Geography: The First American Science

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Geography: The First American Science


Open-Air Laboratory. America was a virtual scientific laboratory for Europeans. The astonishing and hitherto unsuspected presence of North and South America became the measure by which scientists tested ancient theories of the size and shape of the Earth, the extent of oceans, and the nature of the worlds peoples. In 1590 the Spaniard José de Acosta speculated on the origins of the Native Americans in The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies. The gigantic laboratory of America allowed extensive fieldwork in search of data about mountains, rivers, lakes, and bays. Explorers turned geographers and cartographers fanned out across the continent in a seemingly endless process of hypothesis and analysis.

Endless Mountains. John Farrers Mapp of Virginia in 1651 revealed that the exact nature of the North American continent was still largely unknown. His map showed the Pacific Ocean at the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Soon after, in 1671, Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam saw from the Appalachians a vast country, not a sea, extending to the West. A more rational speculation about the extent of the continent began with John Lederers account of his own journey to the Appalachians. Lederer reached the eastern edge of the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge, and from there realized the error of the assumption that the continent was a narrow band separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Over the course of the next century British colonists became aware of French exploration of the Mississippi River valley and lands even farther west. The Appalachians became not a barrier to another sea but rather a barrier to the settlement of the rich lands to the West. Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750 discovered the Cumberland Gap, one of the many passes through the mountains to Kentucky and other fertile lands. When in 1785 Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, penned a description of what the Native Americans had called the endless mountains, there were few Appalachian locales not known to Americans or featured on maps.

Louisiana. The French led the way into the Mississippi River valley, which they dubbed Louisiana in honor of their king. Explorers who became naturalists, such as

Father Jacques Marquette and Father Louis Hennepin, descended the Mississippi River, explored its tributaries, described its topography, and wrote about its native peoples. Hennepins Description de la Louisiane (1683) is a masterful discussion of adventure, geography, and ethnography. In 1718 Guillaume Delisle published a map of Louisiana that would guide explorers for the next half-century. Meanwhile, French and Spanish explorers competed over, mapped, and familiarized themselves with the American coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. From 1738 to 1743 the Frenchman Sieur de La Vérendrye and his two sons explored and described the Dakotas. From knowledge of their expedition Philippe Buache drew a detailed map of Louisiana and the Great Lakes in 1754.

To the Sea. During their journey from the Missouri River to Santa Fe in 17391740, the brothers Pierre and Paul Mallet spotted unnamed mountains to the West. Jonathan Carver several decades later christened them the Shining Mountains. But the Rocky Mountains eluded exact exploration and description until after the American Revolution. Spanish explorers penetrated the wilderness west and south of the Rockies. Father Eusebio Kino explored and described the southwest region and California. His 1701 map showed California to be not an island, as cartographer Henry Briggs had thought in 1625, but a part of the mainland. Further Spanish narrative descriptions and maps of the West and Southwest, including the Rockies, were produced toward the close of the eighteenth century.


Science became sufficiently popular in eighteenth-century America that scientists with wanderlust in their hearts could travel throughout the land and earn a living. The most famous of these itinerant science lecturers was Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia, who was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, it was Franklin who suggested the idea of Kinnersleys traveling science show. Kinnersley set out in 1749 and toured the colonies north and south until 1753. He was a good speaker who had a flair for the dramatic. His science show focused mostly on experiments involving electricity. He claimed to be able to use electricity to burn a hole through a Quire of Paper, to kill small rodents, and to kindle wine with a spark of electricity sent through ten feet of water. Perhaps his most spectacular experiment was to send a spark through a ladys lips so that it was impossible for a suitor to kiss her. To show that lightning and electricity were the same, he used a small model of a house and sent sparks of electricity through its lightning rod. All the while Kinnersley taught Americans about electricity; under his direction science appeared as an entertaining and fascinating subject.

Source: Raymond Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of North America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).


William Goetzmann and Glyndwr Williams, The Atlas of North American Exploration (New York: Prentice Hall, 1992);

Louis Hennepin, Description of Louisiana (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938);

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia... (Paris: Privately printed, 1785);

Raymond Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of North America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).

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Geography: The First American Science

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