Meet Emma Willard, the First Female Map Maker in the U.S., and Her Brilliantly Inventive Maps (Circa 1826)

Amer­i­cans have nev­er like the word “empire,” hav­ing seced­ed from the British Empire to osten­si­bly found a free nation. The founders blamed slav­ery on the British, nam­ing the king as the respon­si­ble par­ty. Three of the most dis­tin­guished Vir­ginia slave­hold­ers denounced the prac­tice as a “hideous blot,” “repug­nant,” and “evil.” But they made no effort to end it. Like­wise, accord­ing to the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the British were respon­si­ble for excit­ing “domes­tic insur­rec­tions among us,” and endeav­our­ing “to  bring on the inhab­i­tants of our fron­tiers, the mer­ci­less Indi­an Sav­ages.”

These denun­ci­a­tions aside, the new coun­try nonethe­less began a course iden­ti­cal to every oth­er Euro­pean world pow­er, wag­ing per­pet­u­al war­fare, seiz­ing ter­ri­to­ry and vast­ly expand­ing its con­trol over more and more land and resources in the decades after Inde­pen­dence.

U.S. impe­r­i­al pow­er was assert­ed not only by force of arms and coin but also through an ide­o­log­i­cal view that made its appear­ance and growth an act of both divine and sec­u­lar prov­i­dence. We see this view reflect­ed espe­cial­ly in the mak­ing of maps and ear­ly his­tor­i­cal info­graph­ics.

In 1851, three years after war with Mex­i­co had halved that coun­try and expand­ed U.S. ter­ri­to­ry into what would become sev­er­al new states, Emma Willard, the nation’s first female map­mak­er, cre­at­ed the “Chrono­g­ra­ph­er of Ancient His­to­ry” above, a visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion to “teach stu­dents about the shape of his­tor­i­cal time,” writes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate. The Chrono­g­ra­ph­er is a “more spe­cial­ized off­shoot of Willard’s mas­ter Tem­ple of Time, which tack­led all of history”—or all six thou­sand years of it, any­way, since “Cre­ation BC 4004.”

Willard made sev­er­al such maps, illus­trat­ing an idea pop­u­lar among 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry his­to­ri­ans, and illus­trat­ed in many sim­i­lar ways by oth­er artists: cast­ing his­to­ry as a suc­ces­sion of great empires, one tak­ing over for anoth­er. View­ers of the map stand out­side the temple’s sta­ble fram­ing, assured they are the inher­i­tors of its his­tor­i­cal largesse. Oth­er visu­al metaphors told this sto­ry, too. Willard, as Ted Wid­mer points out at The Paris ReviewWillard was an “inven­tive visu­al thinker,” if also a very con­ven­tion­al his­tor­i­cal one.

In an ear­li­er map, from 1836, Willard visu­al­ized time as a series of branch­ing impe­r­i­al streams, flow­ing down­ward from “Cre­ation.” Curi­ous­ly, she sit­u­ates Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dence on the periph­ery, end­ing with the “Empire of Napoleon” at the cen­ter. The U.S. was both some­thing new in the world and, in oth­er maps of hers, the fruition of a seed plant­ed cen­turies ear­li­er. Willard’s map­mak­ing began as an effort to sup­ple­ment her mate­ri­als as “a pio­neer­ing edu­ca­tor,” founder of the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, and a “ver­sa­tile writer, pub­lish­er and yes, map­mak­er,” who “used every tool avail­able to teach young read­ers (and espe­cial­ly young women) how to see his­to­ry in cre­ative new ways.”

In anoth­er “chrono­g­ra­ph­er” text­book illus­tra­tion, she shows the “His­to­ry of the U. States or Repub­lic of Amer­i­ca” as a tree which had been grow­ing since 1492, though no such place as the Unit­ed States exist­ed for most of this his­to­ry. Maps, writes Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscu­ra, “have the pow­er to shape his­to­ry” as well as to record it. Willard’s maps told grand, uni­ver­sal stories—imperial stories—about how the U.S. came to be. In 1828, when she was 41, “only slight­ly old­er than the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca itself,” Willard pub­lished a series of maps in her His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, or Repub­lic of Amer­i­ca.

This was “the first book of its kind—the first atlas to present the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­ca.” Willard’s maps show the move­ment of Indige­nous nations in plates like “Loca­tions and Wan­der­ings of The Abo­rig­i­nal Tribes… The Direc­tion of their Wan­der­ings,” below—these were part of “a sto­ry about the tri­umph of Anglo set­tlers in this part of the world. She helped solid­i­fy, for both her peers and her stu­dents, a nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can des­tiny and inevitabil­i­ty, writes Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver his­to­ri­an Susan Schul­ten. Willard was “an exu­ber­ant nation­al­ist,” who gen­er­al­ly “accept­ed the removal of these tribes to the west as inevitable.”

Willard was a pio­neer in many respects, includ­ing, per­haps, in her adop­ta­tion of Euro­pean neo­clas­si­cal ideas about his­to­ry and time in the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of a new Amer­i­can empire. Her snap­shots of time col­lapse “cen­turies into a sin­gle image,” Schul­ten explains, as a way of map­ping time “in a dif­fer­ent way as a pre­lude to what comes to next.” See many more of Willard’s maps from The His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, or Repub­lic of Amer­i­ca, the first his­tor­i­cal atlas of the Unit­ed States, at Boston Rare Maps.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Ani­mat­ed Maps Show the Expan­sion of the U.S. from the Dif­fer­ent Per­spec­tives of Set­tlers & Native Peo­ples

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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