Author Archives: Robert Nelson

The Contested Northern Border

On June 15, Lyman Cutlar, a farmer who a couple of months earlier had settled on San Juan Island, shot and killed a neighbor’s pig that was rooting in his garden and eating his potatoes. He offered the neighbor, Charles Griffin, $10 in compensation for the loss of the pig. Griffin refused, demanding $100.   While in most other places this would only have been an insignificant local squabble, on San Juan Island it catalyzed a minor international military confrontation and diplomatic incident.

Britain and the US both claimed the island. Cutlar was an American citizen, Griffin an employee of Britain’s Hudson Bay Company and manager of a large sheep farm that the HBC operated on the island.   When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar for shooting the pig, the US military commander in the region dispatched a few troops to the island to protect Americans and American interests. The British responded in kind, positioning warships off the coast. Though the confrontation, which has become known as the Pig War, could easily have escalated if either side fired upon the other, neither side engaged. When word reached their respective capitals, each government quickly moved to defuse the situation. But neither backed down. For the next dozen years both countries stationed troops on the island, if only token contingents, before their dispute was finally settled in 1872 through international arbitration that awarded the US San Juan and all the other islands it claimed. Continue reading

Public Lands and the Frontier Thesis

At first glance, the seven maps showing relative areas of public and private lands in the United States from 1790 to 1910 seem like they could be among the worst published in the Atlas.  These maps drew longitudinal lines through each state or territory with the yellow area west of the line representing the amount of land in the public domain at that moment and the blue area east that which was in private hands “or otherwise disposed of.”

Looking at these maps, one can easily imagine Edward Tufte ridiculing them.  On the one hand, as representations of space they show nothing about where public and private lands clustered within each individual state or territory.   On the other, as a presentation of quantitative information they obscure the underlying data, often making it extremely difficult to visually gauge the relative proportions of public and private lands in many states.  Arguably it’s not too tough to come up with a reasonably decent guess for square-shaped states like Colorado or Wyoming.  But Idaho or California or Florida?  Good luck.

Public Lands of the United States, 1890 Continue reading

Vanishing Indians

There’s a democratic, progressive orientation that runs through the Atlas.  Fewer of the maps in the atlas were focused on the actions of “great men” than on the activities of ordinary people: farmers and enslaved people growing corn, wheat, tobacco, and cotton; Christians worshipping in churches; immigrants (admittedly all European) migrating across the Atlantic; men (and eventually women) voting in elections.

However, the maps of Native Americans are another matter.  At the time, at least one reviewer singled out the Atlas’s treatment of Native Americans for criticism.  In his review of the atlas in the American Historical Review in 1933, Ralph H. Gabriel suggested that the atlas might have included “a map of the Mound Builder culture area” or perhaps one showing “the expansion and contraction of the Pueblo culture area.”  Gabriel pinpointed a major shortcoming of the atlas: with one exception (the map of linguistic groups) the atlas included no maps that showed anything about the spatial relationships among Native Americans—their politics, culture, social norms, and religion. Continue reading

Going Farther Afield

At the Digital Scholarship Lab, we’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years developing an enhanced digital edition of Charles O. Paullin’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States because of our conviction that more than eight decades after its original publication it remains a remarkable and remarkably useful historical atlas. One of the most useful and most fun things about the many thoughtful and creative maps in the atlas is that they end up prompting interesting questions about American history just as often as they provide answers.

Paullin and the atlas’s editor, John K. Wright, were quick to make exactly this point. In his introduction to the atlas, Wright insisted that the maps were not interpretations in-and-of themselves. Instead he characterized each map as “a refinement … of the raw materials, comparable to a document carefully edited with textual criticism but without historical interpretation.” The maps presented evidence, often quantitative in nature, but didn’t provide analysis. They maps were often less conclusions than starting points for thinking about and researching history. Wright challenged readers of the atlas not to stop with the maps in the atlas but to “go farther afield if he would know what they really mean.”

In the coming weeks we’ll follow Wright’s advice and go farther afield in this blog. We’ll be providing historical context and offering historical interpretations that we hope provide some thoughtful insights into many of the maps in the atlas. While we greatly admire the atlas as a work of scholarship, we’ll begin with a critique of what we think is the most historically and politically regrettable aspect of the atlas: it’s treatment of Native Americans.