Representing the Republic

by John Rennie Short, Reaktion Books Ltd., 2001, ISBN 1861890869, 256 pages, $24.50.

Professor Short teaches in the Department of Geography of Syracuse University and is the author of several books. His presentation uses a subtle mixture of political, geographic and social evolution supported by cartographic developments between the early 17th and 20th centuries.  This book is divided in three parts, each providing the historical foundation for developments of map design, usage and production.

Part one, The State, discusses the early settlements along the Eastern United States, particularly New Netherland. The author presents a capitalistic Europe burdened by wars and theological turmoil and more interested in financial rewards than in colonization. One source of this return was in trapping beaver.
Events in Europe deteriorated, particularly for the common class. Many escaped conflict by emigrating, at times under restrictive contracts with companies holding Royal charters. Maps by Blaeu, Visscher and Speed graphically show the evolution of these settlements.

Part two, The Republic, covers the new country’s continued development politically, culturally and cartographically. The center of action is now shifted to Philadelphia. Several men and their publications played an influencing role from pre-Revolutionary times through the developing nation’s early days. These include William Guthrie (1708-1770) and his  Guthrie’s Geography and Mathew Carey, (1760-1839) and Carey’s Journal.Others discussed include Jedidiah Morse, father of Samuel Morse. Short  describes him  as the Father of American Geography. Other shapers of the time include John Melish, Henry Schenck Tanner, and Samuel Augustus Mitchell. These men and their cartography played key roles in this newly emerging republic.

Part three, The Nation, is perhaps the most interesting part of this book, at least in the reviewer’s view. With the end of the Revolutionary War the new central government found itself facing several challenges. Two of these were a large debt and a population increasingly anxious to move into virgin lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. One way to resolve these problems was to convince states to relinquish their claims to these lands and then sell them to revolutionary veterans and other interested parties. To accomplish these sales an accurate method for measuring and mapping there territories was needed. Thus the land grid system of townships and sections was developed by the General Land Office, set up in 1812. Using detail illustrations of several western states with township overlays the text explains the transfer of land, 23 million acres, from the public domain to private ownership. Brief biographies of several early western cartographers are included in this section. Those chosen include Josiah Whitney of California fame, John Wesley Powell, Clarence King, George Wheeler and Ferdinand Hayden. Each had a role in mapping and helping distribute these vast lands.

The last few chapters discuss the development and use of the Atlas as a tool for analyzing statistical data. Francis Walker (1840-1897), chief of the Bureau of Statistics and superintendent of the 1870 national census, and companies such as Rand McNally are discussed. Early use of symbols for displaying data through maps is discussed.

Those interested in understanding the history of the United States land settlement, measurement and public distribution will find this book both useful and entertaining. I am reminded of an axiom stating, “nothing can be properly managed unless it can be measured.” This book does a fine job of explaining how this was done with America’s land.

Chuck Gray
From Society’s December 2003 Newsletter