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Home Indice e rubriche Figure Lithography and the Ethics of Mapping in Early America

Lithography and the Ethics of Mapping in Early America

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di Scott Palmer

ABSTRACT: The representation of early nineteenth-century national identities in Europe and America was deeply affected by the emergent visual economy of the lithograph.  Although the technology was first applied to the reproduction of artworks and sheet music, the process was also quickly adopted for the representation of space and movement in cartography, particularly in America, where it offered a reliable and inexpensive method for reproducing visual representations of newly surveyed land.  Lithography thus became an integrated component of an image of America that effectively insulated viewers from the ethical consequences of expansion, from the policies of Indian removal to the radical commodification of nature. 


The representation of early nineteenth-century national identities in Europe and America was deeply affected by the emergent visual economy of the lithograph. Although the technology was first applied to the reproduction of artworks and sheet music, the process was also quickly adopted for the representation of space and movement in cartography. Fittingly, the erstwhile surveyor, farmer, and travel writer Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) was among the first to hear of this new method of reproduction and to imagine how it might be used to facilitate the representation and expansion of American territory.

While visiting his daughter in Bavaria (1806-9) he found himself chatting at a dinner party one evening in Munich with a Spanish naturalist who described a new method of printing: “C’est l’Espagnol lui-même, qui a obtenu le secret de cette nouvelle manière d’imprimer d’un Anglais qui l’avait eu du fils d’un acteur munichois mauvais sujet. Il va lui-même imprimer son journal de voyage dans le Tyrol et fait graver les coupes et les hauteurs de cette chaîne”1. This son of a “mauvais sujet” was Alois Senefelder (1771-1834), himself a performer and aspiring playwright. Since 1796, Senefelder had been working on a more effective way to reprint his plays, hitting upon a method, which after a brief struggle for control over its patent, eventually came to be known as lithography, the first reproducible printing process of its kind2.


1 seth eastman detail from treatise on topographical drawing 1837 2 nathaniel currier view of the great conflagration of dec. 16th and 17th 1835 3 james f smith a map of the 18th district 1st section of originally cherokee now union county 4 james f smith a map of the 18th district 1st section of originally cherokee now union county

While Senefelder’s initial aim was to reproduce musical scores and theatre scripts, his reputation as the father of lithography was solidified by his appointment in 1809 as Inspector of Lithography for the Royal Bavarian Cadastral Survey. Between 1809 and 1853 (Senefelder retired in 1827) the agency produced over 20,000 maps and established a model of governmental surveying and territorial control3. Senefelder published a description of his process, Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckery, in 1818, and a year later French and English (A Complete Course in Lithography) translations appeared as enthusiasm for the lithographic process spread across Europe.

Lithography developed slowly in the United States because of American dependence on European lithographic resources, from Bavarian limestone to French technical expertise. The establishment of regular packet service between Europe and America in 1818 (Crèvecoeur himself had a hand in developing the first packet line from France to America while serving as French consul to New York from 1783-1790) significantly benefited prospective American lithographers, as they were now able to more readily procure the resources necessary to learn and practice their trade. Indeed, scenes of packet ships became a favorite subject of early American lithography, especially among New York artists.

Early lithography also flourished in Boston in the quotidian and lucrative trade of “job printing”—advertisements, handbills, bank checks, tickets, etc. In 1825, brothers William and John Pendleton established Pendleton’s Lithography, the first major lithographic studio in America4. While the firm focused primarily on commercial print jobs, it worked on a wide variety of projects, the lithographic reproduction of maps and surveys, which were in high demand in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the East due to the feverish pace of surveying work taking place5. Lithography addressed an urgent (and contentious) priority for the United States government as is it offered a reliable and inexpensive method for reproducing visual representations of land. The precision and clarity of the lithographic process was a crucial instrument in settling the profusion of competing land claims following the Federal Land Survey Ordinance of 1785.

Before he became the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe was intimately engaged in the administration and definition of American territory, in particular the Land Survey Ordinance and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which he helped negotiate. These two decisive and controversial territorial consolidations in the Early Republic created the necessary conditions for the widespread expansion of the American border towards and beyond the Mississippi river. While Monroe’s seventh “State of the Union Address” as President of the United States of America on 2 December 1823 is better known as the first authoritative articulation of United States foreign policy, its logic also applies to this ongoing organization and mapping of domestic territories. Its central theme, the so-called “Monroe Doctrine,” opposed European expansion in the New World and in turn reasserted an exclusively American jurisdiction on future expansion in the region. In return, Monroe promised a policy of non-intervention in several ongoing intra-European conflicts as well as between European powers and their existing colonies.

In the 1823 address, Monroe further reports that the “Board of Engineers and the Topographical Corps constant and active service” of mapping the exponential growth of America along its frontiers (of which many were still in dispute) continued apace. Monroe takes particular pains to detail the “manifest” salutary effects of acquiring this “new territory…of vast extent” would have on American democracy and national security. To this end, his address also included the year’s assessment of the government’s relations with Indian tribes, noting that a number of western expeditions along the Missouri river had been attacked by “Ricaree” (Arikara) war parties. Monroe assured Congress that the appropriate steps were being made to “check the evil” of such incursions so that the army could continue with its surveying work6.

Of course, nationalism and cartography share a long history, the latter being used in the service of the former for centuries. Because cartography has historically occupied a liminal position between science and art, it has remained unburdened by an ethical compass, or as Robert Harley puts it, such a concern has been “lost somewhere in the abyss that separates logic from the swamp of subjective opinion”7. For Harley, the discipline’s “failure to engage in a full and frank debate about ethics” has created confusion between the technical methods used in cartography and the “social consequences” of its creation and dissemination8. While modern cartographers and geographers have begun to grapple with these thorny questions of ethics, the cartographers of the past were largely free of such restrictions. Read with this in mind, Monroe’s address exposes how such surveying techniques were employed as the indirect tactics the government used to wage and to prepare for war against American Indians—by first conducting it on paper9.

The career of U.S. Army soldier and painter Seth Eastman (1808-1875) exemplifies the way in which surveying and the removal of Indians intersected on the front lines of the western frontier. Eastman’s first contact with American Indians came during his first tour of duty at Fort Snelling, Minnesota from 1830-33, where he was assigned to topographical surveying duty. Here Eastman began amassing a portfolio of sketches and drawings of American Indians in his spare time. In 1833, he returned to West Point where he assumed the post of assistant teacher of drawing where he developed the Treatise on Topographic Drawing (1837) as a textbook for teaching topographic drafting courses. Chapter One of the Treatise consists of only one sentence, a definition of topographical drawing that powerfully articulates the ideological underpinnings of the technique: “Topographical drawing is the art of representing the appearance which the surface of the earth would present to an observer situated above, and looking vertically upon every part of it”10.

Eastman provides an image demonstrating this concept (Figure 1) of perspectival height and dominance by overlaying “empty” land with a visual grid constructed according to the rules of linear mathematical perspective. The image presents the orthodox vector of American Manifest Destiny, with its great national eye hovering over a lighthouse denoting the New England coastline (Eastman himself was from Maine) and facing westward over a nearly empty and fertile landscape. As the lines of vision emanating from the eye reach the land below, they intersect with the horizon established by the position of the “observer situated above” to create a perfect grid with dimensions that allow for precise measurement, thus making it much easier for the terrain to be appropriated, bought, sold, cultivated, and settled. Such images provided the discursive field upon which government policy and free market forces could enact what Crèvecoeur called the “bright idea of property” on the largest possible scale.

However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Eastman understood and acknowledged that such an “art of representation” emphasized certain elements while entirely eliding others. As a soldier stationed on the edges of Indian Territory, Eastman was acutely aware that the spaces he had presented to his drawing students as models were anything but empty of human life. Although Eastman began as a painter of landscapes in the areas surrounding Fort Fanning (in the Florida everglades) and Fort Snelling, his artistic output increasingly focused on the American Indians that lived near the outposts charged with displacing them. Upon his return to Fort Snelling in 1841, he began a series of detailed and relatively unsentimental portraits of Lakota customs and ceremonies11. Eastman produced over four hundred paintings and illustrations of the Lakota over the next seven years. In addition, his wife, Mary Henderson Eastman (1818-1887), wrote a book of their experiences among the Lakota, Dahcotah, or Life and Legends of the Sioux (1849), that took an especially strong interest in Indian women and mixed her own incipient feminism with vocal advocacy for better treatment of Lakota and Chippewa women.

In one memorable passage she writes of the Lakota reaction to her husband’s ongoing artistic projects, noting that “our intercourse with the Sioux was greatly facilitated, and our influence over them much increased, by the success attending my husband’s efforts to paint their portraits”12. “They thought it supernatural (wahkun) to be represented on canvas…And if anything were wanting to complete our opportunities for gaining all information that was of interest, we found it in the daguerreotype,” she explains of the photo-ethnographic method she and her husband used. “Captain E., knowing they were about to celebrate a feast he wished to paint in group, took his apparatus out, and, when they least expected it, transferred the group to his plate. The awe, consternation, astonishment and admiration, surpassed description. ‘Ho! Eastman is all wahkun!”13. Eastman’s ability to “transfer the group to his plate” and the resulting “consternation” that comes from this exercise of representational power underscores the effectiveness of this technique in arranging and categorizing cultural and racial difference. While the Eastmans considered themselves to be advocates for the Lakota, they never attempted to share the privileged methods of representation—he pictorial and she verbal— they used to describe their subjects. Their aim in painting and writing about the Lakota was to establish a record of what they saw as a vanishing culture, not to advocate for their current and future political and social welfare.

In this respect, the Eastman project shared a number of formal characteristics with travel narratives and ethnographic studies from the period, which often documented the deteriorating state of American Indian communities with relative detachment. Due to the growth of American lithographic cartography, such texts also began to frequently comment upon and use lithographs as illustrations of current events in America, literally and figuratively visualizing the encounters and conflicts played out in the cities, fields, forests and courtrooms across the country. Lithography thus became an integrated component of literary and visual techniques for imagining the nation, both for Americans and visiting Europeans. Some, like Alexis de Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau, came to research the phenomenon of democratic capitalism that was beginning to alter European civil society as well. Others arrived in increasing numbers to eastern seaports seeking to appropriate for themselves the seductive image of prosperity projected across the Atlantic Ocean.

Eastman’s techniques for representing land were reflected in popular lithography, where it was not uncommon to see bird’s eye views of American cities, famous natural landmarks, and land speculation. In 1833, an aspiring and still relatively unknown lithographer named Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) completed his apprenticeship with the Pendleton Brothers in Boston and by 1834 had moved to New York City to set up his own lithographic shop. Currier’s inaugural year was a successful one, highlighted by his titillating bestseller, Ruins of the Planter's Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of the 15th of May 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives, which established his reputation as a printer of “disaster scenes” (see Figure 2) and other popular sensational subjects14. Putting his training with the Pendleton Brothers to good use, he did a brisk business in job printing and lithographic cartography, producing the first map based on accurate surveying data of Cleveland, Ohio, that same year.

In 1838, he printed fifty nine maps for James F. Smith’s The Cherokee Land Lottery: Containing a Numerical List of the Names of the Fortunate Drawers in Said Lottery, with an Engraved Map of Each District15. The book was a published record of the results of the act passed by the Georgia state assembly on 21 Dec 1832 in which Cherokee homelands were officially disbursed to war veterans, settlers, and land speculators. Although the Jackson Administration had successfully passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, those who had “won” tracts ($18 for a 160 acre plot) in the newly subdivided Cherokee County had to wait, as the Cherokee living in Northwestern Georgia, emboldened by a favorable judgment in the U.S. Supreme Court, were refusing to leave their homelands. At the direction of President Martin Van Buren, U.S. troops began to enforce the controversial Treaty of New Echota in May 1838, expelling the remaining Cherokee in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama in what has come to be known as the “Trail of Tears.” Timed to take advantage of this shameful event in American history, Smith’s catalog containing Currier’s lithographic reproductions offered the public its first glimpse of the newly created Cass (Bartow), Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Forsyth, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Murray, Paulding, and Union counties.

While The Cherokee Land Lottery was not intended to be read as a narrative (it is essentially a merchandise catalog), there is a story embedded within its tightly-packed tables of “fortunate drawers” and sparse maps indicating newly acquired property. In anticipation of the forced removal of the Cherokee, the United States Army dispatched a surveying party into Cherokee Territory in the winter of 1836 to conduct military reconnaissance of the area. Under the command of Captain William G. Williams, the expedition included a young officer who would soon become the most famous explorer in America, John Charles Frémont. “The country was mountainous and the face of it not accurately known,” notes Frémont in his memoirs, also mentioning that the “contingency of hostilities already threatening with the Indians” made the hastily organized winter mission necessary. “One of the pieces of work assigned to me was a reconnaissance of the Hiwassee River,” he recalls, “it was over very rough and tangled ground.” After having completed his surveying work with some difficulty, Frémont found shelter “at the log house of an Indian” that he called a “fine specimen of forest architecture [that] made quite an agreeable impression from its unexpectedness in such a place”16.

The maps reproduced by Currier were almost certainly based on Frémont and his party’s work. Their lithographic landscapes appear virtually empty, demonstrating the birds-eye cartographic technique employed by the United States Corps of Topographical Engineers, and more generally, in nineteenth-century American representations of landscape. Figures 3 and 4 show a lithographic reproduction of a section of Union County, Georgia on the Tennessee/North Carolina border and the winning bidders for these parcels. A stretch of Frémont’s assignment, the Hiwassee River, is visible in the lower section of the image, partially obscured by the superimposed numerical grid that corresponds to the lots awarded to winning bidders. The fallen trees and thick brush that forced Frémont to move through the area “like a foundered horse” are completely elided, as is the “handsome” Cherokee log cabin, to say nothing of the many internment camps built for the forced removal of the Cherokee located on the river’s banks17.

Cartographic lithographers such as Currier printed numerous land catalogs during this era of expansion that asserted possession of land through a powerfully discursive and panoptical model of expansion. This crucial new aspect of the image of America effectively insulated viewers from the ethical questions that remained buried in seemingly informational maps of territory and administrative acts. Did they not simply represent county lines, topographical features, and the capillary movement of major rivers? Without a means to connect the “social consequences” of these county maps to the ethical standards of a democratic society, the actors in these scenes, from Currier and Frémont to the new landlords of what was formerly Cherokee territory, could count themselves patriotic Americans acting in perfect harmony with free democratic principles. If these were the views that Americans were receiving of their own expansionist methods, is it any wonder then that even the most observant travelers to America during nineteenth-century strained to make out contemporary traces of Indian life?




1. Seth Eastman. Detail from Treatise on Topographical Drawing, 1837.


2. Nathaniel Currier. View of the great conflagration of Dec. 16th and 17th, 1835; from Coenties Slip, 1836. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  Link to LOC record and high definition image:

3.-4. James F. Smith “A Map of the 18th District, 1st Section of Originally Cherokee, now UNION COUNTY” in The Cherokee Land Lottery Containing A Numerical List of the Names of the Fortunate Drawers in Said Lottery with an Engraved Map of Each District, pages 56 and 56A. Harper Brothers, New York, 1838. Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier.





1. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Voyage aux Grandes Salines de Reichenhall. Eds. Angela Kuhk and Bernard Chevignard (Munich: Komission für Bayerische Landesgeschichte, 2003) p. 249.


2. Crèvecoeur arrived in Munich while Senefelder’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, which probably accounts for the former’s dismissive opinion. Of this period, Senefelder explains “I had even the mortification to see myself abused in the public papers, which asserted that, though I had discovered the principle of the art, which, from selfish motives, I had long kept a secret, yet I had never been able to apply it to any thing but music.” August Senefelder, A Complete Course in Lithography (London: R. Ackerman), p.69. Senefelder’s first successful transfer was reportedly a copy of a laundry list, which in fact foreshadowed many of the quotidian uses of the medium, including its application in cartography, itself a globally conceived and applied “to do list” that underwrites more artful applications of power. However, as Angela Kuhk and Bernard Chevignard suggest, portions of a private printing of Crèvecoeur’s unpublished narrative Voyage Aux Grandes Salines Tyroliennes de Riechenhall (1808) may very well have been executed by the lithographic atelier of the Senefelder brothers. “Neben der als Textgrundlage gewählten Fassung enthalten die insgesamt etwa 110 Seiten des Ersten Tages außerdem eine zusammenhängende erste und eine zweite Fassung des Textes (FF frühere Fassung' I: MS 37-58; FF II: MS 73-94). FF I ist eine in tensiv bearbeitete Fassung auf dickem weißen Papier, gebunden, ohne Seitenzahlen. Sie enthält diverse Drucke, bei denen es sich um Lithographieproben aus der Werkstatt der Senefelder-Brüder handeln könnte. Es ist die älteste erhaltene Fassung des Reichenhall-Manuskripts und enthält zahlreiche, häufig persönliche Abschnitte, die später verworfen wurden. Zahlreiche Seiten sind mit Neufassungen überklebt. (Voyage aux Grandes Salines p.*86).


3. Walter W. Ristow, “Lithography and Maps, 1796-1850.” Five Centuries of Map Printing. Ed. David Woodward. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 80.


4. The first lithograph produced for public consumption in the United States was a map, “Barton on the Catskills,” made by the New York firm Barton and Doolittle in 1822. While Bass Otis is credited with making the first American lithograph in 1819, he did so for experimental rather than commercial or artistic purposes. William A. Barnet and Isaac Doolittle, who had both been exposed to lithography while living in Paris, immediately began planning to use the technology in America. After learning the technique and procuring materials, they set up shop in New York near the beginning of 1822. See Ristow, p.105.


5. See Sally Pierce and Catherina Slautterback. Boston Lithography, 1825-1880: The Boston Athenaeum Collection (Boston: Boston Athenaeum, 1991) for a history and representative sample of early Boston lithography.


6. James Monroe, “Seventh Annual Message, December 2, 1823.” John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters,The American Presidency Project. Santa Barbara, CA. Available from World Wide Web:



7. Robert Harley, “Can There Be a Cartographic Ethics?” The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Ed. Paul Laxton. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p.198.


8. Ibid, p.198.


9. While the lithographic reproduction of military surveys largely served internal strategic purposes, advances in the lithographic process toward the end of the century led to profound changes in the way in which governments conducted psychological warfare. The photographic pioneer Nadar’s use of balloons to distribute French leaflets during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 marks the first concerted use of lithographic reproductions as central components of a propaganda campaign, which remains a widespread military practice, as evidenced by the extensive airborne distribution of printed materials by the armed forces of the United States in the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.


10. Seth Eastman, Treatise on Topographical Drawing (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1837), p. 2.


11. In 1831 during his first deployment to Fort Snelling, Eastman fathered a child, Nancy (Wakantankanwin) with Wakaninajin-win, one of the daughters of Mahpiyawicosta, chief of a Sioux village at Lake Calhoun. Nancy died seven months after the birth of her son, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa,1858-1939), who became significant voice in American Indian affairs, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and writing a number of books on Lakota ethnohistory.


12. Mary Henderson Eastman, Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling. (Afton: Afton Historical Society Press, 1995), p.12.


13. Ibid., p. 12.


14. Currier’s business grew as he continued to pursue subject material for “Cheap and Popular Pictures.” In 1852 he was introduced to James Merritt Ives, who helped Currier completely reorganize the firm’s business operations. The partnership of “Currier and Ives” was formed in 1857 and was to become the most successful and prolific lithographic studio of the nineteenth century, producing as many as five prints a week until 1907, when the firm closed.


15. James F. Smith, The Cherokee Land Lottery: Containing a Numerical List of the Names of the Fortunate Drawers in Said Lottery, with an Engraved Map of Each District (Greenville: Southern Historical Press, 1991).


16. John Charles Frémont, Memoirs of My Life (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001), pp. 24-25.


17. Ibid. p. 25 For a thorough accounting of the legal history of Indian removal in the American South, see Tim Alan Garrison, The Legal Ideology of Removal (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002).

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