In 1879, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was established to map the territory of the United States. The USGS drafted topographical maps that attempted to describe the natural features of the land. Below are two passages: the first comes from the USGS website and describes the early work of the surveyors; the second is an interpretation of the reasons the United States had for mapping a natural landscape. Pay attention the aspects of mapmaking that each passage emphasizes.
A. The USGS and the Mapping of America
Planetable surveying by turn-of-the-century USGS topographers
Initially charged by Congress with the "classification of the public lands," the USGS began topographic and geologic mapping in 1879. Most of the early USGS mapping activities took place in the vast, largely uninhabited Western United States.
Extreme challenges awaited these mapping pioneers. Travel was arduous and costly. Many locations could be reached only by mule pack train. Furthermore, surveying and mapping instruments were crude by today's standards. Most maps were made using a classic mapping technique called planetable surveying.
Planetable surveying took great skill and, depending on the mapping site, equal daring. Carrying a planetable‚—essentially a portable drawing board on a tripod with a sighting device--the topographer would climb to the area's best vantage point and carefully plot on the map those features that could be seen and measured in the field. Planetable surveying remained the dominant USGS mapping technique until the 1940's, when it gave way to the airplane and the age of photogrammetry.
B. Meaning of Topographic Maps
The intentional meaning behind the . . . federal public-land-survey grid to the official topographical series published by the U.S. Geological Survey is straightforward: to assist in locating areas and to assign exclusive coordinates to them. The implicational meaning lies elsewhere in the related concepts of resource inventory, identification, allocation, and purchase of private property; property protection and access through thousands of miles of barbed-wire fencing and pavement; manifest destiny; and the geometry of American society. The act of designing and producing such a map is an action of subjugation and appropriation of nature, a basic value of American society, not merely the reification of an idle curiosity in recording dimensions.
Robert. “A Cultural In
terpretation of Inuit Map Accuracy,” Geographical Review, 80(2), 162, in Denis Wood, The Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press, 1992. 79.