Mountain Cartography of the Wild West: 19th Century mapping of the wagon road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton

Matthew Hampton


In the spring of 1853, under the United States Congressional authority an expedition was organized to survey the geographical and topological character of the western U.S between the 45th and 49th parallels. The goal was to explore a transcontinental route through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean for the Great Northern Railroad. Lieutenant John Mullan took command of a small group that wintered over in Missoula, Montana to face the daunting task of finding a route through the Bitteroot Mountains. Later, it would be Lt. John Mullan in charge of building a wagon road through the same mountainous area to connect Fort Benton on the Missouri River and Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River. Connecting a military road between these forts was vital to colonize the area and to help resolve territorial disputes between French, English, and Russian claims.

As Lt. John Mullan traveled through the area he retained an excellent crew of cartographers who created maps that contributed to gold rush in Montana and the overall settlement of the west. This presentation examines the different maps cartographers created of the mountain section between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla. In particular, the different methods and techniques of presenting elevation will be analyzed.