Department of Special Collections and University Archives
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Maps of the American West

Thomas Jefferys' 1776 American Atlas


The American Atlas: or,
A Geographical Description of the
Whole Continent of America
by the late Mr. Thomas Jefferys, 1776

Thomas Jefferys, “Geographer to the King, and Others,” was one of the more well-known commercial cartographers working in London during the middle of the eighteenth century.  His firm produced a wide array of maps portraying much of the world but it was his maps of North America published in the years leading up to the American Revolution for which Jefferys was most noted. 

According to geographer and Jefferys’ biographer J.B. Harley, Jefferys was not actually a geographer but rather an engraver and publisher of maps.  Being a politically connected businessman and entrepreneur, Jefferys benefited from his access to a wide variety of maps available through the British military and other governmental offices.  As was common in the ethically flexible map trade of the time, Jefferys made a name for himself by publishing maps assembled and drawn by others in addition to those his firm produced. 

The 1776 Atlas was a collection of twenty-nine maps, the majority of which represented the most noteworthy cartographic documentation of North America to be published during the colonial period.  This was due to the importance, accuracy and detail of the individual maps within the atlas.  Many of these would not see significant improvement until the nineteenth century.  Several were based on colonial manuscript maps, charts and surveys used prior to Jefferys’ publication by American colonists and British soldiers.  With its particularly well known and detailed maps of the American colonies, such as the 1774 edition of the Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England, the Atlas found great demand as colonists rose up in revolt.

The scale of the atlas’s maps was striking; in many cases a single map required several sheets which made production of the larger maps extremely labor intensive.  After engraving they were printed on the required number of sheets, hand colored, glued together and then folded to fit in the atlas.  The map of The River Mississippi “Taken on an Expedition to the Illinois” in 1765 and “Improved from the Surveys of that River made by the French” serves as a visually impressive example.  At nearly four feet in length its large size is perhaps suggestive of the essential role the great river would soon play as rival empires sought to control the western half of the continent.

Map five in the atlas should be of particular interest to students of the trans-Mississippi West.  As described in the index of the atlas, this is a map of “North America on a large Scale, wherein are described and distinguished the British and Spanish Dominions, according to the Articles of the Definitive Treaty of Peace concluded at Paris the 10th of February, 1763; which Articles are engraved on the Map.”  This large map (approximately 22” x 48”) was produced by Emanuel Bowen, “Geographer to His Majesty,” in 1763.  In contrast to the detailed typography of the country east of the Appalachian Mountains and that in the southwest of Spanish New Mexico, a large insert of Baffin and Hudson’s Bay covers an unknown Great Plains and inter-mountain West.

This obscuring of what was unknown highlights the true lack of accurate knowledge European cartographers had of the West.  This would soon change.  Through the work of skilled map makers such as Alexander von Humboldt, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Henry S. Tanner, and U.S. Army expeditions under the direction of Zebulon M. Pike and Stephen H. Long, the geographic knowledge of the American West would increase substantially over the next fifty years.

On the TU Catalogue

Special Collection's Maps of the American West

Thomas Jefferys' 1776 American Atlas


Alexander von Humboldt's 1803 Map of Kingdom of New Spain Zebulon M.Pike's 1810 A Chart of the Internal Part of Louisiana Stephen H. Long's 1822 Geographical, Statistical and Historical Map of Arkansas Territory (from the Carey  and Lea Atlas of 1822) Henry S. Tanner's 1822 Map of North America Josiah Gregg's 1844 A Map of the Indian Territory, Northern Texas and New Mexico Showing the Great Western Prairies Augustus Mitchell's 1846 A New Map of the Texas, Oregon and California With the Regions Adjoining 

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Revised: 02/13/11.