History, History Column

National Geography Awareness Week…Who Knew?

By ©2023 Sarah Becker

“For generations, comprehension of world and national geography has been considered essential to the education of Americans,” President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1987. “Yet, today, in an interdependent world where knowledge of other lands and cultures is increasingly important, studies show that Americans need more geographical knowledge [especially] geography’s physiographic, historical, social, economic, and political aspects.”

Public Law 100-78 designated the third week of November—November 13–17, this year—as National Geography Awareness Week. “The Week started 36 years ago not with a bang, but with a graceful launch,” The National Geographic Society [NGS] said.

“The lure of land and the promise of freedom have gone hand in hand as dual attractions of America since the arrival of the first Europeans,” NGS agreed. “Vast stretches, apparently endless, beckoned them.”

“Along the east coast of what is now the United States, Great Britain created 13 diverse colonies,” NGS continued. “A few men received huge royal grants; thousands of other settlers acquired acreage for little or no cash.”

In 1632 George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore [1625] petitioned England’s King Charles I for a grant, for the rights to a North American region east of the Potomac River. The Charter was granted in June 1632. It was his son Cecilius who planned “the planting of the colony of Maryland.”

“Westward the Course of Empire takes the Way,” poet and Irish-Anglican bishop George Berkeley wrote in 1726.

“After the Americans won their war for independence, diplomats at the 1783 treaty table dickered over boundaries,” NGS explained. “The region they got was larger than most of Western Europe.” The remaining question: as Connecticut engraver Abel Buell’s March 1784 map, the country’s first copyrighted map implies —who controlled the West, the area beyond the Appalachians?

“Abuell’s map documents a unique time,” the Library of Congress wrote. “Until the adoption of the Constitution [1787], the federal government could not establish internal boundaries between states nor force the surrender or sale of western lands claimed by some of the states under their original charters.”

Thomas Jefferson, the son of a surveyor, submitted the second draft of his Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory to the United States Congress Assembled on April 23, 1784. The Report suggested that new states could be formed from the western territories and admitted to the Union on an equal basis. The resulting legislation paved the way for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the Midwest’s political introduction of Virginia’s William Henry Harrison.

Also in 1784: Virginia ceded its claim to territory from the Ohio River to Canada to the federal government. The state of Georgia organized The Tennessee Company; Spain closed the lower Mississippi to navigation, Captain John Greene’s voyage to Canton, China ended successfully, and Russia established its first permanent settlement in Alaska.

Question: In what year did the United States acquire Alaska: did U.S. Secretary of State William Seward arrange to buy the “large lump of ice” for two cents an acre, for the cost of $7,200,000? Answer: The 1867 purchase was known as Seward’s folly. The land, though seemingly barren, was rich in furs and fish.

On September 1, 1784, surveyor George Washington, the retired commander-in-chief of the Continental Army headed west to study land opportunities. “What may be the result of the Indian Treaty I pretend not to say,” Washington wrote on November 3, 1784. “If a large cession of territory is expected from them, a disappointment I think will ensue.”

“Such is the rage for speculating in, and forestalling of Lands on the No. West side of the Ohio, that scarce a valuable spot within any tolerable distance of it, is left without a claimant,” Washington continued. “Men in these times, talk with as much facility of fifty, a hundred, and even 500,000 Acres as a Gentleman formerly would do of 1000 acres. In defiance of the proclamation of Congress, they roam over the Country on the Indian side of the Ohio—mark out Lands—Survey—and even settle them.”

“There is no Utopian Scheme,” Washington concluded, “[but] to have actual Surveys of the Western territory; more especially of the Rivers which empty into the Ohio on the North West side thereof, which have the easiest & best communications with Lake Erie…is an important business, and admits of no delay—it would shew the value of those Lands more clearly –it would attract the attention of the Settlers, and the Traders—it would give the Tone & fix ideas that at present are as floating as chaos.”

Thomas Jefferson’s book, Notes on Virginia is described by most as “the most important scientific…book written by an American before 1785.” Historian William Peden claims his Rivers section stands as a prototype of publications produced a century later by the U.S. Geological Survey.

In 1786 Jefferson, Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles urged Connecticut’s John Ledyard to seek a Pacific route across North America, “to explore the western part of our continent by passing thro St. Petersburg and Kamchatka [Russia]…to Nooka Sound [Vancouver Island].”  Ledyard journeyed to Russia only to be expelled.

Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States in November 1800. President Jefferson [1801-1809, VA-DR] launched [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark’s expedition west in 1803, 220 years ago: the same year the state of Ohio was retroactively admitted to the Union.

“We have been many years wishing to have the Missouri explored, & whatever river, heading with that, runs into the Western ocean,” President Jefferson wrote on February 27, 1803. “Congress, in some secret proceedings, has yielded to a proposition I made them permitting me to have it done. It is to be undertaken immediately with a party of about ten, & I have appointed Capt. Lewis, my secretary, to conduct it.” Lewis invited Clark, an expert marksman, to join the expedition in June 1803.

“It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for the undertaking,” Jefferson continued. “All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has—altho’ no regular botanist, etc., he possesses a remarkable store of accurate observations on all the subjects [and] has qualified himself for taking those observations of longitude & latitude necessary to fix the geography of the line he passes through.”

In 1803 Jefferson depended on fellow American Philosophical Society [APS] members to prepare Lewis for the journey. APS, located in Philadelphia was the nation’s oldest Society dedicated to the pursuit of scientifically “useful knowledge.” Quaker physician Caspar Wistar schooled Lewis in fossils and anatomy. Physician Benjamin Rush tutored him in medicine; Mr. Andrew Ellicott in astronomy.

“The object of this undertaking [is] to encourage settlements and establish seaports on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which would not only facilitate our whaling and sealing voyages, but enable our enterprising merchants to carry on a more direct and rapid trade with China and East India,” The Martinsburg Intelligencer recounted.

Lewis joined Clark in Indiana in October 1803. Together they formed the Corps of Discovery then wintered at Camp River Dubois. Their trek west resumed on May 14, 1804. Jefferson wanted not only future claims to western lands beyond the Louisiana Purchase, but also the federal backing of such.

Not all Indians were friendly. “The Warriors are Very, much deckerated with Paint, Pocupin quils & feathers, large leagins & mockersons, all with Buffalo roabs of Different Colours,” Clark chronicled.

The Corps eventually secured the services of an Indian interpreter. French trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his pregnant Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, joined the group in November 1804. A year later—the Pacific Ocean was within view.

“[W]e have penetrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean,” Lewis wrote Jefferson on September 23, 1806, “and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm…that we have discovered the most practicable route which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers…”

“We view this passage…as affording immense advantages to the fur trade,” Lewis concluded. In addition to animal skins, “I have also preserved a pretty extensive collection of plants, and collected nine other vocabularies.” Three years later APS member William Maclure produced the first geological map of the United States [1809].

“I had long deemed it incumbent on the authorities of our country to have the great Western wilderness beyond the Mississippi explored,” Jefferson wrote in 1822, “to make known its geography, its natural productions, its general character and inhabitants.”

The love of discovery lived on long after the Lewis & Clark expedition ended. The Philosophical Society of Alexandria was formed “at the store of William Stabler” on June 17, 1832. Officers included apothecary William Stabler, educator Benjamin Hallowell, and shoemaker Reuben Johnston, Sr. “Barometrical & thermometrical observations” were just some of the topics discussed.

Geography, as defined by The American Heritage dictionary: “the science dealing with the earth’s natural features, climate, resources and population; the physical characteristics, especially the surface features of an area.”

My book pick for the Week of: Mapping the West with Lewis & Clark, by Ralph Ehrenberg and Herman Viola [2015]. This month we celebrate not only Lewis & Clark’s expedition west, but also—as per the United Nations 1966 Outer Space Treaty—America’s new frontier. Four countries now race to mine the newly discovered layers of the moon.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

5.00 avg. rating (95% score) - 1 vote