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In the years following the Civil War, federal scientific exploration of the American west intensified rapidly, and so too did the flow of texts that sought to fix the region within the framework of scientific discourse. Among the most authoritative of these texts was Francis Amasa Walker’s innovative Statistical Atlas of the United States. Published in 1874, this oversized compendium of maps, graphs, statistical tables, and essays by scientists, economists, and federal officials was the first comprehensive thematic atlas produced by any nation, and it was hailed both at home and abroad for its innovative use of graphic elements to distill and display complex data. The text drew upon the latest printing technologies and institutional structures to visually and rhetorically stabilize a dynamic social field during a period of rapid change, while also extending the nation’s view across the interior west, which to that point had been only vaguely defined. Drawing upon the culturally privileged language of quantification, objectivity, and empiricism, and stamped with the increasingly prestigious imprimatur of institutional science, Walker’s atlas offered an ostensibly unmediated reflection of the American social and geographic landscape, and it revealed the nation to itself in new and sometimes unexpected ways, especially with regard to the west, a region emblematic of the nation’s future.
This article argues that despite the atlas’s aura of distanced objectivity, its presentation of hard facts and “exact knowledge” is framed by a textual and visual image of the United States consonant with expansionist practices and policies, as well as the values and desires of the emergent industrial order. The text’s expansionist orientation is most acutely apparent in its representation of Native Americans and their place, both literally and figuratively, in the nation’s “imperial sweep” across the continent and in its reconfiguration of the west as a resource frontier to be exploited through largescale capital investment rather than independent agrarian settlement in the Jeffersonian mold.