True Interests: Environmental History and National Ambition (Or, Let’s Squish Canada)

[This is the fourth essay of the Borealia series Cartography and Empireon the many ways maps were employed in the contested imperial spaces of early modern North America.] 

Claire Campbell

Borders have been in the news these past few years – and not only the border of proposed walls and real migrant detention centres. As Canadian towns and cities struggle to accommodate refugees from Trump’s America, and the United States Border Patrol searches lobster boats off Georges Bank, suddenly the idea of an undefended border and memories of easy crossings in the family car seem more the product of nostalgia than of policy.[1]

Environmental historians consider the relationship between people and nature in the past, which means we think along the twin axes of time and space. If nostalgia has reified the memory of peaceful coexistence, the useful but ubiquitous Google has masked the complicated relationships between spatial information, power, technology, and commerce in map-making. Historians, though, can reveal these borders as arbitrary, changeable, and very human creations of both place and time.

But while there has been a surge of wonderful work on cartography and empire (including by the authors of this series!),[2] there has been relatively little overlap with environmental history: that is, seeing maps as records of human interaction with and impact on the natural world. What do maps tell us about the relationship between national ambition and environmental change? How does nature drawn as territory inscribe certain values, priorities, and agendas for the environment? How are political contests waged symbolically through land use and meaning? And what can this tell us about our cumulative environmental impact?

Figure 1 Map of the Northern and Middle States

Figure 1: Amos Doolittle, “A Map of the Northern & Middle States,” in The American Geography (1789)

We might start with an intentionally unsubtle example from an influential source. In 1789, Jedidiah Morse published The American Geography: A View of the Present Situation of the United States of America. Morse was a Connecticut theologian by day, who significantly influenced the shape of geography as a school subject through textbooks and gazetteers that he published, revised, and republished diligently through the early national period.[3] The encyclopedic form and presumptions of such texts also allowed Morse and his contemporaries to demonstrate authority over the shape and contents of the new (and not entirely consolidated) country.

At first glance, the accompanying “A Map of the Northern and Middle States,” by Amos Doolittle (also of Connecticut), appears to be a fairly typical example of eighteenth-century mapping, in both style and substance: dominated by rivers and water routes, with large swaths to the north and west marked as Indigenous territories – and a triumphant clutch of land grants for disbanded military units in the long-coveted Ohio Valley.

Figure 2 Map of the Northern and Middle States, Detail

Figure 2: A Map of the Northern & Middle States (1789), detail

But national ambition was not confined to the new republic’s western borders. A Canadian eye can’t help but notice one distinctive feature: the border between “the Province of Main” and Nova Scotia that compresses the latter (by now, the new colony of New Brunswick, although Morse refuses to recognize it) into a thin sliver against the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Northumberland Strait.[4]

Such grasping might look comical today, but Morse had a lot invested in this eastern line.[5] This stretch of the border with British America (“a line to be drawn along the middle of the River St. Croix, from its mouth in the Bay of the Fundy to its source,” according to the 1783 Treaty of Paris) would prove to be one of the most difficult for surveyors to pinpoint, even as both sides clamoured for its lucrative pine forests, and would remain in dispute for another fifty years. Locating the source of the St. Croix – essentially defining the watershed between two edges of the North Atlantic, through landscapes that ranged from swamps to densely forested highlands – to everyone’s satisfaction was the epitome of easier said than done.[6]

Environmental realities thus both encouraged and frustrated national ambitions; this was territory that both sides wanted and that neither could really grasp. In many ways, it was easier to draw the line where you wanted it to go and leave someone else to sort it out. (This, of course, was not the only question that the founders would punt to future generations.) Erasing any sign of the Wabanaki Confederacy while retaining reference to an older land grant in the Territory of Sagahadoc also helped.[7]

If the map acquired (at least theoretically) territory for the new United States, The American Geography fully pressed that territory into national service. The two forms of geographical knowledge, map and text, were meant to be read together. The narrative complements the acquisitive grasp of the map with a persistent account of environmental values as a measure of American superiority and territorial legitimacy. As one scholar has noted, Morse’s descriptions of place often “take on the qualities of topographic poetry, focusing and fusing in evocative rural symbols the recent history of America with a nationalistic sense of place and an intimation of the rising tide of American commerce, art, and industry.”[8] In the case of the northeast borderlands, much of this rests on a negative portrayal of the British colonies in explicit contrast with a laudatory description of the American northeast. This contrast is significantly extended and amplified in the 1793 and subsequent editions. [9]

The American Geography describes Nova Scotia as forbidding, fog-bound, unhealthy, and cold (note: I lived in Halifax, I’m not disputing this), and particularly in the original edition, easily dismissed as a commercial rival. Trade deficits, read as a sign of metropolitan dependence, were important in Morse’s calculations. Despite the wealth of the fishery and “train oil” [whale oil], the thin soil in Nova Scotia meant, “The inhabitants do not raise provisions enough for home consumption” and accordingly the settlements were in decline (475, 1789). Such an evaluation – foodstuffs being more important than fish exports – reflected the prevailing wisdom that valued agriculture as both an industry and a virtue, a sign of social stability and moral responsibility, as well as an endorsement of private property and environmental “improvement” in the cause of prosperity, “the great basis of national wealth and happiness.”[10] It also hinted at a demographic fragility that might make the area available to other interested (read: American) parties in the future.

A few years later and closer to the American border, things begin to pick up. The banks of the St. John River are “excellent land …a fine level country” for farming, and rich in timber and fish. Islands in Passamaquoddy Bay have “settlements made by people of Massachusetts” (143-144, 1793). Not coincidentally, now that this area might be of some value, Morse stresses that “the true St. Croix, is yet undetermined” (143, 1793). It’s hard not to see a correlation between covetousness and compliment. So from Morse’s standpoint, the boundary is unclear, the land is good, and the occupants are American anyway, all of which would justify nudging the boundary further toward the Atlantic and counting this as part of the United States.

At the same time, the district of Main[e] – which in 1789 was “yet in a state of nature” (194, 1789) – seems to have leapt ahead. In the first edition the territory was judged more on potential, with excellent bays and harbours and a reasonable prospect for inland farming, as well as proven timber wealth to counterbalance the swamps, thin soils, and barren sea coast (196-198, 1789). A few years later, however, it has proven itself superior to its British neighbour in every way (even if that neighbour was being settled most numerously by former Americans). The interior of Maine is “universally represented as being of an excellent soil,” and any deficiencies of soil along the coast might be countered “by manuring with a marine vegetable” or “the practice of using seaweed as fertilizer.”[11] At the same time, swampy areas “are easily drained, and leave a rich, fat soil” and any forested areas easily cleared (346, 1793). The soils appear “very friendly” to a range of grain farming and pasturage (349, 1793).

For Morse, the environmental transformation held within it a moralizing tale. In previous years “the inhabitants generally followed the lumber trade to the neglect of agriculture,” but when the war interrupted grain imports, it “put the inhabitants upon their true interest, i.e. the cultivation of their own lands” (350, 1793). Accordingly, Maine residents are now more like their fellows in New Hampshire and Vermont, having been upgraded from merely “hardy robust” and “humane and benevolent” (198, 1789) to “a brave, hardy, enterprising, industrious, hospitable people” (351, 1793). They are also more unlike their counterparts in Nova Scotia, who continue to rely on export of timber and fish (145, 1793). (Likewise, “the Indians” are now respectable Catholics with the “greatest order and decorum” (354, 1793) – suggesting the ameliorative influence of New England -style settlement.)

Even the climate has been improved by American labours; rather than being one of extremes of heat and cold (197, 1789), now it is entirely typical of New England, and even surpasses it as the “sweet and salubrious” air, the “limpid streams,” and the “regular” weather makes for “one of the healthiest countries in the world” (346-347, 1793). As Anya Zilberstein has observed, in this second edition Morse tried to make “a tidy climactic distinction” between New England and Nova Scotia and thus reinforce their political geographies – even though his chosen climactic categories did not actually align with the realities of the Atlantic seaboard.[12] In other words, as the British territory remained a hinterland, hewers of wood, and colonial dependents, New England-style farming represented the ascendancy of American civilization in moral and environmental terms. This would, of course, justify their occupation of the disputed territory.[13]

Figure 3. Map of the District of Main

Figure 3: Map of the District of Main, in American Universal Geography (1793)

To underscore the importance of this territory to the expanding national project, the 1793 edition of American [Universal] Geography includes a new map devoted exclusively to the District of Maine, drawn by Osgood Carleton, an applied mathematics teacher from Boston.[14] It replicates the spirit of Doolittle’s version by pushing the border well into tidewater at Chaleur Bay, and the “Highlands being the Boundaries between the United States and Canada” nearly into the St. Lawrence. But now Maine also appears far more official, organized into a series of named counties, while New Brunswick is in small type and compressed (in its published orientation) at the bottom of the frame: a clear statement of hierarchy in terms of the advance of settlement, political maturation, and national legitimacy.[15]

It makes sense that Morse would have heightened the hyperbole about American possession as the Treaty of Paris began to age, and it became apparent that actually locating the boundary was not going to be straightforward, at the same time as the timber wealth of the northeast became more and more attractive. The map – like the text in which it was published – was designed not to actually resolve the border dispute, but to cultivate a commitment to the territorial claims of the new United States. Better to claim it on paper (in cartographic and narrative form), and in hearts and minds. As Morse wrote in the preface to the first edition of The American Geography, “it is calculated early to impress the minds of Youth with an idea of the superior importance of their own country, as well as to attach them to its interests….” (vii).[16] The equation of individual interests with a collective, and then again with a territory, is, of course, the very definition of nationalism. And here the early United States does not seem that far away from the current one.

Claire Campbella Professor of History at Bucknell University, is interested in the environmental history of North America and the North Atlantic world. She has taught at universities across Canada and in Denmark, in the areas of history, Canadian Studies, and Environment and Sustainability. Publications include Shaped by the West Wind: Nature & History in Georgian Bay (2004), A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (2011), and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (2013) with Robert Summerby-Murray. Her most recent work, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (2017), uses environmental history to expand public history and discussions of sustainability at national historic sites. She’s currently working on a new project, “The Islands of Canada: Canada as a Coastal Nation.”


[1] “U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted at least 10 Canadian fishing boats from N.B.: spokesman, Globe and Mail, 4 July 2018; “Border Patrol Stops Canadian Fishermen in Disputed Waters Off Maine,” New York Times, 6 July 2018.

[2] There is wonderful literature on mapping as a component of geography as a discipline; on colonialism and the age of empire; and the exercise of nation-building. But these sources are not as concerned with the link to environmental use; it is clear that maps seek to determine territorial or socio-political boundaries, but not always what type of environment is involved or how it became that way.

[3] Full title: The American geography, or, A view of the present situation of the United States of America: containing astronomical geography, geographical definitions, discovery, and general description of America,… particular descriptions of the thirteen United States, and of Kentucky, the western territory and Vermont,… illustrated with two sheet maps,… to which is added, a concise abridgment of the geography of the British, Spanish, French and Dutch Dominions in America, and the West Indies–of Europe, Asia and Africa (Elizabeth Town [N.J.] : Printed by Shepard Kollock, for the author, 1789). Geoffrey Martin calls Morse the most widely read geographer in the United States for forty years, from the 1780s to the 1820s. “The Emergence and Development of Geographic Thought in New England,” Economic Geography 74 (1998), 6.

[4] I think it’s worth noting that my Canadian students noticed this, but my American students did not pick it out. Indeed, Nova Scotia appears to have shrunk from Doolittle’s 1784 original, which Morse published in his Geography Made Easy, although there New Hampshire bears the brunt of a robust Maine. Amos Doolittle, “A Map of the United States of America,” in Jedidiah Morse, Geography Made Easy (New-Haven: Printed by Meigs, Bowen and Dana, [1784]) via Newberry Library.

[5] Morse’s investment in geographical publishing was as much for commercial gain as ideological confirmation, according to Robert V. Rohli and Merrill L. Johnson in “The Legacy of Jedidiah Morse in Early American Geography Education: Forgotten and/or Forgettable Geographer?” Geographical Review 106: 3 (2016): 465–83.

[6] David Demeritt, “Representing the ‘true’ St. Croix: Knowledge and Power in the Partition of the Northeast,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54:3 (1997): 515-548; Francis M. Carroll, A Good and Wise Measure: The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary, 1783-1842 (University of Toronto Press, 2001); Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine: The 1820 Journal and Plans of Survey of Joseph Treat, ed. Micah A. Pawling (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Stephen J. Hornsby and Richard W. Judd, Historical Atlas of Maine (University of Maine Press, 2015), Plate 21 “Negotiating the International Boundary.”

[7] Elizabeth Mancke, in The Fault Lines of Empire: Political Differentiation in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, ca. 1760-1830 (Routledge, 2005), shows how the eastern part of the district became part of a jurisdictional dispute over colonial versus metropolitan authority before the Revolution. See also Jeffers Lennox, Homelands & Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (University of Toronto Press, 2017) and “British Idea, American Delusion: The Contest for New Ireland, 1779-85,” Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (28 May 2018); Stephen J. Hornsby, Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of The Atlantic Neptune (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), 75-6; and John G. Reid, Acadia, Maine, and New Scotland : Marginal Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (Published in Association with Huronia Historical Parks, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation by University of Toronto Press, 1981) especially 153-5. I also owe a debt to Micah Pawling’s work on Wabenaki river territories.

[8] Robert D. Arner, Dobson’s Encyclopaedia: the Publisher, text, and publication of America’s first Britannica, 1789-1803 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 94.

[9] The American universal geography: or, a view of the present state of all the empires, kingdoms, states, and republics in the known world, and of the United States of America in particular; illustrated with maps (Boston: by Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews, 1793).

[10] Benjamin Rush, A Plan for establishing public schools in Pennsylvania (1786), 4. As John Stilgoe observes, “American Geography focuses chiefly on the practical uses of wilderness areas and on the delights of productive rural landscape.” Landscape and Images (University of Virginia Press, 2005) 98. While the yeoman farmer is synonymous with Thomas Jefferson’s articulation of early national American identity, his status as the anchor of civilization also reigned in British America. See, for example, Graeme Wynn, “‘Deplorably Dark and Demoralized Lumberers”? Rhetoric and Reality in Early Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick,” Journal of Forest History 24: 4 (1980), 168-87. In his later American Gazetteer, Morse became much more generous toward Nova Scotia, or at least its “back country” [i.e. not the Atlantic coast]; again using agricultural settlement as the yardstick, improvements encouraged by the agricultural society “afford some good ground to expect that Nova-Scotia may become a flourishing colony.” The American gazetteer: exhibiting, in alphabetical order, a much more full and accurate account, than has been given, of the states, provinces, counties, cities, towns … on the American continent, also of the West-India islands … with a particular description of the Georgia Western Territory (1797) 397-8.

[11] Environmental historians have been exploring the particular features of coastal agriculture in the northeast; see, for example, the work of Joshua MacFadyen, Matthew Hatvany, Jonathan Fowler, and Christopher Pastore.

[12] Anya Zilberstein, “The Natural History of Early Northeastern America: An Inexact Science,” In New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies, eds. Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 29-30.

[13] Amy DeRogatis, Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier (Columbia University Press, 2003), 133. Other scholars have pointed out that for all his federalist desire to cultivate a national/ist geography, Morse considered New England the standard in terms of regional achievement, in “ethnic homogeneity, personal industry, and moral society.” See, for example, Joseph A. Conforti, “Regionalism and Nationalism in the Early Republic: The American Geographies of Jedidiah Morse,” Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[14] David Bosse, “Osgood Carleton, Mathematical Practitioner of Boston,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 107 (1995): 154. This edition includes a map for Pennsylvania, as well as comprehensive maps of the northern and southern states respectively, but Maine is the only “district” (non-state) to warrant its own map.

[15] In another version – The United States of America laid down from the best authorities agreeable to the peace of 1783 (1791) – Carleton pushes Massachusetts territory right up to the shores of the St. Lawrence. Massachusetts, of course, would have a vested interest in asserting its role as the metropolitan authority over Maine, whether in governance or cartographic knowledge, especially as settlement accelerated in the district. In this version, Maine is left off the map entirely. This would have played well in Boston. Ronald F. Banks, Maine Becomes a State: The Movement to Separate Maine from Massachusetts, 1785-1820 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1970).

[16] As Martin Brückner observes, texts like this “deliberately worked to instill an affective relationship between the reader and the nation’s geography as the starting point of civic virtue.” Martin Brückner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 154, 192; also The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 278.

Featured image: The United States of America laid down from the best authorities agreeable to the peace of 1783, Boston (1791) John Carter Brown Map Collection, C-7710.

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