America’s Birth Certificate

Today I took a tour of the Library of Congress, in Washington DC. It is a huge institution, consisting of over 150 million items housed within three huge buildings. (Our guide told us it was the largest library in the world, but Wikipedia claims the British Library is bigger. The Library of Congress certainly covers a larger area anyway.)

The library contains nearly 400,000 maps, over 12,000 of which have been digitised and are available online. These high resolution images allow you to pick out the smallest details, but I think you can’t beat seeing the bigger picture and viewing the maps in person. Currently, there are two mapping exhibitions in the library, Exploring the Early Americas and Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784.

Abel Buell’s map is the first map of America, published in America, by an American. It doesn’t contain any new cartography, but was the first time a map had been produced of this new nation. The other maps in the exhibition are thought to be used by Buell as source material.

Abel Buell USA 1784

What is interesting about this map is that, at the time, the western boundaries of the new states had not been legally defined. The Constitution was not ratified until 1787, so the federal government did not have the power to establish borders or force the sale of land. As a result, cartographers decided to end each state at the Mississippi River – leaving them much larger than their current extent. In particular, I like how Connecticut continues on the other side of Pennsylvania, making it many times the state it is today.

The Early Americas exhibition, meanwhile, features documents, artifacts, paintings, and prints, as well as maps. The highlight is undoubtedly Martin Waldseemüller‘s 1507 world map, widely regarded as the first usage of the word ‘America’ to describe the new land recently discovered in the west. Waldseemüller used a feminine, Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci‘s name on this map, but later distanced himself from this coinage, preferring instead Terra Incognita. He felt that perhaps Vespucci should not get all the credit for the discovery. The map had already been turned into a popular globe, however, and the name stuck. Our guide informed us that, as a result, this map is known as America’s birth certificate.

Universalis Cosmographia

What amazed me about this map was the level of detail, particularly in Africa. I always thought that very little was known about sub-Saharan Africa until Livingstone‘s explorations of the 19th century, but the Mountains of the Moon are shown here, along with many lakes and rivers.

Our guide also told us in great detail about the map’s discovery and purchase by the library, but I won’t go into it here. As usual, Wikipedia provides all the information you’ll ever need.


About randomactsofcartography
I'm a software product engineer and map nerd. Although I work in GIS, I prefer paper maps to Google maps, vinyl to mp3s, box brownies to digital cameras, FM to DAB, etc., etc. Pass me my pipe and slippers.

2 Responses to America’s Birth Certificate

  1. rockoncali says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for the mini-tour 🙂

  2. Hey, thanks. Wish I had time to browse more of their collection.

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