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Fine Map of Mississippi and Alabama from the Distinctive Atlas Universel

Highly-detailed regional map focusing on Mississippi and Alabama published in Vandermalean’s important Atlas Universel shortly after they were split into separate territories of the United States.

This map centers on Mississippi, but also depicts the southwest portion of Tennessee, the majority of Alabama, a small part of the western panhandle of Florida, Louisiana, and the southeast portion of Arkansas, though it remains unmarked. Each territory or state is separated by a dotted line and hand-colored its own hue to differentiate it, adding to the aesthetic quality and clarity of the map.

Close detail is added to the map with towns, rivers, roads, trails, and mountain ranges included. The northern portion of Mississippi and Arkansas are still largely inhabited by indigenous peoples, while the counties are in their early configurations. This is one of the best regional maps of the period published outside the United States.

Despite the attention to detail that is provided, there is a mistake in the borders which are depicted. This mistake is that the areas east of the Pearl River are labeled as under the jurisdiction of the State of Louisiana. In fact, the land was given to the territory of Mississippi after its initial annexation.

This map was included in Vandermaelen's Atlas Universel, the first atlas to systematically map the world in uniform scale. Additionally, it is the first atlas to be made through the process of lithography, making it an important part of printing and cartographic history.

The Mississippi Territory and the Louisiana Purchase

The territory of Mississippi was incorporated into the United States in 1798, after Spain relinquished its claims to the area above the 31st parallel in the Treaty of Madrid (1795). The remaining territory of what is contemporary Mississippi and Alabama below the 31st parallel was militarily annexed into the Mississippi Territory in 1812, when the United States declared the area a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

The Mississippi Territory was separated in December of 1817 when Mississippi was admitted into the Union as a state, and the Alabama Territory was created. Alabama would not attain statehood until December 14th, 1819. The Mississippi-Alabama border was created by splitting the Mississippi Territory in half so that the two would be of roughly equal size.

While unmarked on the map, the Arkansas Territory was organized in 1819. While the Louisiana Purchase caused the European powers to recognize the United States’ right to colonize the Louisiana Territory, administering the territory would be a far more difficult matter. The United States would spend much of the first half of the nineteenth century colonizing and establishing government apparatuses in order to eventually organize the territory into several states.

The absence of a label for the Arkansas Territory on the map reflects the lack of administrative control that the United States government had in the area, while the labeling of trails and towns there reflects the attempts on behalf of the American government to colonize the territory.

The settlement and establishment of these states would prove to be a treacherous process for the United States. While the increase in land would been an economic boon, the political navigation between slave and free states would be a challenge for the stability of the Union, eventually leading to the Civil War. Meanwhile, the numerous native groups on the American frontier would continue to advocate for their autonomy and territory, leading to conflict and dispossession of the tribes as settlers pushed west.

Maps from Vandermalean’s Atlas Universal remains scarce and are in high-demand. This is a highly-desirable snapshot of American history from a significant atlas to the history of cartography and print.  

U.S. Congress. House, An Act to Enlarge the Boundaries of the Mississippi Territory. Act of April 7, 1798,12th Cong., 1st sess,. Introduced May 14, 1812,; U.S. Congress. House, An Act Authorizing the President of the United States to take possession of a tract of country lying south of the Mississippi territory and west of the river Perdido, Act of February 12, 1812, 12th Cong., 2nd sess., introduced February 12, 1813,; U.S. Congress. House, Resolution for the admission of the State of Mississippi into the Union, Act of March 1, 1817, HR 1, 15th Cong., 1st sess., introduced in House December 10, 1817,; “Louisiana Purchase Treaty,” opened for signature July 4, 1803,; “Philippe Vandermaelen: Atlas Universel 1827,” Princeton University, accessed January 18th, 2020, OO
Philippe Marie Vandermaelen Biography

Philippe Marie Vandermaelen (1795-1869) was a Belgian cartographer and geographer known for his pioneering use of technology and his leadership in establishing the important Establissement geographique de Bruxelles. Born in Brussels, Philippe was obsessed with maps from a young age. He taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and mapmaking and plotted the battles of the Napoleonic wars avidly. He took over his father’s soapmaking business briefly in 1816, but then turned it over to his brother in favor of cartography.

From 1825 to 1827, he released his first atlas, the Atlas universal, which was well received. It was sold in forty installments of ten maps each, with 810 subscribers listed. The atlas contained 387 maps in six volumes at a uniform scale of 1:1.6 million. The maps were intended to be joined and together would create a globe 7.755 meters wide. It was the first atlas to show the entire world on a large uniform scale and was the first atlas produced using lithography. This project served as Vandermaelen’s gateway into intellectual life, gaining him membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres of Brussels (1829).

In 1830, Vandermaelen inherited a laundry from his parents which he converted into the Establissement geographique de Bruxelles, or the Brussels Geographical Establishment. His brother, Jean-Francois, also established a botanical garden on the site. The Establishment had its own lithographic press, one of the first to use the technology for cartography and the first in Belgium. They produced textbooks, surveys, and especially maps of Brussels to be used for urban planning. The complex also housed schools, an ethnographic museum, and a library open to the public. Vandermaelen was passionate about geographic education and saw the Establishment as an open place where people could learn about the world.

In 1836, he was knighted for his services to geography and the intellectual community of Belgium. He died at age 73 in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, near the Geographical Establishment that he founded. After Vandermaelen’s death, the Geographical Establishment declined, closing its doors in 1880. The extraordinary collection they had amassed passed to several institutions, most importantly the Royal Library of Belgium.