Book from the West Country: Geographical Sketches of the Western Country by Daniel Dana (Pet Book of Ben Theyerl)

Other Posts on Edmund Dana’s Geographical Sketches of the Western Country:




In the high corner of a very flat farm field in Waubeka, Wisconsin (read small town about an hour due north of Milwaukee) there’s a small plot of land that isn’t dominated by corn.  This is the town cemetery that sits on what used to be my grandparents farm—the oldest gravestone on the site belonging to Friedrich Motz, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who lived from ??? to 1832.   That’s where I went when I was asked to pick a book for bibliographic study in this classーa cemetery.  I wanted to find a little grounding you could say. I wanted to explore home.  I wanted to ask people like Mr. Motz how they, with human minds and spirits that haven’t breathed for centuries, chose to go to a land in the west, and have their children and their children’s great-great-great-great grandchildren call that place home.

With my knowledge of the history and geography of the place and people I call home then, I went into special collections and came out with a 1819 volume as being by Daniel Dana titled Geographical sketches on the western country: designed for emigrants and settlers ; being the result of extensive researches and remarks ; to which is added, a summary of all the most interesting matters on the subject, including a particular description of all the unsold public lands, collected from a variety of authentic sources ; also, a list of the principal roads.  A long winded title that’s essence is it’s being as a guide to the west as it was understood by Americans in 1819.  The book gives detailed natural and cultural description to each western territory recognized at the time—from Ohio to Texas and, of particular interest to me, The Northwest Territory.  In the natural descriptions are detailed soil types, geographical notes on rivers and their tributaries, and which game animals are found where.  Its cultural descriptions include population tables of American settlements, where settlements of emigrants are found , and also detailed cultural descriptions of the Native American groups found throughout the territories. A particular favorite passage dealing with this latter part I found in my skimming of the contents of Dana’s work details the cultural understandings of Lake Michigan in the Ho-Chunk nation (who have lived and live today in the eastern portion of Wisconsin).  

The book itself is a fairly standard size, similar to a modern day paperback.  Its cover bears no marks, is leather, and is variant in tones of brown.  Its spine is painted with six golden sets of parallel lines, and between one set the author is listed; “Dana’s Sketches”.  The spine also is painted with the markings “ +F396D3” which is also marked in pen on the book plate as well as in one of the first pages of the books, and is most likely a marking for cataloging.  The binding is not ornate, but is in good condition showing no internal signs of distress.

Publisher’s page. Note Colby University stamp in top right corner, typeset of title, and E. Dana being listed as author.

Opening the book to the publisher’s page reveals the title of Dana’s work in all it’s long-winded glory.  The title shows various type sets in its articles, which provides clues about the type of printing technology used in a book from this time period.  One of the more intriguing lines of inquiry for me in this book comes on the publisher’s page as well, where the author is listed as “E. Dana” rather than the catalogued Daniel Dana.  Examining facsimile’s and other works with the same title reveals that this book was instead authored by Edmund P. Dana.  The wrongful cataloguing is interesting however, as it hints to the author’s place in the house of Daniel Dana and the Dana family, a house which established itself as part of Colonial America’s aristocracy in the 17th century (for more on this: read the Origins blog on this book).  Below the author is listed the publisher and the confirmation the publication date of 1819.  The book was published by Looker and Reynolds in Cincinnati, which is interesting when considering the audience of the book and it’s ending up in the Colby College library on the East Coast where I came into contact with it.

On this matter, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that this book has grown up with Colby College as an institution.  One of the more exciting marks is the thick penned-in “Erosophium Adolphi” which denotes that this book was a part of the collection of one of Colby’s early literary society.  I cannot say for certain that this society was the original owners of the book, but this marking indicates that the book came into the possession of Colby very early in existence of the college.  The faint stamp on publisher’s page reading

Book plate and marking of early Colby literary society.

“Colby University Libraries” further provides evidence to this book having been at Colby at least before 1900, when the college became Colby College instead of Colby University.  The only book plate also belongs to Colby, and is that of Colby College Libraries.  It is worth noting that the plate is stamped with “Robinson Room” instead of “Treasure Room” which points to the book potentially being in circulation when it was moved to Colby’s current campus in the 1940’s instead of being in what would become Special Collections initially.  A stamp on one of the first couple of pages bearing the date October 31st, 1941 may provide clues to this, which is a mark that was used when moving books to the new library in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  What is clear is that this book has consistently been in the possession of Colby since it’s very early days as an institution.

This does, of course, not necessarily correlate to usage. Dana’s sketches do show signs of use however.  One of the most telling is the first page of paper in the book, which is ripped in the bottom-right corner.  The top right corners in some sections also bear faint crease marks, which could be the result of turning pages.  This could also indicate readership patterns that weren’t linear, and instead skipped to and from sections.  There is no marginalia and signs of editorial work by a reader to be found, but I feel confident in saying that the book had been opened at least a few times before I got around to it. (for more on the provenance of this copy of Geographical Sketches, read Use)

Example of page. Note the different types of lettering used, as well as the signature used on the bottom of the page

For what purpose it was used may come from the contents of the text itself, but it is also worth noting the way the text is printed itself.  There is different typefaces and typesets for headings and subheadings, however the body of the text is fairly constant. There are some tables that depict populations of counties in various territories, but they are the only thing that breaks up the regular page format.  The printer also included a corrections and additions page which is fairly brief but speaks to the technology used in the printing process.  The book also bears signature marks, such as the one depicted in the picture to the left, “A2”.  When examining pattern in detail, it is revealed that the format which the book is printed in is octavo, and that the book with it’s signature marks was most likely printed on a hand press and collated manually.

My initial impressions of this book then, are consistent with my motivations for adopting it as a pet.  Its typesetting, form, and signs of use all indicate a book that was read to gain information, but also with wonder for the realistic and auspicious promises of the western country in early America.  Its contents may be purely descriptive, but to an author who in took the time to compile them, a publisher who took the time to publish them, a group of Colby students who thought them important enough to purchase, and perhaps to immigrants like the ones that make up my family tree, the book points to a specific point in history where what was out west was new in America, and could someday, perhaps, be home.

Spine of Geographical Sketches of the Western Country
Front Cover of Geographical Sketches of the Western Country