Mapping the American West at the Grolier Club

  • NEW YORK, New York
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  • April 03, 2018

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Woodblock poster. Nottingham, England: Stafford & Co. (c. 1875). After the John Gast painting American Progress (1872). Collection of J.C.McElveen

Exploring and settling the American West can be seen graphically in "Westward the Course of Empire: Exploring and Settling the American West 1803-1869,” an exhibition of maps and books from the collection of J. C. McElveen Jr., on view at the Grolier Club (47 E 60th St, New York, NY) through May 26, 2018. 

“I have always loved American history, and maps have been a useful way for me to visualize battles, explorations and demographic changes. Maps also convey a tremendous amount of information in a very compact way,” notes Mr. McElveen. Installed in the second floor gallery, the 50 maps and 20 books in the show focus primarily on those maps that illustrate who went west in the 19th century and why.

Woodblock poster. Nottingham, England: Stafford & Co. (c. 1875). After the John Gast painting American Progress (1872). Collection of J.C.McElveen

The earliest map in the exhibition is Girolamo Ruscelli’s” Nueeva Hispania Tabula Nova” printed in Venice in1574. It, and other 16th and 17th century maps depict what people who had never seen the West thought it might look like. Even as late as the 18th century, very little was actually known about the American West. A representative example is the 1720 map “A New Map of the North Parts of America Claimed by France” by Herman Moll, a German living in England. Later 18th century maps of North America continued to perpetuate many of these mysteries. Even at the beginning of the 19th century, essentially all that was known about the American West was what Spanish and a few French, explorers had revealed.

However, in the 19th century, the exploration and settlement of the West exploded. In the 58 years between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War, the United States expanded from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and, in the far West, from the 32nd Parallel to the 49th Parallel. This expansion encompassed the 828,000 square mile Louisiana Territory, Texas, the Oregon Territory and the old Spanish Southwest. By the late 1850s, almost all of these areas had been mapped, explored, and many had been surveyed and settled.

One of the most iconic maps in the exhibit is Lewis and Clark's map of the Northwest, “A Map of Lewis and Clark’s Track Across the Western Portion of North America, from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, by Order of the Executive of the United States,” created during their expedition to the Pacific in 1804-1806. It was not published until 1814, but it remained the standard against which all mapping of that part of North America was measured for decades.

Another Western map of note is by Zebulon Pike who discovered "Pike's Peak", which he named "Highest Peak" (of the Rocky Mountains, which it isn't). Pike's journal, published in 1810, is the first to show that landmark.

Many maps and books were done for people heading west along the Oregon, Santa Fe, Mormon and California Trails. Two examples are Charles Preuss’ 1846 “Topographical Map of the Road from Missouri to Oregon” and Randolph B. Marcy’s 1859 “ The Prairie Traveler. A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions.” They provided valuable information about climate, terrain, water availability, wood, campsites, and potentially hostile Native Americans. John C. Fremont was a well-known western explorer in the 1840s. His “Map of an Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842…” and books (probably substantially contributed to by his wife) inspired many migrants to the West, including the Mormons.

When gold was discovered, everyone wanted to know where it was. One example in the show is William T. Sherman’s “Positions of the Upper and Lower Gold Mines on the South Fork of the American River, California, July 20, 1848.”

“Some explorers are famous for their explorations, like Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, John C. Fremont and Brigham Young. Other explorers are famous, as well, but for other reasons – like William Tecumseh Sherman and George McClellan. But the vast number of this hardy group were ordinary folks with a desire or a need to go west into an often harsh and brutal unknown. Why did they do it? The reasons range from a desire to get rich to escaping religious persecution to building a better life,” comments J.C. McElveen.

Curator J. C. McElveen will lead public tours of the exhibition from 1:00-2:00 pm on the following dates:
Wednesday, April 11
Tuesday, April 24
Wednesday, May 9
Wednesday, May 23

Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated catalogue, available at the Grolier Club or online through

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