A History of America in 100 Maps

In my review Tuesday of Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library, I spent some time talking about the choices made when assembling a collection of maps. Susan Schulten’s third (solo-authored) book, A History of America in 100 Maps, out now from the University of Chicago Press in the Americas and the British Library in the U.K., also draws upon the British Library’s map collection, particularly in the early chapters. (This may come as a surprise, seeing as it’s a book about America.) In a few instances the same map makes an appearance in both books. But in terms of what the two books do with the maps, their approaches are quite different.

Schulten, a history professor at the University of Denver, is the author of The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2012). These are social histories of maps and mapmaking, which is very much my kind of thing, and I’ve been meaning to check out Schulten’s (and Martin Brückner’s) work for some time. From what I gather, Schulten’s work focuses on how maps were made and used—the function of maps.

That focus shows up in this book: the maps are explored in terms of how they were used in the past by the people who made them, bought them and read them: “to master and claim territory, defeat an enemy, advance a cause, investigate a problem, learn geography, advertise a destination, entertain an audience, or navigate terrain” (p. 8). But for the reader, the maps hold another purpose: to tell a story.

Because this book’s title is not a mistake: it’s a history of America—of the region that eventually became the United States—told through maps. It’s as if we’re watching a slideshow presentation of the history of the U.S., only every slide illustrating the talk is of a map. The maps, in other words, are as much a means to an end as they are objects that command our interest in and of themselves. As a result, the maps chosen for this book are maps with stories to tell. The text that accompanies each map is longer than you usually get in map collections: whereas in Atlas Harper may talk about provenance, the sources of the knowledge embedded in the map, and the map as an object, Schulten will go on to talk about the historical context of the map (which, to be fair, is something far easier to do when dealing with maps from the eighteenth century onward). It’s the difference between a curatorial approach and an historical approach.

That historical approach means that Schulten does not shy away from maps that cover darker periods in America’s history: in the second chapter, a ca. 1650 map of west Africa turns up, seemingly out of place, to remind us of the Atlantic slave trade. It also means, particularly in the later chapters, where Schulten relies less and less on the British Library’s holdings, that the maps are not necessarily rare or valuable, but highlight some aspect of American history or American mapmaking: illustrated maps, propaganda maps, maps for the blind.

It is, in Schulten’s words, “an eclectic and selective discussion” of “the iconic as well as the unfamiliar”: we see many of the maps we would have expected to see: Waldseemüller’s 1507 map of the world, John Smith’s maps, the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia, the Lewis and Clark map, the 1861 choropleth map showing the distribution of the slave population, an early electoral map. But because this is not simply a political history, we are treated to other maps, of sciences, culture and the arts: everything from bison populations to the mid-Atlantic ridge to Disneyland. All excellently reproduced, some with closeup details as well as the entire map.

It’s no small feat to produce a collection of maps that covers so many bases: narrative line, quality of maps, diverse and thorough coverage.

A History of America in 100 Maps is published by the University of Chicago Press in the Americas and by the British Library in the U.K. Both editions are available now. Buy at Amazon.

There’s also an accompanying website that includes 15 of the book’s 100 maps.

I received a review copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.