John Logan Allen, The University of Wyoming


Maps are the capstone of the landscapes of our imagination. Of the various graphic or visual means we have of representing landscapes, maps are the most enduring and persistent. They remain when nearly everything else in our visual imagery has been erased by the passage of time or buried under the accretions of new information. Unlike other art forms, maps carry the imprimatur of “science” and are assumed—usually mistakenly—to be constructed out of information that is at once more exact and objective than that contained in drawings, paintings, or even photographs. Almost no one assumes that the Hudson Valley looks exactly like it was portrayed by the early romanticists of the mid-nineteenth century or that the Grand Canyon is precisely depicted in the paintings of Thomas Moran. But maps—even those that contain obviously apocryphal information—are different: the images obtained from maps persist beyond the boundaries of time and, often, beyond the bounds of rational thought as well. Precisely for this reason, an exhibition of map imagery in the McGregor Room of the University of Virginia Library, 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 1804-06, 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. As we look back on America’s exploratory epic from the vantage point of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the maps contained in Lewis and Clark: The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814 open for us a view of the American West from the west portico of Monticello, a view that takes us beyond the Blue Ridge to the west, over the horizon of sight but not beyond the horizon of the mind.

Lewis and Clark: The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814 showcases maps that were either in the personal library of Thomas Jefferson or well known to him. As such, they may be fairly taken to represent the cartographic baseline for Jefferson’s understanding of the broader dimensions of western geography. They reveal Jefferson’s evolving conceptions of the finer points of the geography of the western interior: the idealized pyramidal height-of-land from which rivers flowed toward the cardinal compass points and the seas on all sides of the continent; the proximity of the headwaters of the Missouri and some stream flowing to the Sea of the South; the continental symmetry of western mountains being viewed as analogs of the Blue Ridge and Appalachians; and, above all, the absolute certainty that through the western interior there lay a viable Passage to the Pacific through which Jefferson and his young Republic could realize both their geopolitical and their commercial ambitions.

The maps in the first section are primarily European productions, the first maps to penetrate the mists of the Ocean Sea and expose the view of a New World to inquiring minds in the merchant counting houses of England and the Low Countries, the courts of France and Spain, the petty principalities and city states of Germania and the Italian peninsula. These maps are useful in delineating Jefferson’s faith—and it was faith, accepted without the application of reason—in a Passage. Beginning with the great German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map depicting for the first time the two continents of the New World, down to the detailed North American map published 160 years later by Nicolas Sanson, founder of the Dieppe school of cartography in France, these maps all held out the promise of reaching the East by sailing west, a promise that motivated Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark in 1803 no less than it had motivated Columbus in 1492.

The second and third sections contain maps of continental penetration by French and Anglo-American explorers, a cartography of achievement and hope that both recorded the consequences of westward venturings and limned a path for future exploration. From the maps of Louis Hennepin and Guillaume Delisle, the Baron Lahontan and Nicholas Bellin, Herman Moll and Daniel Coxe, the Loyal Company of Albemarle County, Virginia (which included among its members both Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, and schoolmaster, the Reverend James Maury) derived the information on the pyramidal height-of-land and the theoretical geography of a symmetrical continent that focused attention on the Missouri River and “whatever river heading with it” as the logical path to the Pacific. From the charter of the Loyal Company to the maps drawn by some of its members, we find evidence of the importance of geographical thinking to a segment of the Virginia gentry into which Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis were born.

The fourth section contains the items that were the essential “tools of empire” of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. These include the maps used in the preparation and planning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and those derived from the Expedition itself. Among these tools of empire, none stands out more than the map of the American West drawn by Nicholas King in 1803, following discussions on source maps (most of which are included in this catalog) among Jefferson, Lewis, and Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury and a key player in the planning process for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The purpose of King’s map 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 and his fellow participants in planning America’s epic exploration.

On this great map we can see the American West as Thomas Jefferson saw it in 1803. There are mountains in the vicinity of the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia. To the north are the mountains crossed by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793 on his way to the Pacific, mountains that had been appearing in British literature and on British maps for a century. To the south are the mountains long known as the “mountains of New Mexico” that had been described in French and Spanish accounts of Louisiana for at least as long a period of time. There was nothing in the literature that said the two ranges had to be connected but Jefferson’s imaginary geography was based not just on the literature but also upon interpretations of it—and upon experience. Weaned on the principles of symmetrical geography and growing up at the base of the Blue Ridge, it is likely that Jefferson envisaged a highland region connecting the Stony Mountains of the north and the New Mexico mountains of the south. This highland region lay no great distance from the sea (as verified by exploration along the Pacific coast in the 1790s) and through it the upper Missouri and upper Columbia could be connected with a portage. This was the American Passage to the Pacific. When Meriwether Lewis took his leave from Jefferson in 1803 and headed west for a rendezvous with William Clark, the Nicholas King map and all it portrayed went with him. The implications of what followed were not just continental but global in scope.


John Logan Allen received his undergraduate education at the University of Wyoming and his Ph.D. in geography from Clark University. He taught at the University of Connecticut from 1967 to 2000, where he was the founding head of the Department of Geography. In 2000 he accepted the position of Chairman of the Department of Geography at his alma mater, the University of Wyoming. Allen is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the three-volume North American Exploration, published in 1997. His book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Passage Through the Garden, won the 1976 Choice Academic Book of the Year award.