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The Problem of Location: Where Were They?

The information preserved in early sources on exploration is obscured by difficulties with geographical names. By definition, the explorers who traveled through landscapes not yet surveyed or settled had only the vaguest geographical knowledge. Before the great national surveys gathered the cartographic data that we take for granted, writers could describe locations only in general terms. To make matters worse, they were unable to measure longitude with even approximate accuracy: until the invention of the chronometer about the time of the American Revolution, explorers simply couldn’t tell how far west they had traveled.

For example, in March and April 1543, the Spanish explorer Garcilaso de la Vega kept notes on a dramatic flood somewhere in the lower Mississippi River valley: “. . .its water began to move swiftly out over some immense strands that lay between the main channel and its cliffs. Afterward the water rose gradually to the tops of these cliffs and overflowed to the fields with the greatest speed and volume. . . the river entered the gates of the little village of Aminoya in the wildness and fury of its flood, and two days later one could not pass through the streets of this town except in canoes. The flood was forty days in reaching its crest, which came on the twentieth of April.” This is the first description of the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi; but where, exactly, did it happen?

In most cases, such vagueness is compounded by the fact that the travelers themselves had no clear idea of where they were. “We had now penetrated a great distance into the interior of a wild and uninhabited country,” wrote Charles Johnson, who was taken captive by Shawnee Indians in 1790 and marched “I knew not how many miles” into the barren wilderness of central Ohio. “During the whole march, we subsisted on bear’s meat, venison, turkeys, and raccoons, with which we were abundantly supplied, as the ground over which we passed afforded every species of game in profusion, diminishing, however, as we approached their villages.” Nice ecological data about mammals and the impact of human communities-but for what locale?

Solving difficulties such as these usually turns out either to be simple and straightforward or nearly impossible, with few cases falling between the two. To unravel such mysteries, first search Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and America: History and Life for critical editions, biographies of the writer, and modern secondary sources on the specific expedition in question. Chances are good that their editors and authors will have investigated this problem before you. For example, recent conference proceedings about the De Soto expedition include a careful reconstruction of its route by Dr. Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia, based on archaeological as well as textual evidence, which fixes the flooded village of Aminoya outside the current town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

If there is a shortage of secondary scholarship or if it failed to solve the geographical problem in sufficient detail, take note of any place names mentioned in the text, estimate their approximate locations, and identify local historical sources for the area. Standard county histories frequently begin with quotations from or discussions of the first travelers to penetrate any area, and these may identify conspicuous natural features. In addition, most states have an official historical society that produced a series such as Wisconsin Historical Collections, a nineteenth-century publication that later grew into a scholarly quarterly. These periodicals often provided the best outlet for local research, and in them you may find detailed accounts of localities which refer back to the earliest textual sources.

Finally, use any names of physical features that may be mentioned in the text, no matter how small or specific, and search them in the US Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) Geographic Names Information System. This massive database contains information about almost two million physical and cultural geographic features in the United States, including all the names used on U.S.G.S. topographic maps. You can search it at

Unfortunately, many landscapes described in textual sources published before the mid-nineteenth century simply cannot be identified with any acceptable level of precision. To precisely locate an early description of a habitat on a modern map and find it on the ground can be impossible. Charles Johnston, for example, traveled from the southeastern corner of Ohio to Detroit, yet we have no way to accurately pin-point the habitats that he described en route.

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