (126)

Heights of Mountains

Frémont, himself more adventurer than scientist, was accompanied by the German surveyor and cartographer Charles Preuss, who not only created new surveys of the Great Basin, central Oregon and western Nevada but also collected plant and mineral specimens, and sketched landscapes. He drew this profile of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens with the Columbia River from the trail along the Deschutes River and recorded various "Hights [sic] of Mountains" in his field notebook displayed above. Preuss and Frémont were among the earliest Euro-Americans to view the Great Salt Lake and Lake Tahoe.

Charles Preuss (1803-1854). Journal entry and sketch, "Hights [sic] of Mountains," 1832. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (122)

Report of the Expedition

Considered one of the most influential accounts of the American Far West, John C. Frémont's Report of his expeditions was published in more than two-dozen editions in the first fifteen years. The popularity of his Report is due in large part to the literary skill of his wife Jesse (1824-1918), the daughter of expansionist Senator Thomas Hart Benton. This view of the dividing ridge of the Sierras, February 14, 1844, drawn shortly before Frémont's descent into the Sacramento Valley, documents the party's daring winter crossing guided by the mountaineer Kit Carson.

E. Weber & Co., Baltimore. "Pass in the Sierra Nevada of California" in John C. Fremont. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and north California in the years 1843-44. Senate Doc. 174. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1845. Page 1 . Lithographic illustration. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (123)

William Clark's Certificates

John C. Frémont's second exploratory expedition to the northwest was barely underway when a group of Sioux Indians arrived in camp with certificates given them by William Clark. Theodore Talbot, a civilian and the son of former U.S. Senator Isham Talbot of Kentucky, made note of this occurrence in his journal. This second Frémont expedition was designed to map an overland route to Oregon through the South or Frémont Pass that would link up to the work of the Charles Wilkes' expedition on the Columbia River and largely replace the Missouri River route of Lewis and Clark.

Theodore Talbot (1825-1862). Journal entry, August 5, 1843. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (125B)

John C. Frémont for President

In 1856, capitalizing on his popularity, John C. Frémont (1813-1890) ran as the newly formed Republican party's first presidential candidate. In this image, intended to adorn a campaign banner or poster, Frémont is shown on a mountain peak, planting the American flag. This scene was intended as a reminder to the public of Frémont's famous exploring expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and 1843. Frémont lost the election to James Buchanan (1791-1868) by a margin of 174 to 114 electoral votes.

Baker & Godwin. Col. Frémont planting the American standard on the Rocky Mountains [Proof for a large woodcut campaign banner or poster]. New York: 1856. Wood engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (128)

Back to Top

Boundary Surveys

The boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase had been only vaguely defined, but as Americans acquired the remaining trans-Mississippi territories and learned of the region's natural resources, it became increasingly important to establish precise boundaries between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The treaty that ended the Mexican War in 1848 stipulated that a boundary commission survey and mark that contentious national border. This commission worked from 1849 to 1857, eventually producing a massive, three-volume report that included extensive geological, botanical, and zoological data, as well as a series of detailed topographic maps of the boundary region.

The northern boundary with British possessions in Canada was marked along the 49th parallel as the result of two separate surveys. The first boundary commission was established in 1856 to survey and map the border with British North America from the Pacific eastward to the Continental Divide. That survey, completed in 1869, produced important journals, landscape drawings, photographs, and maps but no published report. The survey of the remainder of the northern boundary from the Continental Divide eastward to the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota was not begun until 1870, after the Act of Dominion that created Canada as a separate country. With the establishment of the southwestern and northwestern boundaries, the outer limits of the new American western empire were finally established, producing today's familiar outline of the contiguous forty-eight states.

Surveying and Mapping the Southwestern Boundary

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War (1848), defined but did not actually demarcate the 2,000-mile boundary between the United States and Mexico. However, a joint commission was formed in 1849 to carry out this task. A series of four maps, which were issued separately, depict the boundary and the adjacent topography. Shown here is the western portion of the boundary running along the southern extent of present-day California and Arizona.

William H. Emory (1811-1887). Map No. 4, Boundary between the United States and Mexico, Agreed upon by the Joint Commission under the Treaties of Guadalupe Hidalgo and December 30th, 1853. [Washington, D.C.: 1857]. Lithograph map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (138)

Report of the Mexican Boundary Commission

The actual surveying of the southwestern boundary line and the preparation of the resulting reports and maps were assigned to members of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, primarily under the direction of William H. Emory. The United States and Mexican Boundary Survey was completed in 1855, but the published reports were not issued until 1859. The three-volumes included numerous landscape and ethnographic illustrations, as well as accounts of the geology, botany, and zoology along the surveyed line.

William H. Emory (1811-1887). Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. 3 vols. U.S. House Executive Documents. Washington, D.C.: 1857-1859. Law Library, Library of Congress. (137a,b,c)

Surveying and Mapping the Northwestern Boundary

The boundary of the western United States with the British possessions in Canada was defined by two treaties, with the 49th parallel designated in 1818 as the boundary from the Great Lakes to the Continental Divide and in 1846, the remaining segment from the Rocky Mountains to the Puget Sound, also utilizing the 49th parallel. The survey of the latter segment was not begun until 1856. Shown here is a photo-lithographed copy of the first sheet of that series, depicting the rugged terrain traversed by the survey party in present-day southeastern British Columbia and northwestern Montana.

Archibald Campbell (d. 1887). Detailed Maps of the North West Boundary from Point Roberts to the Rocky Mountains between the United States and the British Possessions under the Treaty of June 15th, 1846. [Washington, D.C.: ca. 1862]. Photo-lithograph maps. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (138D)

Landscape Views along the Northwest Boundary

James Alden accompanied the U.S. survey team as their official artist and produced a series of sixty-six watercolor landscape views in the vicinity of the 49th parallel. As these three views illustrate, this series of dramatic drawings depicts the region's rugged topography, the survey camps, and the actual marking of the boundary with stone monuments and the cutting of a swath of trees along the surveyed line. These images were never converted to lithographic plates because the results of the survey were not published.

1 of 3

  • James Madison Alden (1834-1922). Camp Mooyie . . ., 1860. Watercolor. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (138A)

  • James Madison Alden (1834-1922). Mooyie River Valley from Monument W. Side River Looking E. . . ., 1859. Watercolor. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (138B)

  • James Madison Alden (1834-1922). View from Monument at Summit Looking W. along 49th Parallel . . . 1859-60. Watercolor. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (138C)

Early Western Survey Photographs

The British team used photographers to document the progress of the boundary line, geographic features, native life, and U.S. military posts and camps. In hindsight their commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Hawkins, thought the photographic equipment hindered the team's progress, and the attachment of a sketch artist would have been more useful. By the next decade the inclusion of photographers on scientific and government-sponsored surveys would be seen as critical to the mission. The images from this survey are among the earliest surviving photographs of the West and the first photographic documentation of the Pacific Northwest.

1 of 3

Specimens from the Mexican Boundary Survey

The study of North American botany during the mid-nineteenth century was done primarily under the aegis of U.S. government expeditions. In this period the survey teams, like the one that accompanied the Mexican Boundary Survey, became more complex and included multiple specialists in the fields of geology, mineralogy, zoology, and botany. John Torrey (1796-1873), a renowned American botanist who had been associated with the Long, Wilkes, and Frémont expeditions, described the botanical specimens new to science in "Botany of the Boundary," included in the survey's official report.

1 of 2

  • Oenothera primiveris, A. Gray subsc. primiveris [Mexican Boundary Survey Collected Under the Direction of Major W. H. Emory, Commissioner Chiefly in the Rio Grande below Doñana by C. C. Parry, MD; J.M. Bigelow, MD; Mr. Charles Wright, and Mr. A. Schott]. Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (136A)

  • Quercus oblongifolia, Torr. [Mexican Boundary Survey Collected Under the Direction of Major W. H. Emory, Commissioner Chiefly in the Rio Grande below Doñana by C. C. Parry, MD; J.M. Bigelow, MD; Mr. Charles Wright, and Mr. A. Schott]. Herbarium sheet. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (136B)

Back to Top

Epilogue—Transcontinental Railroad Surveys

The high watermark in mapping the newly defined American empire before the Civil War was the Pacific Railroad Surveys. During the 1830s and 1840s, modes of transportation changed from rivers and canals to roads, turnpikes, and railroads in the eastern half of the nation. Business and political leaders envisioned the construction of a transcontinental railway linking eastern urban and industrial centers with newly acquired western lands. With the end of the Mexican War and the beginning of the California Gold Rush the need to connect the new American West with the East seemed even more imperative. After a long series of debates, in 1853 Congress authorized the War Department and the Corps of Topographical Engineers to conduct a comprehensive survey to determine the most practical and economical route. Between 1853 and 1855 army engineers surveyed and mapped large portions of the West and explored four transcontinental routes. The official recommendation of a 32nd parallel route was met with considerable opposition in Congress. The enduring legacy of the Railroad Surveys came in 13 volumes of detailed, lavishly illustrated reports. Perhaps most important, the comprehensive map drafted by topographic engineer Lieutenant G.K. Warren completed the process of cartographic definition begun half a century earlier by William Clark.

The first transcontinental railroad, completed after the Civil War, followed the 41st parallel, a route that army engineers had not surveyed. In many ways the Pacific Railroad Surveys marked the end of an era—the age in which explorers sought a water route across the continent. Although locomotives still needed water for steam power, no longer would explorers and their patrons be tied to rivers as highways of empire. The first transcontinental railroad was a river of steel that bound together a re-united nation.


Transcontinental Railroad Proposals

This map is one of the earliest promotional maps for a transcontinental railroad presented to the U. S. Congress. It depicts three routes, one of which was advocated by Asa Whitney, a successful New York dry goods merchant. In the 1830s, he became active in the China trade, envisioning an overland route as part of this Far Eastern trade connection. He planned to construct a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, financed through the sale of public lands on either side of the right-of-way. Sectional controversy over the selection of the route's eastern and western termini eventually killed Whitney's project.

Published Reports from the Pacific Railroad Surveys

The final reports of Pacific Railroad Surveys were published in a comprehensive thirteen-volume set between 1855 and 1861. Together they provided the most important contemporary source on the geography of the western U.S. during the middle of the nineteenth century. The cost of publication was over $1,000,000, more than twice the cost of the surveys themselves. The volume on display documents Isaac Stevens' survey of the northern route along the 47th and 49th parallels. The plate shown in this case depicts the customary distribution of goods and gifts to the Assiniboine Indians at Fort Union in present-day western North Dakota.

U.S. War Department. Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the Direction of the Secretary of War, in 1853-[6] . . . . 13 vols. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4. Washington: A.O.P Nicholson, Printer, 1855-1861. Law Library and General Collections, Library of Congress. (141a-l)

Artist, Map Maker, and Interpreter

German-born Gustavus Sohon was one of eleven artists employed by the Pacific Railroad Surveys. In 1852, ten years after arriving in the U.S., he enlisted in the army and was eventually assigned to Isaac Stevens' surveying party as an artist, explorer, cartographer, and interpreter of Indian languages. Displayed here are two Sohon landscape sketches made along the northern railroad route—a study of Fort Vancouver, originally a Hudson's Bay Company outpost on the Columbia River, and a detailed pencil sketch of Couer d'Alene Mission, now the oldest standing structure in Idaho.

1 of 2

  • Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903). Unfinished Study for Illustration in Gov. Stevens' Report—View of Fort Vancouver . Pencil drawing on tri-colored paper, ca.1853-1854.

  • Coeur-d-alène Mission, Established by the Jesuit Fathers in the Rocky Mountains in 1842. Pencil drawing, ca.1858. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (148,149)

Endorsing a Transcontinental Railroad Route

Proponents of southern, central, and northern transcontinental railroad routes battled to a stalemate in the forums of public opinion and national politics. Preliminary surveys were done on four proposed routes prior to the Civil War, but rival companies and regional tensions over the expansion of slavery prevented a final decision. With the South's withdrawal from the United States, Congress approved a central route, not the one surveyed, from Omaha to Sacramento in 1862.On display is a speech by Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, an ardent advocate for the central route with a terminus in St. Louis.

1 of 2

Warren's Map of the West

Lt. G.K. Warren, a West Point graduate and a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, produced the Pacific Railroad Survey's most important cartographic product—a large, composite map of the territory west of the Mississippi River. This remarkable map not only shows the routes of the transcontinental railroad surveys but also provides a detailed summary of prior explorations dating back to Lewis and Clark. Warren's map of the West was relatively complete with the delineation of the region's major drainage systems and mountain chains, laying the groundwork for the construction of a national network of railroads.

G. K. Warren. Map of the Territory of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, 1857 (or 8) [Compilation of Transcontinental Railroad routes]. Engraved map [printed color]. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (143a,b)

Compiling the Map

In compiling his map, G.K.Warren carefully evaluated all the available data and incorporated the most reliable information, particularly that based on scientific instrumentation and careful analysis by past explorations, including those led by Lewis and Clark, Pike, Long, Wilkes, Frémont, and Emory. Warren provided a detailed record of his methodology in a lengthy "Memoir," in which he listed, for example, the longitude of a variety of locations (the accuracy of which had long been problematic) and identified the source for each determination.

J.M. Ives after Frances Flora Palmer. Across the Continent, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." New York: Currier & Ives, ca. 1868. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (151)

Politics, Profits, and the Transcontinental Railroad

In 1862, the U.S. Congress approved the central route from Omaha to Sacramento for the construction of a transcontinental railroad by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad Companies. The government subsidized the construction by providing huge land grants along the railroad right-of- way. When completed, the two rail lines met at Promontory on the north side of Great Salt Lake, celebrated with the Golden Spike ceremony on May 10, 1869.

1 of 2

Union Pacific Railroad

A.J. Russell began his photographic career documenting the railroad activities during the Civil War. In 1865, Russell went West and photographed the construction of the track beds and the laying of the rails for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1996, Canadian photographer Mark Ruwedel positioned his camera in the same spot where Russell made his image of the Green River Valley in Wyoming. The immutable Citadel Rock dominates the background of both images as does the railroad bridge on the right of the picture frame, but in Ruwedel's photograph houses and telephone poles now dot the middle ground.

1 of 2

"Path Finder" George B. McClellan

George McClellan, later to gain fame as a commander of Union forces during the Civil War, was a member of Issac Steven's party, which surveyed the northernmost route along the 47th and 49th parallels of the Pacific Railroad Surveys. The sketch of McClellan as "Path Finder" was made by J.F. Minter, a fellow engineer on the survey, as the party explored the Cascades and the Columbia River plateau in central Washington state. McClellan's journal of field notes, kept from May 20 through December 15, 1853, is also on display.

1 of 2

  • George B. McClellan (1826-1885). Journal kept May 20-December 15, 1853. Journal entry, "Indian Names with Total Distance". Page 2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (145)

  • J. F. Minter. Portrait of "Path Finder," 1853. [George B. McClellan]. Pencil sketch in notebook. July 18-October 17, 1853. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (146)

Although locomotives still needed water for steam power, no longer would explorers and their patrons be tied to rivers as highways of empire. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in May 1869, was a river of steel that bound together the nation reunited after the long, brutal Civil War.

Horace Hull. "High water," Illinois, 1907 [railroad image]. Copyprint of gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division(170A)

Mapping the West

It would take another fifty years after Lewis and Clark to complete the cartographic image of the West we know today. This presentation shows the routes of the various expeditions from Lewis and Clark to the railroad surveys. Each path is represented by a different color. The maps shown can be found within this exhibition.

"We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country: those who come after us will . . . fill up the canvas we begin."—Thomas Jefferson, 1805

Back to top

Sections: Prologue | Before Lewis & Clark | Lewis & Clark | After Lewis & Clark