National Geographic : 1953 Jun
The Opening of the American West: Burr's 1840 Map ONLY a little more than a century ago, when David H. Burr drew this map for the United States Senate Committee on the Oregon Terri tory, he was not always sure what he was doing, so vague was the knowledge of some rivers, mountains, and deserts. The fur trappers-bearded, shaggy mountain men-blazed many a trail through the Rockies, but few left written records. They were busy enough. They fought grizzly bears with knives, matched the Indians' wilderness skills, and bragged and roistered at their annual jamborees. Search ing for beaver pelts, they trod hidden valleys and attained the headwaters of mighty rivers. One of these men was Jedediah Smith, the first known American to lead a party overland into Mexican California. Called the pathfinder of path finders, Smith in 1826 crossed the Mojave Desert. On his return he made the first crossing of the high Sierra Nevada (probably near the head waters of the Stanislaus) and then crossed the Basin Region to Bear Lake (Trout Lake). Most historians have overlooked Smith be cause his journals were lost, but map maker Burr must have known his works because he drew in Smiths River and the Inconstant (the Mojave), both in California, and the Adams (the Virgin), a Colorado River tributary. Burr ignored the pioneer work of Joseph R. Walker, who crossed the Sierras in 1833, dis covered the Yosemite Valley, and brought back the first description of the Sierra redwoods. He similarly slighted Walker Pass and Walker Lake. Nation Was Swiftly Expanding Westward When Burr's map was drawn, Great Britain and the United States were at odds over the Oregon frontier. The covered-wagon pioneers, who started streaming into the Northwest in 1842, clamored for a boundary settlement favor able to the United States. James Polk cam paigned for the Presidency in 1844 crying "Fifty four forty or fight!"-a degree of latitude that would have pushed American claims to the Alaska boundary; but later, when the British refused to budge, Polk compromised on the 49th parallel. Meanwhile, Texas, having won its independence from Mexico in 1836, joined the United States by annexation in 1845, an act which helped touch off war with Mexico. The United States' quick victory added all of California, Utah, and Nevada, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming in 1848. Thus, eight years after Burr drew his map, the Nation had grown almost to its present size. Only the Gadsden Purchase (named for the American negotiator) remained to be added in 1853. Southern sympathizers hoped to build the first transcontinental railroad across the Purchase, a small strip of Arizona and New Mexico. Even tually the Southern Pacific accomplished the proj ect, but only after the Central Pacific, building eastward, and the Union Pacific, heading west, had met at Promontory Point, Utah. There on May 10, 1869, the union of Atlantic and Pacific was sealed with a golden spike.