This decorative folding map was issued by the famous cartographic printing company of J.H. Colton in New York. It constitutes an up-to-date map of the great Midwestern states, most of which had achieved statehood within recent decades, and was intended to guide visitors and especially immigrants looking for the right place to settle in their western sojourn. The explicit goal of this map is reflected in the title and the fact that it was issued as a folding pocket map and not as a broadsheet intended for display.
The map is easy to use and gives us a comprehensive overview of most of the Midwest. State lines are drawn in a thick red, whereas the counties are colored in different shades, allowing easy distinction. It includes all of the expected infrastructure: towns and villages, postal roads and wagon trails, and most importantly, the ever-expanding railroad system on which most transcontinental travelers relied. In the upper right corner, we find a table with relevant census statistics from 1850, which provide a basic framework for each state’s economy. The table includes demographics, livestock, agricultural and manufacturing output, and state finances (from 1852).
Pioneering American surveyor and geographer John Calvin Smith regularly worked on commission for a range of New York firms and is most famous for his maps and charts of New York and its surroundings. Smith nevertheless authored maps of the entire country and frontier regions and would later be one of the founding members of the American Geographical Society. It is unclear whether Smith worked on commission for Colton before they acquired most of his plates in 1853, but the acquisition allowed them to issue all of Smith’s maps in the Colton name – including this one. The map was printed from the original engraved plate and was subsequently hand-colored by a professional colorist within the Colton firm.
Context is everything
This particular map was produced at a critical point in American history. On the one hand, the nation was expanding. Midwestern territories gained statehood in the first half of the 19th century: Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Missouri in 1821, Michigan in 1837, Iowa in 1846, and Wisconsin in 1848. On the other hand, the Civil War was just five short years away. The war made the already potentially dangerous activities of travel and immigration a much more complicated and perilous affair, altering the dynamics of immigrant mobility and nation-building that otherwise characterized the second half of the 19th century.
This timing allows us to characterize an otherwise unassuming pocket map as a significant manifestation of the American dream. It is a reflection of America’s promise of freedom and the pursuit of happiness and prosperity and a testimony to the many many souls that followed that dream in the mid 19th century. Ultimately, this is a historical product associated with two of the most important names in the history of American cartography.