A Look at the 10 Most Important Maps in U.S. History


Michael Blanding is the author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

America was made out of pieces of paper. There are the pieces we all know about—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Then there are those lesser-known sheets of paper on which the changing features and borders of our country were drawn.

Maps have played a crucial role, ever since the discovery of the New World, in publicizing the discoveries of explorers, altering perceptions of control, and refereeing the claims of competing powers in finally setting the shape of the United States of America. It’s not too strong a statement to say that without these pieces of paper, the United States as we know it would never have existed—or else, it would look radically different today. Here are 10 of the most important maps in making the dream of our nation a reality.

1. Henricus Martellus // “Untitled [Map of the world of Christopher Columbus].” Manuscript Map, 1489.

Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University

When Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492, he did it with a map in hand—this one, or one very much like it. Only two copies survive of this map, drawn by German cartographer Heinrich Hammer, who Latinized his name in the fashion of the day to Henricus Martellus Germanus. They have the distinction of being the most complete picture of the world as Columbus and his contemporaries saw it. In fact, Columbus may never have set sail at all if it weren’t for the story that the map told, a story that ultimately would be proven false.

Some background: No educated person in Columbus’ day really thought the earth was flat—the Greeks had determined it was round more than a millennium before. And some Greek astronomers and mathematicians had even accurately calculated the earth’s circumference at 25,000 miles. But Martellus relied on the wrong mathematicians, who calculated the circumference at only 18,000 miles. He also dramatically extended the length of Asia to 7000 miles longer than it actually is—making it seem like a quick trip sailing west across the ocean from Europe to Japan. That gave Columbus the confidence to argue to Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella that a western route to the Spice Islands was not only doable, but would also be easier than sailing around Africa. Of course, as we now know, that wasn’t the case, as Columbus found when he ran smack into another continent in the way. So confident was Columbus in his map that he died believing he’d found Asia—when really he’d found a new continent entirely.

2. Martin Waldseemüller // “Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Alioru[m]que Lustrationes.” St. Die, 1507.

The most expensive map ever purchased, this map was sold to the Library of Congress in 1989—for a cool $10 million. Why the fuss? The entire value can be traced to one word that appears on this map for the first time in history: America. Even though Columbus got there first, Christopher never claimed to have discovered a new continent. By contrast, a self-promoting Italian sailor named Amerigo Vespucci loudly declared to anyone who would listen that he had discovered a new continent on his voyages west from Portugal—and in a pamphlet, he described the native inhabitants in intimate detail. “Everyone of both sexes goes about naked,” he wrote, continuing that “the women… although they go naked and are exceedingly lustful, still have rather shapely and clean bodies.”

Such titillating prose ensured a wide distribution for his pamphlets, which eventually fell into the hands of a young German mapmaker, Martin Waldseemüller. He, in turn, was putting together a new atlas of the world that included a sliver of land in the west that was beginning to show up on Portuguese charts. For the first time, Waldseemüller surrounded that sliver completely by water, and reasoning that all of the other continents were named after women, he feminized Amerigo’s first name to create the name “America” to describe it.

Unfortunately, doubts started appearing almost immediately about whether Vespucci had even been on a voyage, much less whether he’d discovered a new continent, and in later editions of his map, Waldseemüller took the name off of the new land, calling it merely “Terra Incognita” instead. But the name had already stuck, giving us the name of our continent, and our country, today.

3. Captain John Smith // “New England.” London, 1616.

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

We all know John Smith from his role in founding the Virginia Colony—and for his role along with Pocahontas as one half of America’s original “power couple.” But after he was drummed out of Virginia for reasons best not gone into here, Smith had a second act exploring the area then known as “North Virginia.” Smith figured it needed a catchier moniker, so he branded it “New England,” both to separate it from the southern colony that spurned him and to tell other European countries “hands off.”

Of course, John Smith also wanted to claim it for John Smith, and so he included a giant portrait of himself taking up a corner of the map, which he used to illustrate a book about the new lands he’d discovered. (In later editions of the map, he even updated the portrait, making his beard fuller and bushier.) More brazenly, in order to claim the territory for England, he offered the map to the crown prince Charles and asked him to change the names of all of the native villages to names of English towns—creating a fictional geography that might entice colonists to found such towns for real. Most of those names have since fallen by the wayside—but one has survived. When the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth in 1620, they did so with a copy of Smith’s map in hand, steering their way to an attractive harbor that Smith had coincidentally named “Plimouth.” Upon arrival, they took the name for their own, and there it remains on the map to this day.

4. Guillaume De L’Isle // “Carte De La Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi.” Paris, 1718.

The English may have claimed New England, but the rest of the continent was still very much up for grabs throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries—and the French decided they wanted a piece of it. In fact, as this map shows, they wanted a big piece of it.

An early example of cartographic propaganda, this map plays fast and loose with borders to claim virtually all of North America for the French, splashing “La Louisiane” in big letters across the continent’s midsection, and squeezing the English colonies almost entirely off the page. It even claims “Caroline” was named for the French king Charles IX, not the English kings Charles I and Charles II.

This was no idle threat—at the time, Guillaume de l’Isle was arguably the greatest mapmaker of his age, employing new scientific methods to more exactly survey the land, and his map was much more accurate than any English maps at the time. When the English saw it, they were incensed, no doubt fuming about French audacity, and British mapmakers began producing maps of their own that exaggerated English claims in North America at the expense of their enemies across the channel. That spurred the French to produce more…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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