Monday: Map Day! – To the gold fields, 1849 & ’50

I love a great map, and today’s example is particularly fine in several respects: as a detailed view of our hemisphere at a particularly dynamic moment in U.S. history, as an excellent example of mid-19th-century cartography, and—as we’ll see in our next post—as a clear illustration of how members of Mequon’s Bonniwell family made their way to and from the California gold fields in the heady days of the early Gold Rush of 1849 and 1850.1

Gold! where it is and how to get there, 1849

Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c.: showing the routes of the U.S. mail steam packets to California, and a plan of the Gold Region. New York: J. H. Colton, 1849. From the collection of Millard Fillmore. Library of Congress.

I’ve published some great old maps on Clark House Historian, and this is one of my favorites. In our next post, I’ll annotate a copy of this map to illustrate the Bonniwell’s Gold Rush travels in 1849 and the early 1850s. But today I’d like to show the map as it was in 1849, with all its “extra features.” I recommend you begin by clicking the map image, above, which opens a much higher-resolution copy of the map in a new window (FYI, this may take a few seconds; it’s a big, detailed image).

The United States, just after the War with Mexico

If you took U.S. History in school, chances are you progressed pretty quickly from our victory over King George’s army at Yorktown in 1781 to the 1850s and the causes of the Civil War. Maybe you heard something about the British burning Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. But I’ll bet you skipped the Mexican–American War (1846-1848) entirely. Which is a pity, as that conflict had a tremendous impact on U.S. geography, politics (especially questions about the expansion of statehood and slavery in the former Mexican lands) and a whole basket of other contentious issues, many of which still resonate today.

Our 1849 map shows North America after the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hildago ended the Mexican war, and transferred a vast swath of the former Mexico to the United States.

The treaty gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border along the Rio Grande, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. In return, Mexico received $15 million ($470 million today) – less than half the amount the U.S. had attempted to offer Mexico for the land before the opening of hostilities – and the U.S. agreed to assume $3.25 million ($102 million today) in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens. The area of domain acquired was given by the Federal Interagency Committee as 338,680,960 acres. The cost was $16,295,149 or approximately 5 cents per acre. The area amounted to one-third of Mexico’s original territory from its 1821 independence.


Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c., 1849, detail showing Upper and Lower California

In the detail above, note that Lower (Baja) California remains as a province of Mexico, while a vast portion of the west—including most of the future states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona are still grouped together as Upper (Alta) California.

Map of the Gold Region

As always, it’s worth looking at all the vignette maps, tables, illustrations and other “extras.” One of the most useful for gold-seekers would be the inset Map of the Gold Region. Compared to later maps and modern surveys, this map is not particularly accurate, but it does include important landmarks and places for the aspiring prospector.

Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c., 1849, detail showing the Gold Region.

Ships sailing from the U.S. east coast, or from the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama, would dock at San Francisco and the miners would head up the Sacramento River to John Sutter’s immense Mexican land grant called New Helvetia, centered at Sutter’s Fort, at the confluence of the Sacramento and New American rivers in what is now downtown Sacramento. From there they would head up the American and other rivers, into the mountains, and begin their search for gold.

The Cape Horn route

For travelers considering the safest, swiftest, but most expensive passage to California, the map includes a vignette of South America with the sea route around Cape Horn and with the major intermediate ports of call indicated.

Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c., 1849, detail showing South America and Cape Horn.

Table of Distances

Also typical of traveler’s maps, our map includes a handy Table of Distances and Scale of Miles, located next to the map’s title and publication data. We’ll have more to say about these in our next post, as we take one last look at the different routes the Bonniwell’s used to go to California in 1849 and 1850, and to return home in the early 1850s.

Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c., 1849, detail showing table of distances.

And Pyramid Lake, too!

Finally, no self-respecting 19th-century map would be complete without at least one vignette illustration. Our map features a drawing of the awe-inspiring Pyramid Lake, now located within the borders of the state of Nevada.

Atwood, John M., Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c., 1849, detail showing Pyramid Lake.

The caption reads: Pyramid Lake, Upper California. Discovered by Capt. Fremont 1844. 35 Miles long. 4890 feet above the sea. The Pyramid of Rock in the Lake rises 600 feet above its surface. The foreground of the scene features seven uniformed men, at rest, with four horses or mules, one cannon on its carriage, and an Indian-style tipi. It’s not really clear why this illustration of Pyramid Lake features armed soldiers on its shore. Perhaps it is an homage to U.S. Army Capt. John C. Frémont, the leader of the expedition that “discovered” the lake in 1844.2

Coming up

I hope you enjoy today’s Monday: Map Day! Take some time to open the linked images and look closely at the details. Next time, I’m going to use this map to diagram the Bonniwells’ 1849 and 1850 Gold Rush journeys, by sea and by land. And we’ll try and shed some light on how and when Alfred Bonniwell returned home.

See you next time!



  1. Today’s post is actually part 11 (I think? It depends on how you count the posts…) of our 2022 series devoted to the life and documents of the youngest Bonniwell child, Alfred T. Bonniwell (1826-1885). The other posts include:

    Alfred Bonniwell project
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 1: England to Canada
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 2: New York
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 3: Wisconsin, 1840
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 5: Wisconsin, 1846-1847
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 6: U.S. Citizen, 1849
    Alfred Bonniwell documents – part 7: landowner, 1845
    Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?
    A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline
    The Bonniwells & Co. in California, 1849 & 1850

    The last three of these are especially relevant to today’s post. You may want to click the links and read them in order. Or not. Today’s map is a treat unto itself.

  2. John C. Frémont is a notable character in the history of the American West. He is another one of those intrepid and ambitious explorers, mapmakers, and organizers that made substantial achievements in the “discovery” of the West and received much public appreciation for his efforts. Like others of his day, he was also responsible for several brutal attacks on non-combatant Native Americans and others; these events cloud his reputation to this day.

    And, of course, Pyramid Lake was already known to the indigenous peoples of the area, the Cui-ui eaters (or Paiute), when Frémont named it in 1844.

3 thoughts on “Monday: Map Day! – To the gold fields, 1849 & ’50

    • I’m not 100% sure what those blue lines represent, or who drew them. Perhaps the map’s original owner Millard Fillmore?

      As far as I can tell, these blue lines highlight different routes from east to west, both in the continental U.S. and in Mexico and Central America.

      Readers: do any of you know more about the mysterious blue lines?


  1. Pingback: The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1) | Clark House Historian

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