- Surveying the Early Republic: The Journal of Andrew Ellicott, U.S. Boundary Commissioner in the Old Southwest, 1796–1800 ed. by Robert D. Bush
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are undeniably the most famous government–sponsored explorers in the early American republic, but they certainly were not the only ones as readers will learn in this revised edition of United States Boundary Commissioner Andrew Ellicott’s account of his exploration of the Old Southwest from 1796–1800. Edited by Robert D. Bush, the first–person journal chronicles the experiences of this revolutionary war veteran, school teacher, businessman, and Washington, D.C., surveyor, after he accepted a commission from President George Washington to survey the border between the United States and Spain following the ratification of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney’s Treaty) in 1796. Stretching from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, roughly along the thirty–first degree of latitude above the equator, it was a boundary that cut through Spanish and Indian settlements and territories that most Americans knew little, if anything, about.
There is much in this journal for scholars and serious students of the Old Southwest in the early national period. An educated and enlightened Federalist, Ellicott painstakingly describes the people and institutions, plants and animals, and flora and fauna of the region he explored. Though an untrained scientist and self–described “indifferent botanist” (235), he is deft at detailing the various plants, trees, and animals he comes across throughout his difficult and dangerous journey, offering the names and species of nearly every living thing he [End Page 363] encounters. That being said, readers may most appreciate Ellicott’s insightful, albeit limited social and political commentary. Among the various topics addressed are the malfeasance of Spain’s colonial government, which long refused to abide by the terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo and continually threatened Ellicott and his contingent with arrest, violence, and worse; the Florida rebellion of British revolutionary William Augustus Bowles; westward expansion and European–American settlements in Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola; the relationship between disease and climate; and the observation of ancient Indian ruins and other “natural curiosities” (39). Dozens of pages of official correspondence between Ellicott and both Spanish and American officials, which are copied and translated throughout the journal’s pages, are an added bonus. Above all else, Ellicott’s journal succeeds in transporting readers to a different time and place when intrepid Americans traversed treacherous terrain in terrible weather for months on end in the name of both nation and science.
Notwithstanding these notable achievements, the book could have been made required reading for a wider audience with two additions. First, in a travel journal describing an excursion lasting more than three years through hundreds of miles of what was widely regarded as unchartered territory, the inclusion of only three small maps and a miniature sketch means the editor has missed an opportunity to take the reader by the hand and walk them along the exact same creeks, paths, streams, and rivers traveled by Ellicott and his party. Too often the lack of a visual geographic guide, along with the continued use of names that fell out of use centuries ago without any modern reference to compensate, leaves the reader wondering where exactly it was these explorers walked, slept, or sailed at any particular moment. Everyone is familiar with the route Lewis and Clark took, thanks to a variety of easily accessible visual aids, both in print and online, that show the path they traveled from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Inclusion of a similar device or devices here would have helped significantly. [End Page 364]
Second, the greatest contribution an edited volume of a previously published primary historical text often makes to the scholarly community are the detailed footnotes and other references the editor provides, which clarify, explain, and contextualize the document while offering important insight...