Ancient maps that influenced Lewis and Clark

The public is invited to a February 8 luncheon presentation in Kansas City, Mo., about ancient maps that shaped civilization’s view of huge unexplored regions of North America three centuries ago and influenced the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Dr. Don McGuirk, an author and retired pediatrician who lives in Kansas City, will focus his presentation on antiquarian maps from the 1700s. This will be a valuable learning experience for academic and amateur historians, as well as anyone interested in early quests for westward expansion in North America.

McGuirk’s presentation is sponsored by the non-profit Missouri-Kansas Riverbend Chapter of the national Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The Riverbend chapter is headquartered in Greater Kansas City.

Don McGuirk: “A map is a snapshot of the world at that moment, of what people knew in those days.”

Among the maps that McGuirk will discuss are ones that influenced the thinking of President Thomas Jefferson, as well as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leaders of an 1803-06 expedition into the unexplored Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark went on to create more accurate maps from their own on-site observations, including cartographic details of the Missouri River through Kansas City area.

Among the McGuirk maps will be one that focuses on the Mer de l’Ouest, the French name for a great inland sea—believed to be the size of the Mediterranean Sea—that supposedly existed west of the Great Lakes.

Early fur-trappers, traders and mapmakers, as well as the French, Spanish and British governments that governed eastern parts of America in the 1700s, were largely convinced that such a sea existed and was an easy route to lucrative trading markets in China.

The inland sea, however, was “only wishful thinking,” said McGuirk, the author of a non-fiction book, The Last Great Cartographic Myth: Mer de l’Quest. The Lewis and Clark Expedition disproved the theory about an inland sea.

“A map is a snapshot of the world at that moment, of what people knew in those days,” McGuirk pointed out. “Mapmakers were very educated people who used what information they had. Sometimes, though, they just made up a detail because they wanted it to be there.”

Mer de l’Ouest: The early map drawn with the mistaken belief that an inland sea—the size of the Mediterranean Sea—existed in America.

“What fascinates me is where and why they were wrong, and what information or dreams they had to create cartographic myths on their maps,” he said.

McGuirk began his own map quest when he was a boy of about 8 years old and read a back-page comic book advertisement selling three early map reproductions. He mailed in the $2 payment for the maps and thus launched his lifelong interest in maps.

He now owns more than 200 antiquarian maps, some of which were made on cloth paper rather than wood-pulp paper used today. Thanks to the hardier cloth paper, some of McGuirk’s maps from 300 or 400 years ago remain in such good shape that they look like they were printed yesterday, he said.

Register now for the event:

The presentation will follow lunch at Cascone’s Restaurant, 3733 N. Oak Trafficway. Cost for lunch and presentation: $25 a person. To register, mail a check before February 5 made out to the Mo-Kansas Riverbend Chapter LCTHF to Karen McKeever, 912 N.E. Karapat, Kansas City, Mo., 64155. Seating is limited, so please email McKeever at prior to mailing your check to ensure seating is available.

For more information about the February 8 event:

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