Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dueling Maps

I love maps, especially historical maps, the ones that give us hints about how much people in past times knew about the real world the maps are supposed to represent, and what they thought about both geography and politics. Between 1818 and 1846 Great Britain and the United States, rival nations that had engaged in two deadly wars within the memory of people living in that era, jockeyed for control over the vast watershed of western North America between Alaska and California. There are two historical maps that present the territorial stakes of that rivalry fairly clearly.
From 1838 to 1842 US Navy officer Charles Wilkes commanded a small fleet that traveled around the world, the last all-sail expedition to accomplish that feat. His detailed report was published in 5 volumes as Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845). Volume IV includes Wilkes's description of his explorations of Oregon Country.(1) A map that was part of the report, in its most widely circulated appearance, seems to suggest that Mr. Wilkes was laying claim to all the coastline from the southern tip of Russian-held Alaska, at 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude, to Mexico's California border, and from the ridge of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The boundaries shown on this version of the map, with the edge of British-controlled territory shaded in pink and U.S. territory shaded in green, might lead the viewer to think that the Oregon question had been decided in favor of the United States, a full five years before the Treaty of 1846 extended the international boundary along the 49th parallel. In 1841, in fact, British subjects outnumbered Americans in what the British called the Columbia District, and the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River was the administrative center of a trapping and trading network that extended throughout what appears on the Wilkes map not with the more neutral name Oregon Country, but with the much more political label "Oregon Territory."

(Along the left side is a detailed inset map of the Columbia River from its mouth to the convergence of the Snake River, the location of present-day Tri-Cities, Washington. The orientation of the inset has east at the top, to better fit the available blank space in the printed rectangle.)
         At the time the map was printed the Treaty of Joint Occupancy of 1818 was still in effect, the question of the Oregon boundary had not yet been resolved, and the international border west of the Rocky mountains had not yet been established. The map does show, however, what the northwestern outline of the Lower 48 states would look like if one of the slogans of the US presidential campaign of 1844, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" had prevailed, leaving Great Britain with no access to the coast, no outlet to the Pacific Ocean.

         As it happened, Britain had its own overly optimistic mapmakers in this period. The Arrowsmith map of 1844 shows what Great Britain hoped to gain in the final resolution of the Oregon question:

The area bordered in pink in this map includes all of the coastline from Alaska to the mouth of the Columbia River, then up the Columbia for a discrete distance before fading out in recognition that the boundary had not yet been determined. Boundaries that the map's author was willing to recognize as subject to claim by the United States are shaded in yellow.
         On both these maps we also see some effort to identify the territory occupied by various Native groups who collectively still outnumbered all Euro-descended people in the region by a large margin: Gently curving lines drawn on the Wilkes map surround the names of Indian tribes, and on the Arrowsmith map what we now know as Vancouver island has the label "Wakish Nation."(2)
          Fort Vancouver NHS is fortunate to have a full-size original print of the Wilkes map. It is  framed and mounted on the south wall of the main dining room of the Chief Factor’s House. (Unless you visit during a special event such as Candlelight-Campfire when the interior of the CFH is open and supervised, you will need to request an escorted tour to appreciate this important item—check with the Ranger in the Contact Station. With school field trips now occupying Park staff most mornings these days, afternoons would be the best time for such a tour.)(3)  If you take the opportunity to examine the original you will see that the jump-the-gun boundary shading shown above is a later addition. This is an example of how mapmakers--or eventual map embellishers--sometimes try to affect politics in not-so-subtle ways.
         These two maps also remind us that the present boundary between the two nations, that neat straight line slicing across the midsection of North America from Lake of the Woods, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean, was not always as obvious and logical as it now seems to be.

(1) I started thinking about this topic while adding links to the online version of CharlesWilkes’s report, to an updated “Fort Vancouver Online” posting below.

(2) There is a very high resolution image of the Wilkes map available online, with excellent detail: Go to <> then click the "full resolution" link. Be forewarned, however, that the large digital file, almost 22 megabites, will take a while to load even with a fast connection, and as mentioned on the link, it might cause your browser to freeze up.
        There is also a high resolution image of the Arrowsmith map online, also with excellent detail, in a size (about 2 mb) that will be less likely to cause problems in downloading and viewing. Go to <> and click on the "full resolution" link.

(3) Thanks to NPS Park Guide Mike Twist and Museum Technician Meagan Huff for advice on how to view the Park's printed copy of the Wilkes Map.