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The Cartographical Beginnings of Manifest Destiny

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Detail showing"Southern Pass"

95. [MAP].  MELISH, John (publisher). Map of the United States with the Contiguous British & Spanish Possessions Compiled from the Latest & Best Authorities by John Melish Engraved by J. Vallance & H. S. Tanner. Entered According to Act of Congress the 16th. day of June 1820. Published by John Melish Philadelphia [inset map lower right] West Indies [inset table lower center] Statistical Table of the Several Countries Exhibited on the Map [inset table lower left] General Statistical Table.  Philadelphia: John Melish, 1820. Copper-engraved map on eight sheets, original full and outline coloring by state or territory, illustration of the U.S. national symbol of eagle above title.  Neat line to neat line:  109 x 145 cm. Sectioned and mounted on contemporary cartographical linen (50 sections), original green silk selvage, original marbled paper backing on verso of two sections.  Light uniform age toning, occasional light foxing, small void with very minor loss of image at upper right, marbling on one section moderately chipped, minor breaks to selvage; overall this a very fine, unsophisticated copy with strong color retention.  On verso of two panels are contemporary pencil signatures of E. G. Colby (of Wakefield, New Hampshire), a Millerite who apparently awaited the rapture along with his fellow believers on October 22, 1844 (see Gary E. Wait, “The End of the World” in Dartmouth Library Bulletin, November, 1993).

     Fourth state of the 1820 edition, with the figure in “Present Population” corrected to 18,629,903.  The first state of the map came out in 1816, with many states following, supposedly done in no more than one hundred issues each.  The present map was the first expanded edition, printed from eight copper plates, not nine, as Ristow states. (The bottom section is, in fact, printed from only two copperplates, and the overlap where they were joined is still visible just to the left of Yucatan Peninsula.)  Ristow, “John Melish and his Map of the United States” in The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions (Vol. 19, No. 4, September 1962, pp. 159-178, identifying 24 different states of the map, issued between 1816 and 1823 in six separate editions; the present state of the map is found on p. 175):  “A significant milestone in the history of American commercial cartography.”  Note:  Ristow’s article was reprinted with updates in 1972, adding an additional state, bringing the total to 25 states of Melish’s map (“John Melish and His Map of the United States” in “À la Carte, Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases”, Library of Congress, Washington, 1972, pp. 162- 182).

American Imprints (1820) 2224 (unspecified 1820 state). Karpinski, Maps of Famous Cartographers Depicting North America, pp. 224 (unspecified 1820 state).  Streeter Sale 3809 (same state as present map; the indefatigable Streeter had ten states of the map, plus the prospectus).

     For references to the first edition of 1816, see the following:  Amon Carter Museum, Crossroads of Empire 29:  “The most influential and widely used map on the eve of the Anglo-American settlement in Texas.”  Cohen, Mapping the West, pp. 102-104: “This map was [Melish’s] crowning achievement.”  Edney, Matthew H., Mapping the Republic: Conflicting Concepts of the Territory and Character of the U.S.A., 1790-1900 <>: “Melish dramatically expanded the geographical frame of the Republic. His initial concept, developed during the War of 1812, was to map the United States as far West as the Rocky Mountains. But he soon realized that it would be much better to extend the map all the way to the Pacific Ocean.... In explaining his map’s significance, Melish foreshadowed the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny.’” Howes M490. Jackson, Shooting the Sun, Vol. II, pp. 380-381. Graff 2744. Martin & Martin 26 (commenting that the map is “of lasting value” because of the “widespread dissemination of new information concerning Texas geography”).  Ristow, À la Carte, pp. 162-182. Rumsey Map Collection 5168A: “This map has the distinction of being the first large scale detailed map made in the U.S. that showed the entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.... Notwithstanding the many issues, the map has become extremely rare.” Rumsey & Punt, Cartographica Extraordinaire (illustrating the 1816 edition on title). Schwartz & Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America, pp. 238-239 & Plate 145:  “Melish’s fundamental six-sheet ‘Map of the United States with the Continguous British & Spanish Possessions’ [was] the first large wall map to show the new nation from coast to coast. An exquisite map, it distinguished Melish as the leading American map publisher of the second decade and placed American maps on equal footing with those produced by the prestigious firms in London and Paris.  Incorporating data from state and military maps as these became available Melish frequently revised and corrected the plates, limiting each printing to 100 copies.” Streeter Sale 3797:  “Melish originally planned to include only the portion of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, but decided to add two sheets, in order to show ‘at a glance the whole extent of the United States territory from sea to sea’ (Melish, Geographical Description, Philadelphia, 1816).... The clarity of printing and the brilliance of the coloration make the Melish maps particularly pleasing; Melish was justly proud of his work.-TWS.”  Streeter, Texas 1057 (mentions the 1816 edition in relation to Darby’s map of Louisiana).  Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West 322, Vol. II, pp. 62-64:  “On John Melish’s celebrated map of 1816, Lewis and Clark were given chief attention in the northwest... Lewis and Clark’s trail is well set forth on this remarkable map and it is clear that the explorer’s route became the highway by which the cosmographers found a way to tie in the north...  This was a landmark map, and one that attained great popularity in its several editions.”

     The country’s first publisher devoted solely to cartographical and geographical works, John Melish (1771-1822) in a career that lasted a mere decade became the most prominent such publisher in the U. S.  This large map, originally published in 1816, secured his reputation and won high praise even from Thomas Jefferson.  Large maps of the U. S. had been published before Melish’s work, but they generally relied on Arrowsmith as their source and concentrated on the area east of the Mississippi River, the westernmost boundary in the general public’s imagination.  This was the first map to show the entire continent and what the U. S. would become in just a few astounding decades of westward expansion.  Although it preceded the concept of Manifest Destiny by many years, it is clearly the physical, cartographical embodiment of the idea that would eventually sweep U. S. settlers and control to the Pacific Ocean.

     The map was considered so accurate that it was used in several treaty negotiations to determine boundaries, thereby joining its celebrated cousins published by John Mitchell and John Disturnell.  Like those cousins, however, it, too, had its faults and blemishes that led to controversies.  Most notably, the map was used to determine the limits between Louisiana and Texas as defined by the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819.  One significant error was that Melish badly misplaced one of his parallels, thereby making it impossible to draw the eastern boundary of the Texas Panhandle correctly, an error that led to extended controversy over the years.  The boundary of Texas and Louisiana was also shown as the Sabine River, which engendered yet more controversy since the river’s course was poorly understood and therefore badly delineated, despite being shown on Darby’s 1816 Map of the State of Louisiana, which Melish incorporated into his map.  Numerous other controversies arose in connection with this map. In raw geographical terms, the Texas coast was not all that accurately depicted.  On the other hand, Melish’s map revealed more about the Texas interior than had ever been known before, even predicting the presence of the then non-existent Galveston.  This 1820 issue still preceded both Stephen F. Austin’s famous 1830 map of the area and even his 1821 colonization attempts.  Thus, it is an important precursor to the map that would fuel Texas emigration and eventual annexation of the area to the U. S.

     Despite whatever faults one may find with Melish’s geography, the map was far superior to anything that had appeared up until that time, not only in scope but also in accuracy. The 1816 first state of this map, as does this one, shows a feature labeled “Southern Pass,” perhaps a reference to present-day South Pass, Wyoming (Continental Divide), which, if true, would be the earliest such reference on a separately printed map to this feature, the first reference being found in the Lewis & Clark 1814 map, from which this information is apparently drawn. The Pass was discovered in 1812 by members of Astor’s expedition but the memory of it was apparently lost until it was rediscovered in 1824 by Jedediah Smith. As depicted on the map, the location of the Pass is considerably misplaced, and the map would actually have been of little use to someone attempting to locate it on the ground, a situation not unusual with early attempts to delineate the West.

     Melish was known to be a strict seeker of cartographical truth, and all his maps reflect that attitude.  Adopting a practice of pulling off no more than one hundred copies of his plate, Melish could constantly update and revise it.  Each issue is different, and Melish issued dozens of them as he found new and better information to incorporate.  Melish readily incorporated the discoveries made by Lewis and Clark, Pike, and Long, thereby giving the U. S. public an integrated view of the Trans-Mississippi West for the first time.  Clearly claiming the area already explored by Lewis and Clark, which is shown in vivid green, the unshaded areas to the south and west probably planted the seeds that would germinate several decades later as the Mexican-American War, which saw the U. S. finally fulfill the dream first shown here.

     The 1820 issues were the first to be printed from nine copper plates and to show the area of southern Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands.  The “General Statistical Table” in the lower left also appears here for the first time.  Finally, several alterations have been made to the U. S.-Mexican boundary.  This 1820 issue is a substantial advance beyond the earlier ones.

     Melish, a transplanted Scot, moved to Philadelphia after visiting the U. S. on business.  Abandoning his former career, he turned to publishing and made a lasting impression on the country’s cartographic heritage.  Upon his death in 1822, his publishing stock and personal possessions were rapidly sold, and after a few reprintings of some of his items, he passed from the scene entirely to be replaced by Tanner, who, ironically, engraved parts of this map for Melish. ($25,000-50,000)

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