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Uncommon Sense


By oieahc · May 18, 2022

Can historians make archival discoveries?

WMQ 10 min read

By Robert Lee

Robert Lee is an Assistant Professor of American History and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge and the author of “‘A Better View of the Country’: A Missouri Settlement Map” in Sources and Interpretations published in the January 2022 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.


A decade ago, news surfaced of the identification of a report at the National Archives by a surgeon who attended a dying Abraham Lincoln. The story lit up the wires and led to a pair of dueling essays in The Atlantic about so-called archival discoveries. One argued that If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery. The other insisted that Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There. The question they raised—Can historians make archival discoveries, or is that rhetoric a form of Columbusing that erases archival labor?—lurked in the background as I worked on “‘A Better View of the Country’: A Missouri Settlement Map by William Clark” (WMQ, Jan. 2022).

My article focuses on a single map (Fig. 1), a document which, like the report by Lincoln’s surgeon, has lain hidden in plain sight at the National Archives. I wrote it specifically with the quarterly’s “Sources and Interpretations” section in mind, so you can imagine my relief when it was accepted.

The map in question is not much of a looker. It’s little more than a rough sketch, a step above a doodle. There’s no cartouche or scale. There’s no signature or date, either. It does, however, have an easily digestible claim to fame, or at least it does now. For reasons I lay out in the article, it’s possible to deduce that William Clark drew it to accompany a letter he sent to the Secretary of War in 1816. And Clark is a Very Famous Person. He’s no Lincoln, of course, but he’s close.

Fig. I: William Clark’s Map of Missouri (1816)

Map of Extent of Settlement in Mississippi Valley, n.d. (misdated by the archive as 1808). William Clark sent this undated, unsigned map of the Missouri Territory to Washington, D.C., in 1816. Map enclosed with Eli B. Clemson to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Sept. 26, 1808, C-267(4) Enc., Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Main Series, 1801-1870, RG 107, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

More than a familiar figure tied to his own problematic discourse of discovery, Clark has been lionized as a cartographer, which is also part of the reason his 1816 Missouri settlement map stands out. Scholars identified virtually all of Clark’s known manuscript maps in the first half of the twentieth century. The map in “A Better View of the Country” is the first to come to light since the early 1950s.

Does that make this a discovery? The case is hardly clear-cut.

It’s not like Clark’s map was forgotten in an attic or pasted into a lampshade. The National Archives has kept it safe for decades. I didn’t even have to go to Washington DC to see it! I came across it at a microfilm reader hundreds of miles away, where I had parked myself for weeks on end going through the Secretary of War’s correspondence. In a broad sense, the map was where it was supposed to be. By deeming the Secretary of War’s papers worth preserving and microfilming them for greater protection and accessibility, the National Archives and its staff engineered the possibility of my encounter long before I was born.

On the other hand, Clark’s map wasn’t precisely where it was supposed to be, and according to the National Archives, it wasn’t even Clark’s. At some point, probably in the nineteenth century, it got misfiled among the tens of thousands of letters in the Secretary of War’s files. When it arrived at the National Archives, someone likely processed it where it stood and preserved the map’s misfiling. They put it in a folder that effectively misdated the map and misattributed it to another author (Fig. II). In other words, the archival labor that preserved this document also made it harder to find. Hard enough, in fact, that a historian doing research in the collection where it is located declared the map missing in the 1950s.

Fig. II: National Archives Folder Label for Clark’s Misfiled Map

Folder label identifying Clark’s 1816 settlement map (“Map of extent of settlement in Mississippi Valley, n.d. [1808]”) as an enclosure of a letter written by Eli B. Clemson in 1808. Eli B. Clemson to the Secretary of War, 26 September 1808, C-267(4) Enc., Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Main Series, 1801-1870, RG 107, M221, roll 19, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

How, then, did I locate it? Unfortunately for my ego, it’s not a case of preternatural ability. I wasn’t even looking for it. Rather, I was studying how Clark’s work as Missouri’s Territorial Governor and Indian Superintendent ushered US-Indian treaty lines into and out of existence. My eyes weren’t sharper than others. My questions were different, which led me to look close enough to suspect that something was off about the map’s placement. This prompted me to start pulling the threads that led to Clark and finally to realize what this document reveals about how the US-Indian treaty system shaped the United States.

Once attributed, Clark’s map emerges as an important piece of evidence in a little-known story about how he unilaterally pushed back an Osage treaty boundary to lay federal claim to 10.5 million acres of Sauk, Meskwaki, and Iowa territory north of the Missouri River after the War of 1812. The move triggered a huge land rush that caused a spike in Missouri’s settler and enslaved populations, tipping the territory toward statehood and the United States into the Missouri Crisis. I’ve written about these events elsewhere and I’ll say more about them in a book I’m writing on US expansion into the Missouri River valley, but I’ve never seen them illustrated so clearly as they appear on this rough sketch.

If you’ve seen a map of the United States that includes the state of Missouri, then you’ve seen the effects of the land grab documented on Clark’s 1816 settlement map, even if it didn’t register. How could it? Clark’s land grab fell out of living memory and the historiographical record long ago. His settlement map never made it into that record at all. “A Better View of the Country” tries to bring back both.

But did I call it a discovery? You’ll have to take a look to find out.

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