When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.
In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.
The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.
It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable…
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.
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.
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…
Here are some things Russians think other Russians who are preparing to visit the U.S. should know.
1. Don’t Worry About Bringing Gifts to Americans …
Gift giving isn’t a big deal to Americans. In fact, according to the site Деловой этикет по-американски, “Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity.” But not all gifts will make Americans feel awful. They love gifts that are “purely Russian,” with some caveats:
If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it ‘purely Russian’ for modern America—not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.
2. … And definitely don’t bring business gifts.
“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable,” the site Национальные особенности этикета в США cautions. “[T]hey often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.”
3. If you’re a man, be careful when dealing with American ladies.
According to the Russian site Этикет США, “U.S. etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.”
Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies’ hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married).
4. They’d prefer it if you got to the point …
“Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it’s a phone conversation,” says the site Американский речевой этикет. “In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call.”
That said, once you’re having a phone conversation, Americans won’t be thrilled if you just hang up on them. “Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up,” the site notes. “Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, ‘see you later’ should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more.”
5. … But would like you to avoid pointed statements.
According to Американский речевой этикет, “Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, ‘You’re wrong,’ can be offensive. This can be interpreted as ‘You are telling lies!'” Instead, soften it up: “[I]t is better to say, ‘I do not think I can agree with this.'”
6. You Can Only Talk About Health in Certain Situations.
And that situation is when your friend is in the hospital. Otherwise, according to the site Американский речевой этикет, “What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health.” Finally, the site notes, “Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”
7. When your American friend invites you to a picnic, bring something sporty (and maybe a flask).
The site Деловой этикет по-американски discusses a hypothetical situation in which a Russian visitor to the United States is invited on the most American of outings: The Picnic. (This will only happen “if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office,” though, so probably won’t be an option for the novice traveler.) According to the site, “As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours,…
Miami is about to become a major destination for burger obsessives. A popular burger blogger is opening up a museum devoted to the meaty sandwich, which he heralds as America’s first such institution.
The Burger Museum by Burger Beast—created and curated by local burger expert Sef Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Burger Beast—is opening on Friday, December 2, and will celebrate the history of burgers, served with a hefty dose of nostalgia on the side. At…