Mapping the End of Empire

Jeffers Lennox

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

If we accept the argument that maps helped create and resist empires (and we should, or else I’ve just wasted a decade of my life), we should also explore how mapping offered geographers and their readers an opportunity to understand and influence how empires transitioned into something else. And since this is a blog about early Canadian history, I’m going to write about the American Revolution. Two examples that offered an alternative vision of empire come to mind: the first is a whimsical map that reimagined the British empire as an imperial federation, and the second is a famous geography textbook for citizens of the new United States that became less American than its author might have hoped.

Figure 1: John Cartwright, ” British America, bounded and divided,” from American Independence the Interest and Glory of Great-Britain (1775)

Just before the War for Independence, John Cartwright, a prominent British campaigner for parliamentary reform, believed he could resolve the American problem. He outlined his plan in American Independence and its accompanying map (Figure 1).[1] His solution was not terribly popular, as imperial officials were hardly willing to reorganize their empire as a federation; Cartwright himself was concerned that the pamphlet would hinder his “advancement in my profession.”[2] But the reformer’s tract illustrated the entangled nature of French, English, and Indigenous concerns and his geographic response attempted to create a federation that would address the needs of each group and thus preserve, although alter, Britain’s North American empire.

The challenge for Cartwright was balancing imperial reform with requisite protections for Indigenous lands. Reducing the size of Quebec (which had been greatly expanded in 1774) created space for new states in the Ohio Valley.[3] The division of the remaining territory resulted in new states, ostensibly to be filled with settlers, but with names that reflected an Indigenous presence. Cartwright noted that Great Britain’s role would be to protect “the rights and independencies of the several tribes or nations of Indians in amity with or under the protection of the British crown, until these points shall be more particularly adjusted by treaty.”[4]  Cartwright consequently reversed the typical imperial geographic practice of marginalizing or removing the Indigenous presence.[5] The map that accompanied American Independence is striking because it presents the reader with a complicated image of North America. Cartwright hoped to increase settlement in western regions, and he undoubtedly believed that British Americans would populate those new states, yet his map’s toponymy reflected the Indigenous nature of much of North America. Several new colonies took their names from Indigenous groups and thus infused the map with an identity that challenged British (or American) sovereignty. Maine became Sagadohock (an Abenaki name meaning “mouth of big river”); above West Florida could be found Chocktawria and Chickasawria; Ohio and the Indian Reserve became Erieland and Miamisia; and the reduction of Quebec created room for Huronia.

For Cartwright, reorganizing the empire’s geography in North America served to recognize the territorial influence of Indigenous nations.[6] Whether he truly believed that the empire should protect Indigenous peoples is harder to pin down, but his proposal was nevertheless a more accurate reflection of the local geopolitics. British Americans eager to push west would find little to like about the plan, and staunch imperialists were equally unlikely to support this kind of reimagined imperial federation. But at the blurred edges of imperial collapse and colonial independence, Cartwright charted a path not taken.

Even after American independence and the creation of a new nation, Jedidiah Morse struggled to divorce the United States from the British provinces geographically. Claire has done an excellent job of demonstrating the nationalist leanings that are so prevalent in Morse’s The American Universal Geography (George Washington claimed that the book would encourage “a better understanding between the remote citizens of our States,”[7]) but I think we can also see in his work a continentalist perspective that illuminates how difficult it was for early Americans to see themselves as wholly separate from the Britons living to the north. The American Universal Geography took its readers on a geographic tour of the United States, which in 1789 was an infant country. Each state received a chapter, including sections ranging from physical geography, demographics, and intellectual life to religious influence, commerce, and government.

After trudging through 470 pages, readers finally reached entries for the British dominions. New Britain, Canada, and Nova Scotia each received one page, at most. “To speak generally,” Morse mused about New Britain, “this is a mountainous, frozen, barren country,” though it possessed an abundance of fish and a collection of hearty Indigenous peoples.[8] Morse used the entry on Canada to remind his readers that the province was governed by the Quebec Act (1774), meaning that all legislative power “is vested in the governor and the legislative council,” members of which were appointed by the King.[9] Winning Canada had long been an American objective, but here Morse encouraged readers to turn their backs on an undemocratic province. Morse also noted that Nova Scotia was divided in 1784 to create New Brunswick, “which lies bordering on the United States,” and that “since the conclusion of the war, there have been large emigrations of the refugees from the United states to this province.”[10] In The American Universal Geography, the British colonies were physically close but ideologically distant, though the boundaries between American states and imperial provinces were both largely undefined and incapable of preventing people and ideas from traversing at will.

The second edition of The American Universal Geography, published in 1793, featured structural and substantive changes that diluted its nationalist perspective. “I have been much pleased with your American Geography,” Samuel Mitchill flattered Morse in 1789, “the publication of your book, which contains an account of the United States, written and compiled by an American, wipes away one of the spots upon our national character; for it was truly reproachful that we should be indebted to Europeans for the history of our own country.”[11] But Mitchill pushed for more information not about the United States, but rather on the status of the British provinces. “Permit me just to add,” he confided, “that British America to the northward consists of four provinces, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Gaspee, & that the term Canada is almost wholly out of use among the English.”[12] Morse was grateful for these corrections and included them in his second edition.

The 1793 title promised an account “comprehending a complete and improved system of modern geography” and “Calculated for Americans.” But unlike the first edition, in which British provinces appeared only after 400 pages of American content, the 1793 version took readers on a lengthy trek through the British provinces before they reached the American states.

Figure 2: Osgood Carleton, “The District of Main from the Latest Surveys,” from Jedidiah Morse, The American Universal Geography (Boston, 1793)

Morse had clearly kept abreast of developments in British North America. He described the new provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, “constituted by act of Parliament in 1791, comprehending the territory heretofore called Canada, or the Province of Quebec.”[13] Canada was no longer an anti-democratic state, and in fact the settlement of Montreal had become “a delightful spot” that “produced every thing that could administer the conveniences of life.” Even its government had improved by way of the Constitutional Act of 1791, which not only divided Canada in two but also provided each new province with an assembly.[14] The division of other provinces received attention, and Morse even included Osgood Carleton’s map of the northeast featuring New Brunswick (which, to be fair to Morse’s American ideals, did feature a boundary quite favourable to Maine) (Figure 2). Morse even explained to his readers that Newfoundland was governed by the first admiral to arrive for the season.[15] While much of what Morse described was available from other sources, he also provided information drawn from his own informants. In his description of waterways in Upper and Lower Canada, Morse copied Mitchill’s letter nearly word for word.[16] Though Morse did mention how cold it was in Canada (how typically American!), he also informed his readers that although winters bring “such severity, from December to April,” the deep snows and clear air make the season “neither unhealthy nor unpleasant.” Spring arrives quickly and “the summer is delightful.”[17] According to The American Universal Geography, Upper and Lower Canada were provinces on the up. This was a fact not lost on (and perhaps reinforced by) the thousands of Americans moving north at the very time Morse was writing.[18]

The revolutionary era facilitated experimentation in politics, culture, and geography. Mapping the end of an empire was a process, and the maps created by those living through such upheaval reflected the difficulties of transforming imperial colonies into independent states. The examples of Cartwright and Morse illustrate that amateur geographers with imperial leanings could favour increased American independence, while putatively American mapmakers kept their eyes on imperial developments. Imperial endings, like their beginnings, involved a geographic process during which alternatives were offered and connections persisted.

Jeffers Lennox is assistant professor of History at Wesleyan University and author of Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (University of Toronto Press, 2017). His current project is North of America: The Revolution, British Provinces, and Creating the United States, 1774-1815 (under contract, Yale University Press). You can find him on twitter @jefferslennox.

Featured Image: Henry Popple, “A map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish settlements adjacent thereof,” 1775.

[1] The first edition of his efforts appeared as a series of letters in The Public Advertiser in the spring of 1774, all of which were later collected and published together. A second addition, with a postscript and an accompanying map, appeared in 1775. For an overview, see S. Max Edelson and Steve Sarson, “The Grand British League and Confederacy: John Cartwright and the Geographies of Sovereignty in Revolutionary America,” Fourth Biennial Conference of the European Early American Studies Association (EEASA), Bayreuth University, Germany, December 14, 2012, pp. 1-2. Many thanks to Max Edelson for sharing this paper.

[2] August 1774, The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright, ed. F.D. Cartwright, vol. 1 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969 [1826]), 53.

[3] Edelson and Sarson, 27.

[4] Cartwright, American Independence, 35.

[5] J. B. Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 179-83.

[6] Similar examples abound in other parts of the Americas. For one example, see Karl H. Offen, “Creating Mosquitia: Mapping Amerindian Spatial Practices in Eastern Central America, 1629-1779,” Journal of Historical Geography 33, no. 2 (2007): 254-82.

[7] Quoted in “Jedidiah Morse,” ANB.

[8] Jedidiah Morse, The American Geography, or, a View of the Present Situation of the United States of America, 1st ed. (Elizabeth Town: Shepard Kollock, for the author, 1789), 473.

[9] Ibid., 475.

[10] Ibid., 476.

[11] Latham Mitchill to Jedidiah Morse, Long Island, 4 July 1789, MFP, Box 1, np.

[12] Mitchill to Morse, Long Island, 4 July 1789, MFP, Box 1, np.

[13] Morse, The American Universal Geography, 2nd ed. (1793), p. 135.

[14] Ibid., 137.

[15] Ibid., 130. See Jerry Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832  (Toronto: Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 2003).

[16] Ibid., 136.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Taylor, Alan. “The Late Loyalists: Northern Reflections of the Early American Republic.” Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 1 (2007): 1-34.

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