Map of the United States of America: With the Contiguous British and Spanish Possessions, 1816


This 1816 map by John Melish (1771–1822) is the first to show the United States as a continental state, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Melish was a Scot who traveled extensively in the United States in 1806–7. In 1809 he returned to America and settled permanently in Philadelphia, where he advertised himself as “Geographer and Publisher” and set up the first U.S. firm dedicated to map publishing. In an accompanying booklet to this map, Melish explained that he initially intended to end his map at the Continental Divide. He decided to extend it to the Pacific Ocean for “part of this territory unquestionably belongs to the United States.” In 1816, much of the western part of the present-day United States was under Spanish control, but the young republic had staked a claim to the Oregon Territory. This claim was buttressed by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had reached the Pacific in 1805, and by the New York merchant John Jacob Astor’s chain of fortified fur-trading posts extending from the Missouri River to the mouth of the Columbia River. Melish’s map became well known and was used in treaty negotiations with the European powers over the future borders of the United States.

Last updated: February 18, 2015