Contact: Helen Dalrymple (202) 707-1940; Jill Brett (202) 707-2905

June 25, 2003

Library of Congress Exhibition on Explorations of the North American Continent Opens July 24

The only known copy of Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 world map is featured.

The Library of Congress exhibition, "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America," presents a century of exploration that features the expedition of the Corps of Discovery as the culminating moment in the quest to connect North America by means of a waterway passage. Opening in the Northwest Gallery and Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building on July 24, the exhibition will be on view through Nov. 29. Hours for the exhibition are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

The highlight of the exhibition is the display-for the first time at the Library of Congress-the large 1507 world map by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, which gave the name "America" to the new lands explored by Columbus and Vespucci. The map was the result of an ambitious project in St. Dié, France, in the early years of the 16th century, to update geographic knowledge flowing from the new discoveries of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The map is in 12 sections, each measuring 16 1/2 inches by 23 1/4 inches, for a total of 36 square feet. The Library recently purchased the map for $10 million from Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg of Germany. It is the only known extant copy from an original printing of 1,000 and Librarian of Congress James Billington has called it "the keystone of the Library's unparalleled collection of maps and atlases."

The Waldseemüller map, and what it shows about geographic knowledge of the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the 16th century, serves as an impressive prequel to the rest of the exhibition. The first map to ever name "America" sets the stage for an exhibition that illustrates the long process and the many journeys taken in order to reveal fully the actual configuration of America. The visitor's understanding is further enhanced by a digital prologue that illustrates how geographic knowledge of America evolved, from the Waldseemüller map to maps made in the mid-17th century.

"Rivers, Edens, Empires" shows how the Lewis and Clark journey was shaped by the search for navigable rivers, inspired by the quest for "Edens," and driven by competition for empire. Thomas Jefferson was motivated by these aspirations when he drafted instructions for the Corps of Discovery, sending the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River in search of a passage to the Pacific.

Writing to William Dunbar just a month after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their expedition, Jefferson emphasized the importance of rivers in his plan for western exploration and national expansion: "We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country." River highways could take Americans into an "Eden," Jefferson's vision of the West as the "Garden of the World." And those same rivers might be nature's outlines and borders for empire. "Future generations would," so Jefferson told his friend, "fill up the canvas we begin."

On their expedition, Lewis and Clark travel through a United States that, for the first time, reaches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and their journey undermines, eventually fatally, the belief that a river passage can be found. In the end, it was the transcontinental railroad, a river of steel, which provided the way to traverse the full breadth of the country.

Though map-based, "Rivers, Edens, Empires" is replete with other materials. The journeys are recorded in images (prints, drawings, and paintings) of the peoples and the lands that the explorers encountered. In diaries, letters, and logs, the journeymen noted their impressions. The exhibition also includes artifacts and samples of items brought back, as well as influential publications through which Americans learned of what was being experienced in the west of the country.

The first section of the exhibition, "Beyond the Allegheny Mountains," examines the Virginia conception of North America. From the earliest stages of Chesapeake Tidewater settlement, when mapmakers such as John Farrer depicted the Pacific Ocean lying just west of the Alleghenies, to the middle of the 18th century, Virginians, including Jefferson, dreamed of claiming these rich lands west of the mountains. Later, they envisioned that, by building canals and improving the navigation of the colony's major rivers, they could create vital connections across the mountains to the rest of the continent. A key map in this section is John Mitchell's 1755 hand-colored, engraved "Map of British and French Dominions in North America."

"The Spanish Entrada into the Southwest," explores Spanish knowledge of the continent. The geography of the Southwest remained relatively unknown outside the Spanish Empire, since the maps and accounts of their settlements in parts of what is now California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas were not published. A highlight of this section is a 1769 map by José de Urrútia and Nicolás de Lafora demarcating Indian villages, Spanish missions, and geographic feature in amazing detail.

"Exploration of the Missouri River" summarizes what was known of the geography of the interior of the continent at the beginning of the 18th century. From the early 17th century to the middle of the 18th century, France claimed and occupied a major portion of the interior of North America. Working in alliance with the Native Americans in exploiting the fur trade, the French explored, mapped and controlled much of the continent's interior drainage system. On display in this section is the James Mackay/Nicolas de Finiels manuscript map of the Missouri River, covering the area from Saint Charles, Mo., to the Mandan villages of North Dakota, which Lewis and Clark used in the 1804 expedition up the Missouri River.

"British Passage to the Pacific" features images from Captain James Cook's Pacific voyage, including those made at Nootka Sound; Commander Joseph Ingraham's diary of his voyage as a trader and explorer; and the 1801 Ac ko mok ki map, "An Indian Map of the Different Tribes, that Inhabit the East and West Side of the Rocky Mountains." The Indian map was a crucial source of geographic information recorded on other maps that Jefferson and Lewis consulted as they planned the journey west.

"The Louisiana Purchase," the next section of the exhibition, describes the importance of the 1803 treaty with France to acquire Louisiana, which gave the new nation not only access to the important port at New Orleans, but also all the lands west of the Mississippi, thus doubling the size of the United States. A manuscript of the treaty, from the Library's James Monroe papers, as well as a May 14, 1803, letter from Monroe to James Madison, are on view.

The next gallery is devoted completely to the journey of "Lewis and Clark." Featured here are many of the maps and manuscript documents from the Library's rich and extensive collections covering this period of the nation's history, including the papers of Thomas Jefferson, augmented with important loans from distinguished collections across the country.

Among the items on view are: the Nicholas King 1803 annotated map that the Corps of Discovery took on their journey; Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis for the journey; Jefferson's secret message to Congress requesting funding for the expedition; the Nicholas King 1805 map "of part of the continent of North America," which was compiled from information sent by Lewis halfway through the journey of the Corps of Discovery; and Jefferson's speech to the Indian chiefs (representing the Osages, Missouri, Otos, Panis, Cansas Ayowais, and Sioux) on their historic visit to Washington, D.C., in January 1806.

Journals, engravings, botanical and zoological specimens, and Indian artifacts on display in this section of the exhibition bring additional vivid detail to the journey of the Corps of Discovery and the country and people they encountered. These items also provide insight into how Lewis and Clark differed in their approach to diplomacy and geographic discovery. A second digital station animates the source maps that were used for the Lewis and Clark journey. This station shows how the geographic information was gathered for the Nicholas King 1803 map, which was then annotated by Lewis and Clark based on their actual observations. Thus, this digital station explains the organic nature of geographical knowledge and map-making. Source maps are summarized in a key map, which then is altered by new knowledge. Eventually, this necessitates a new key map, and so on.

Not only is the Library rich in Lewis and Clark-related material, it also holds impressive collections of other important expeditions, including those led by Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, Charles Wilkes and John Frémont. Those expeditions and others are examined in the final sections of the exhibition and place the remarkable trek made by the Corps of Discovery in the broad context of a century of exploration of the North American continent. An important contribution of these later journeys is the work of the artists and scientists who accompanied the expeditions, and the drawings they produced and specimens they collected along the way. Some of these can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

The epilogue of "Rivers, Edens, Empires" focuses on the surveys conducted for the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which finally closed the door on the 200-year quest for a direct water passage to connect the East with the West.

The concluding virtual map summarizes how the various expeditions revealed the North American continent as it is known today, by superimposing the findings of those voyages on a map of the current United States. For an online preview of the exhibition, go to the Library's Web site at

On Thursday, September 18, the Library of Congress and the International Center of Jefferson Studies will host a public symposium on themes related to those in this exhibition. For details, telephone (202) 707-4604.

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PR 03-116
ISSN 0731-3527

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