You claim this to be a map of the United States?
Yes, sir; in one sense; a skeleton map.
Including a part of Mexico and a part of Canada, our neighboring countries?
Where did you get that map?
From a great variety of sources; it would be a long story to give you all of them. Several hundred original sources were consulted.
This represents the configuration and dimensions of the United States in every direction?
Yes, sir; imperfectly.
As well as its political divisions?
Yes, sir; but not with any great degree of accuracy.
Then we have no official map of the United States defining its frontiers in respect to foreign nations, except, perhaps, on the coast?
No, sir; no general map of the United States which gives its proper relation to other countries.
Likewise we have no official map showing the boundaries of the political divisions of the United States?
No, sir; not with any degree of accuracy.
Nor of the Territories and the District of Columbia?
No, sir; only so far as the topographic work of the Geological Survey has progressed.
We have no complete official map showing either the outline of our territory on land or sea, or showing the boundaries of the political divisions within the domain?
That is true.
(Major Powell before the Joint Committee of Congress, Dec. 19, 1885.)
Once the entire continent lay sunny and unknown with no names on its face, a vast Unity of ignorance. The fragmentation of Unity began with the first map and continued with every step of the European seizure, every increment to recorded knowledge. From the time when the Portuguese Diego Ribero incorporated on his 1539 map the discoveries of Magellan, and so anchored the uncertain continent of North America in approximately its proper place, the record was one of a gradual dispelling of the mists, a gradual clarification of the roil of speculation, superstition, guesswork, wishfulness, fear, and misunderstanding. What ignorance had been able to generalize, knowledge had to particularize, and that was a long process.1 The America that shows in Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first modern world atlas, published in 1570, has an immensely wide top penetrated deep down by an Arctic sea. It has no Alaska, no Great Lakes. It is a vague outline struggling toward definition, the kind of continent that could still contain Northwest Passages and other wonders, and from whose edges men would sail up the James or the Potomac or the Hudson or the St. Lawrence hopefully looking for the Great South Sea. On those early maps California drifts in and out of the mists, now a nameless peninsula, as in Mercator’s map of 1569, now an island. It did not get permanently tied down to the continent until DeLisle’s map of North America in 1700.
And even after the outlines began to come into focus, the interior was guesswork and mystery and misunderstanding mixed with a few facts. One example taken from Powell’s own part of the country will illustrate. Father Escalante and Don Bernardo de Miera, talking with the Indians in Utah Valley in 1776, heard of a great lake to the north and of a salt lake to the south of the Lago de los Timpanogos (Utah Lake) which partially filled their valley. On his map,2 Miera correctly joined the northern lake (Great Salt Lake) to his Lago de los Timpanogos by a short strait (Jordan River). He was not too far wrong in the Rio de los Yamparicas which he brought into the northern lake from the northwest: that was either the Bear or the Weber, or a confused mixture of the two. Out of that northern and larger section of the Laguna de los Timpanogos, however, Miera drew a great and nameless westward flowing river, and that was a river of fable.
The southern, brackish lake that the Indians spoke of was Sevier Lake. Miera named it Laguna de Miera, gave it vague and indeterminate extensions into the westward tierra incognita, and endowed it too with some fabulous rivers: the Rio Salado, an affluent from the southeast, and the Rio de San Buenaventura, a much larger affluent from the northeast. This last was a confused mixture of the Sevier and the Green.
There were considerable elements of truth in Miera’s and Escalante’s geography, and in the map which Baron von Humboldt, drawing upon their exploration as upon the explorations of all the Spanish adventurers and priests in the West, published in 1808. All Humboldt did to Miera’s geography was to switch the Yamparicas around so that it came into the Laguna de los Timpanogos from the west, and to leave Miera’s name off Sevier Lake.
Humboldt’s was a tremendously influential map; it was the only map. But the elements of fable in it would not be dispelled for a long time, for upon the base of this Miera-Humboldt map were imposed the additions of information — fact and myth — brought home by Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark had (after missing its mouth twice) discovered the Willamette, which they called the Multnomah, flowing north into the Columbia. They thought it must drain that vast unknown interior south of the Snake River as far down as the 37th parallel, and they drew it on their map as coming from far to the south and east.
Later map makers drew conclusions and made improvements. The two parts of the Laguna de los Timpanogos were compressed into one, the great nameless river that Miera and Humboldt had shown draining it to the west was attached to the trailing end of Lewis and Clark’s Multnomah, and the maps, with their misconceptions, were inseparably joined. For years those mythical rivers flowed westward from the half-formulated mountains and half-defined lakes. Different cartographers gave them different names: the Buenaventura ran straight westward into San Francisco Bay on one map; on another the Timpanogos, on still another the Multnomah; they flowed sometimes from the Laguna de los Timpanogos, sometimes from the Lago Salado which had replaced the Laguna de Miera. Eventually the Buenaventura, squeezed out of the Great Basin, got itself mixed up with the Sacramento and acquired a new lease on life. The other rivers — Multnomah, Timpanogos, Mongos, Salado — disappeared before the eyes of the mountain men who came poking into the deserts looking for beaver, excitement, knowledge, wonder, whatever else.
Yet as late as 1828 there could be published in New York a Mapa de Los Estados Unidos de Mejico ... construido por los mejores autoridades3 which still clung to most of Miera’s misconceptions and some of the embroiderings of later cartographers. The Rio Timpanogos still bravely drained the Great Basin into something like a fusion of Drake’s Bay and San Francisco Bay. The Rio Buenaventura still came down from the region of the Wind River Mountains where the Green did actually rise, and it combined itself as in Miera with the Sevier, and emptied into the Lago Salado. Out of the Rio Salado, in defiance of the law which says that salt lakes have no outlets, went a continuing great river, the Buenaventura, to join the Pacific in the vicinity of Morro Bay. On that map the Colorado River headed near the headwaters of the Del Norte (Rio Grande) and ran almost straight southwest to the Gulf of California. The Gila joined it at right angles, precisely at its mouth.
In his instructions to Lewis and Clark, Jefferson had spoken disparagingly of the Spanish maps, but it was decades before American exploration provided something materially better. One of the final acts in that long drama of clarification was Powell’s exploration of the Colorado and the country back from its canyons. He had played a part in disproving fable, added to the sum of knowledge. And in doing so he had, inevitably, contributed to complexity. His Plateau Province had little of that grand simplicity and unity that Gilpin’s . and Sam Adams’ had; his West, the more he learned about it, became less and less a single thing susceptible to Jeffersonian agrarian-ism, laissez faire institutions, Common Law practice, or the Land Office surveys. Whether it occurred to him or not, he was in the position of the evolutionist who according to Henry Adams had succeeded in bewildering himself by his own study of change in form and force. “The wisest of men,” Adams said, “could but imitate the Church, and invoke a ‘larger synthesis’ to unify the anarchy again.”
A larger synthesis. Specifically, a topographic map laid down on the scale of four miles to the inch for desert areas, two miles to the inch for most of the country, and one mile to the inch for special industrial districts. This map to be divided into quadrangles bounded by parallels and meridians, and printed on sheets seventeen by twenty inches. The smallest-scale map thus would cover a space of one degree of longitude by one degree of latitude, the middle-sized one thirty minutes by thirty minutes, the largest fifteen by fifteen. Most areas were surveyed by the method Powell had borrowed from the King Survey and had used from the very first. An initial point was determined by astronomical observations, a base line was measured from it, and from the two ends of the base line a triangulation network extended in all directions. Elevations were established by barometrical measurement ( Gilbert devised a three-barometer method that gave additional accuracy) and by leveling, and were checked against the known elevations determined by the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the railroads. Elevations were expressed in contours, which were harder for the inexperienced to read but much more accurate than the hachures that Wheeler had preferred. The two-miles-to-the-inch scale was large enough to show not only every hill and valley of any size, but the most important cultural features — towns and villages, canals, railroads, roads. Those quadrangle maps could be, and have been, useful to every sort of citizen, whether a farmer wanting to establish the fall of an irrigation ditch or a city official authorizing a suburban development or a vacationer planning a trip into the back country. Upon them, too, could be overprinted in colors, at first by lithography but later by cheaper and more flexible engraving on copper, the surface geology or the hydrography or the land classification or the ethnography or whatever other scientific data were desired. Where the Land Office maps showed a hopeful homesteader nothing but the two-dimensional outline and location of his land, maps like these could tell him its altitudes (and consequently its desirability for irrigation or for various crops), its classification as desert, swamp, timber, arable, pasturage, or irrigable land, its water supply, whether spring or creek or pond, seasonal or permanent, its degree of settlement when the map was made, the development of its roads and improvements, and its more or less precise position with relation to the fixed meridians and parallels. Powell was not planning maps for the mining industry, as King might have, or for land disposal, as the General Land Office long had; he was planning maps for a nation.
Characteristically, he took on more than he could finish. He was a Thor, always getting caught in an attempt to drink the ocean dry or uproot the Midgard serpent. In the year after he took over from King he was confined to the public lands, but he immediately restored topography as a Survey activity, rehired his brother-in-law, Thompson, whom King had let go, and had a party mapping in the vicinity of Fort Wingate, New Mexico. The next year, with his enlarged appropriation and his authorization to map the whole country, he collated the usable work already done by his own and the other surveys, including the state surveys, and he divided the nation into seven districts and began work in six of them, with Henry Gannett in general charge of all topographical surveying. He threw a third and more of his appropriation toward topography, which he considered the prerequisite to accurate geological work. He hit the line like a fullback, and he made about a yard. After his first optimistic report ( 1882-83 )4 in which he had summarized the accomplishments of previous surveys and presented a map showing the areas adequately mapped already and those still needing surveys, his reports of progress were increasingly unsatisfactory to a Congress wanting to be shown miracles. In 1884 he could report 57,508 square miles surveyed and mapped during the year. The next season, after a considerable currying by committees, he stepped it up to 81,829 square miles, but when the Congressional pressure was relieved, the 1886-87 accomplishment dropped back to 55,684. In 1885 he had to admit to a Joint Committee that not a single sheet of the map was printed and that only thirteen were engraved.5 The total area covered by atlas sheets engraved up to June 30, 1887, was approximately 250,000 square miles: By 1894, when Powell retired as director of the Geological Survey, he reported 619,572 square miles surveyed and mapped — approximately one fifth of the United States. Some quadrangles had been compiled from earlier surveys, some done by state surveys working under matching-funds agreements, most by the Geological Survey’s own parties. And already some of them were having to be done over.
When Congress investigated government scientific bureaus in 1884-85 and called on Powell to justify his topographical expenditures, he said he could finish the work in twenty-four years at a cost of $18,000,000. Some members of Congress a little later were ready to bet him that he couldn’t do it in a hundred years for a hundred million, and though they ignored what was palpably true — that the maps were worth anything they cost, and more — they were closer to right than he was. By December,1952, with the costs approaching the $100,000,000 Powell’s worst enemies had extravagantly predicted, 10,500 quadrangle maps on scales ranging from 1:24,000 to 1:250,000 had been published by the Geological Survey. The original estimate had guessed that 2600 quadrangles would complete the whole map, but the 10,500 completed by 1952 represented only about sixty per cent of the country.6
Even while he was energetically pushing his topographical work, Powell got trouble from both sides. Certain members of Congress, notably Representative Hilary Herbert of Alabama, attacked all the surveys as too detailed and expensive, and certain rivals, particularly the Coast and Geodetic Survey whose triangulation across the continent was much more painstaking than Powell’s topographical triangulation, denounced Powell’s as not detailed enough. Powell himself believed he was building, if not for the ages, then for a long time to come. He foresaw no uses, except possibly irrigation works, which would demand a special engineering survey, or the determination of the exact shape of the earth, which was the business of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, that his own maps would not serve. He admitted he was not absolutely accurate; he insisted that he was accurate enough.
Congressman Herbert’s criticisms, read now, do not give him a high rating for prophecy, or even for intelligence. Powell and the Coast Survey were both right, Powell in his actionist policy of providing good maps as quickly as possible, the Coast Survey in insisting that the most accurate survey methods would eventually have to be applied. They are being applied now — but meantime the nation has had the use of Powell’s maps for a multitude of purposes.
The Chief of the Map Information Office of the Geological Survey reported in 1952 that though more than half of the United States was topographically surveyed and mapped by that year, only about twenty-five per cent was mapped on the scale needed for contemporary planning.7Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico were adequately mapped, no other states or territories were. And Kentucky, which was then beginning a five-year co-operative mapping project in conjunction with the Geological Survey (a pattern of collaboration between state and federal surveys that Powell inaugurated in 1883) was committed to a scale twice as large as Powell’s largest. A scale of 1:62,500 such as Powell used in his collaborative survey of Massachusetts was larger than he thought necessary for any but the most special uses. Kentucky will be mapped at 1:24,000, or one inch to two thousand feet. Presumably, so will much of the rest of the United States, and before the atlas is completed at that scale, it may be overtaken again by newer needs and newer methods. The larger synthesis is like a temporary platform erected in the raising of a building. The building itself overtakes it, the unity is formed only to be swamped in multiplicity again, to become one more complication in the maze of complexity.
Today there are more than two dozen government bureaus engaged wholly or partially in the preparation and printing and use of maps. Their work is so intricate, complex, and overlapping that it takes a special agency to keep them straight with the public. Geological Survey, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Hydrographic Office, Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of Indian Affairs, International Boundary Commission, Lake Survey, Post Office Department, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, Bureau of Public Roads, Soil Conservation Service, TVA, National Resources Committee, OSS, Navy, Air Force, the prodigious Army Map Service, have proliferated out of the handful of map producing and map using agencies since Powell’s time. There is often close co-operation among them, and undoubtedly there is some duplication. But their continued existence makes one thing abundantly clear: that though the Geological Survey remains the chief mapping bureau of the federal government, Powell’s hope of providing map sheets good enough to meet all foreseeable needs was a pipedream.
Yet the roughly 10,500 sheets completed in the first seventy years are the most important maps ever made in America, if we measure them by actual distribution and use. In the beginning Powell did not even have authority to print topographical maps, except in small quantities for the use of his own staff, for they could be justified only as preliminary to the geological map of the United States. By 1885 he was beginning to have so many calls for them that, he had to press for sanction of their publication and sale. By 1952 more than twenty-three million of them had been distributed.
Nevertheless, the larger synthesis couldn’t quite synthesize, foresight could not sufficiently foresee. Good as they were and are, the topographical quadrangles of the Geological Survey could not serve every need that arose.8 Industrious as their production has been, they could not in seventy years cover much more than half of the nation’s area. Carefully as Powell worked out his system of symbols and colors, later and greater experience would modify it. And accurate as was the Hoffman-King triangulation method, later methods, especially aerial photography, whose possibilities Powell overlooked, would revolutionize mapping.
The topographical atlas of the United States as Powell planned it is only now nearing completion, and when it is done it will be the accomplishment of the Army Map Service, not of the civilian agency Powell established. The detailed geological atlas which Powell planned as a second step is, in its perfected state, a project for the twenty-first century.9 But the Geological Survey remains what Powell more than any other man made it: the authoritative source of cartographical information. Even the Army Map Service’s topographical atlas is printed by the Survey’s Map Information Office, and in most respects the mapping of the United States has been since the eighteen-eighties largely a civilian operation for the benefit of the whole nation. Though his individual maps have been in large part superseded, the institution which he created for making them, and the general plan of attack which he outlined, are as solid as when they were laid out. Solider, for in 1952 government investment in science has few enemies. In the eighteen-eighties it had plenty.