Lithograph of Thomas Jefferson by P. S. Duval after Gilbert Stuart.

Lithograph of Thomas Jefferson by P. S. Duval after Gilbert Stuart.


No one knew more about the geography of North America in his own day than Thomas Jefferson. A skilled surveyor and cartographer, he was engaged in a lifelong search for geographic knowledge. Jefferson studied the history of geography from the emerging worldviews of the ancients to the latest exploratory charts and maps of the American West. He amassed a remarkably thorough and varied collection of explorers’ accounts, geographic works, and maps for his personal library. Moreover, although Jefferson himself never traveled west of Warm Springs, Virginia, he was America’s first great Westerner. Promoter of four attempts to reach the Pacific, he personally planned the successful expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804 to 1806.

Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity drew him into an accelerating, three-hundred-year-old quest to find a water route to Asia. To understand Jefferson’s views of the West and the nature of the quest to the Pacific, the University of Virginia Library and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation have put together an exhibition and book of maps and journals. Lewis and Clark: The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814 examines the planning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the cartographic tradition that made the expedition possible. The exhibition shows the evolving views of the American continent and the “Passage to the Indies” as they appear in maps up to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It focuses especially on the earliest cartographic representations of America and the Northwest Passage, the results of early expeditions to the Mississippi basin in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean, and the early exploration of the Pacific Northwest.

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale, ca 1807.
Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, National Park Service

The idea of traveling west to reach the East tantalized humankind ever since the discovery that the earth was round. European geographers of the late fifteenth century—the first generation of men capable of verifying the theories of the ancients—envisioned a great western ocean and a few mythical islands between Europe and Asia. Most of these men knew that the distance to the nearest point in Asia—believed to be Cipangu (the island of Japan)—was beyond the reach of the sailing ships of their day. However, ongoing debate over the true distance to the Orient encouraged Christopher Columbus in his belief that it was only 2,400 miles to Cipangu. After being rebuffed by many European courts, Columbus persuaded the sovereigns of Spain to sponsor his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. When he spotted land only three months into his journey, Columbus felt vindicated that the fringes of Asia were closer to Europe than others had maintained. To his dying day, Columbus thought he had reached some part of Asia.

Portrait of William Clark

Portrait of William Clark by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1810.
Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, National Park Service

Following Columbus’s initial exploration, many other voyages of discovery brought news of the lands to the west. For a generation after Columbus’s first sighting of the New World, cartographers continued to show the new discoveries as islands between Europe and Asia. Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 was one of the first to show these “islands” in continental proportions. As the image of new American continents to the west took hold, this contribution to geographical knowledge seemingly precluded a direct seafaring route to Asia. Nonetheless, geographers and explorers expected 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 I, covering a period from just after Columbus to 1650, reflect these possibilities and also show the emerging shape of the North American continent.

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. In the ninety years from the expedition of Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet until the fall of Quebec in 1759, the French explored the Great Lakes, much of the area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, and the region between the Mississippi River and the Spanish settlements in New Mexico. They also pushed westward in Canada to within sight of the Rockies. For French explorers, the Missouri River emerged as the most likely route to the Pacific Ocean. In their efforts to explain the topography of North America, the French developed two new geographical theories: pyramidal height-of-land and symmetrical geography.

While sections I and II show the early maps of America from a European perspective, section III, “Albemarle Adventurers,” explores the contributions made to western exploration by the Virginia gentry that included the families of Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis. Fifty years before Lewis and Clark set off on their expedition, a group of Albemarle County residents who were personally and intellectually related to Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis planned an expedition to the West via the Missouri River.

Section IV presents the maps used in the planning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The items reveal the state of cartographic knowledge of the West up to the time Meriwether Lewis set off from Pittsburgh in 1803. This section also chronicles the explorations that inspired the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the further refinement of geographic theories of North America. An 1810 manuscript map by William Clark and the journals of the expedition—the two-volume History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark—indicate the results of the expedition.