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Mapping Out A Mystery

In this photograph of the Preuss map, you can see Mount St. Helens in the middle of the top half of the map.

In this guest blog post, Dr. Mark Stegmaier, Professor of History at Cameron University in Oklahoma, discovers that sometimes even professional researchers find answers to questions when—and where—they aren’t looking for them!

In the Winter 2009 issue of Prologue magazine, Dr. Richard McCulley of the National Archives and I published an article titled “Cartography, Politics, and Mischief” describing and analyzing the features on a map of the United States drawn in late 1848 by Ephraim Gilman of the U.S. General Land Office as a document to accompany President James K. Polk’s last annual message of December 1848.

Dr. McCulley and I realized that Gilman had used other maps as sources for information for his own map. However, the map from which Gilman copied place names and terrain features for the section of his map depicting the northwestern part of the country—the recently organized Oregon Territory—eluded our efforts to locate it in several prominent collections of maps.

But sometimes historical investigators experience strange and serendipitous events in their research efforts.

I was doing research on an entirely different topic at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. This institution is now located on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis and shares the same building as the university’s library. Before reaching the UMSL reference desk, you first pass by a wall of framed prints and other items.

As I approached the reference desk, a framed map on the wall caught my eye and, immediately recognizing it as an early map of the northwest Pacific Coast area, I ventured to look it over. Sure enough, it proved to be the very map of the region that Dr. McCulley and I had been unable to find earlier.

A close up of the Preuss map. Photograph by Mark Stegmaier, courtesy of the St. Louis Mercantile Library

I find it a bit embarrassing to point out that the map in question is not obscure and should have been in at least one of the collections that we checked. This “Map of Oregon and Upper California from the Surveys of John Charles Fremont and Other Authorities” was drawn by noted mapmaker Charles Preuss by order of the U.S. Senate and lithographed by E. Weber & Co. of Baltimore in 1848.

Preuss designated the Willamette River as the “Wahlah-math River” and Ft. Walla Walla as “Ft. Wahlah-Wahlah”; with very minor alterations, Ephraim Gilman borrowed Preuss’s curious spellings for these place names.

In our earlier article, Dr. McCulley and I attributed many of Gilman’s factual errors and misspellings to the haste with which he struggled to meet his deadline for finishing the map in time for Polk’s message to Congress. Among his errors Gilman emplaced Mt. St. Helens south of the Columbia River, even though Preuss’s map correctly showed the mountain as lying north of the Columbia.

The copy of the Preuss map hanging in a frame near the reference desk in the UMSL library is in an excellent state of preservation and is a part of the map collection of the Mercantile Library. And I, for one, am very grateful that they decided to put that particular map on public display.

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Comments

Comment from Scott Phillips
Time June 7, 2011 at 9:25 am

Great story! What a great example of always needing to be ‘heads up’! Thanks!

Comment from Sarah
Time June 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

I love those little light bulb moments when those nagging little research problems get solved. Nice article.