From Sea to Shining Sea

Review of Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America, by Susan Schulten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Spend a few minutes browsing news websites or blogs and you will see a barrage of infographics and informational maps used to prop up tendentious headlines. Now, imagine a past where maps were simply two-dimensional representations of physical space with no added value or meaning. That is where Susan Schulten wants her readers to begin their consideration about how maps, or the ways of thinking that brought them about, came to be accepted and eventually embraced in the United States.

In the book Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America, Schulten argues that America, unlike its European contemporaries, both marked a political beginning and experienced expansion exclusively through the nineteenth century. Population, territory and the economy grew, and in order to both understand and use that growth to promote nationalism, maps representing American history became the standard for displaying data over geography.

Mapping the Nation is divided into two thematic sections, "Mapping the Past" and "Mapping the Present," which cover the blending of cartography with history and socio-scientific data, respectively. Schulten spends time in the first part developing the ideas that brought about a turn toward mapping history. Nationalism, manifest destiny, and modernization frame the nineteenth-century America that began to ask about their roots. In the second part, the role of the government is privileged as that body took control of the production of new maps and the conservation of old ones.

In "Mapping the Past," the author describes how historic mapping gained acceptance through the pedagogy and publishing of Emma Willard. Willard, a teacher turned atlas maker, framed history as a geography-based narrative rather than a list of important people and dates. She convinced Johann Georg Kohl, cartographer and geographer, to come to the United States where he worked for the Coast Survey and became a key advocate for creating a map repository in the Library of Congress, a dream only realized at the end of the century. After the Civil War, politically-framed timelines, charts, and historical diagrams rose in popularity, and the Centennial spurred the production of historical maps that explained the first one-hundred years of national history.

Schulten shows in "Mapping the Present" how maps were used to display current socio-political, environmental, and public health data and how this application was understood as a tool for furthering ideas of social progress. German scientist Alexander von Humboldt's influence on the field of scientific mapmaking rested on his insistence that measurable patterns should be mapped for analysis. The practices of mapping epidemics and their relationship to sanitation and mapping environmental conditions arose from that principle.

Maps were also political tools, which Schulten demonstrates with her exploration of the applications of statistics during the Civil War era. She shows how the US census changed over time in response to political goals in need of statistical backing and to achieve greater authority and influence. For example, statistics about individuals with mental and physical disorders, first collected in 1840, were used to both support abolition and uphold slavery. Both Frederick Law Olmstead and Edward Atkinson used mapping to critique the southern assertion that slavery was the best labor system available for cotton production.

After the Civil War, the federal government sponsored several programs of statistical analysis visualized cartographically to better understand the burgeoning population. In her final chapter, Schulten profiles Daniel Coit Gilman and Francis Amasa Walker who each advocated for rational and research-based governance that would be influenced by promising European (especially German) models. Through their collaborative action, the US government agreed to map the census for the first time in 1870. The published result, the Statistical Atlas of the United States, brought social science theories to the public in new and accessible ways. Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, she argues, could not have been conceived without the historical maps published in theStatistical Atlas.

The top-down perspective of her narrative, which privileges the roles of intellectuals and government officials, suits her objective of writing intellectual history. However, there must be a side of this story that captures the ways that everyday people consumed, interacted with and used historical maps. Schulten describes the role of historic maps in the classroom, so we can extrapolate that many of those who attended public school were exposed to this type of document. The author's analysis suggests that demand for prints of certain historical maps existed, but does not provide any systematic explanation of how and why this demand flourished.

There is a companion website to the book,, which perfectly unites print and web-based publishing. Readers may access high definition versions of maps mentioned in the text, or browse them by creator or date. Not only does this website add accessibility to a truly interesting collection of works, it is apropos to view the maps in a context that allows for manipulation, metadata, and magnification. Because of their format, some works lose their visual impact in the scaled down, black and white figures set in the text.

Schulten's contribution with this book is in her careful examination of the ideas - historical, geographical, and scientific - that coalesced to create a type of visual representation that is now so mainstream that it goes unnoticed. She recognizes a recent turn toward spatial and visual representation of the seemingly limitless data now at our fingertips. This well-timed survey shows the roots of this mode of thinking and reminds us that, despite new tools like GIS, our methods are beholden to an earlier era.