Old Money, New West: Origins of Geographical Sketches of the Western Country

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





“Edmund P. Dana was a good man to know.” begins historian John R. Van Atta’s Securing the West. (1)  “Good”, I thought when I stumbled upon Atta’s work, because that’s the man I’ve gotten to know through my bibliographic exploration of his work, Geographical Sketches of the Western Country.  Tracing the biographical details of the author of my pet book was a fruitful line of research in my exploration of the books place in the world of early 19th century America, and operated as an effective way to gain an understanding of the book as an object of a new republic caught between old ways and new ideas.

The biggest epiphany in my research into the origins of Geographical Sketches was determining who exactly wrote my book.  The book is catalogued as having been written by a Daniel Dana, who did exist and was a predominant figure in early America, but does not appear to have written Geographial Sketches.  The publisher’s page provided evidence to the books actual author, yielding the answer that the book was written by an “E. Dana”.  A worldcat search later I confirmed that E. Dana was Edmund P. Dana, who had left much more of his life online than Daniel Dana, despite having been dead for nearly two-hundred years.  Exploring Edmund Dana’s life would prove to be a telling line of research that is key in understanding the intent of the Geographical Sketches and why it exists in the material form and place it does today.

Geographical Sketches is one of the three published works that I was able to find attributed to Edmund P. Dana online.  Along with Geographical Sketches, he also authored A Description of the Bounty Lands of Illinois, both of which were published in 1819 in Cincinnati by Looker and Reynolds publishing house.  The third work does not show up until full 21 years later in 1840, A Voice from Bunker Hill, published in 1840 by Bunker-Hill publishing.  This work stands out from the other two as it takes a subjective viewpoint, with Dana commenting on the politics of his day.  It was also printed in two editions, indicating Dana may have had a popular audience at this point in his life.

A Voice from Bunker Hill is interesting to me for its bibliographic insights into the focus of this research, Geographical Sketches.  It interests me in its own right, however, for its candid remarks from Dana on his personal life and also the then upcoming 1840 presidential election which would see Martin Van Buren of the Democratic Party lose to William Henry Harrison of the then new Whig Party.  Harrison is of special importance here, as the first eleven pages of Dana’s Bunker Hill are devoted to his endorsement of Harrison on the grounds that he has known him to be a man of “remarkable honor” in the “over twenty years” that they have personally known each other. (4)  This suggests that Dana mixed with the top politicians of the day, a find that is fascinating in its own right, but also bibliographically interesting when one becomes acquainted with Dana’s biography.

Edmund P. Dana is, as his epithet reads in Bunker Hill, a “Chip of the Old Revolutionary Stock” (i.).  This is a very succinct way that alludes to Dana’s part of what in early American history is the Dana family.  The Dana family is Boston Brahmin, the founder of which, Richard Dana, was a prominent puritan when he immigrated to America by or before 1640, as A History of Cambridge tells it.  His offspring would go on to be one of the wealthiest in colonial Boston, with generations having attended Harvard, and holding legal, clerical and legislative positions in the colonies.  They are as old as money gets in America一so old that the very dining hall I’m sitting in right now as I write this at Colby College in Waterville, ME is named after one of their descendants who donated it in 1966.  Being such a predominant family, there is a wealth of general knowledge about them, as well as fairly well-kept documentation on their family trees.  However, Edmund P. Dana is a tough member of this family to track down.  The convolution of digging through family trees has not been especially helpful.  In his writings in Bunker Hill, Edmund P. Dana, the author of Geographical Sketchs, claims his father was a “general Dana who assisted at the taking of Burgoyne,” (10) Here, the taking of Burgoyne refers to the second Battle of Saratoga, where British John Burgoyne surrendered.  Based on this information, and a reading of the word “assisted” to mean strategic political maneuverings instead of actually taking up arms, I suspect Edmund Dana is referring to Francis Dana一whose biography indicates he was put on “The Board of War and Marine Committee” (39) in the Continental Army around this time. This would make sense with the found petition to the United States Committee of Claims from 1818 I found that indicates Edmund lived from 1772-1840, as Francis Dana’s lived from 1743-1811 and therefore would be of the write age to be Edmund’s father.. (US Congress)  I couldn’t confirm this using a genealogical database on line, but I can confirm the validity of my method of assessing Edmund’s family tree from A Voice from Bunker Hill.  Edmund P. Dana of A Voice from Bunker Hill is the same as Geographical Sketches based on a notice found on the last page of Bunker Hill, where, remarkably (and to my mystery), there is a note that “[Dana] will dispose of the copy-right of his published Geographical of the Western Country. (25) I caution to draw a line between this notice and his death in 1840, but it is possible.

From what I could discern in my other research however, Edmund P. Dana’s life before 1840 was very different than that of the Boston gentry his family belonged to.  In Bunker Hill he indicates that his family was “robbed of their estate, and the widows their thirds,” (9) and so he set off to first what would become Michigan and then Canada, where he contracted smallpox and was cared for by the British military governor. (11)  After this, he made his way to New York where he married, and enlisted in Military service.  He then indicates he was placed under the command of Gen. William Henry Harrison (12), who was the acting general over the Northwestern Territory.  This is when, most likely, he would have made the observations published in Geographical Sketches.  It was also here where he settled into his private practice, as Van Atta writes on his brief biographical notice of this in Geographical Sketches, “He had found employment…as a land agent for more than 1,300 settlers headed for the northwestern frontier of the republic in hope of a new and better life.” (1)Geographical Sketches then, is the work of a gentry-man who still had the means to get a book published, as he did in the burgeoning market of Cincinnati in 1819, but published it at as an aid to his livelihood. It is offered and published to be read by potential and current clients of Dana’s.  It is a product of pragmatic printing; as a means of distributing information to potential settlers.


Dana’s Concluding Remarks in Geographical Sketches


I suspect there may be some information of this front when the publisher is also taken into consideration.  Dana’s publisher for Geographical Sketches and Bouny Lands of Illinois, published in the same year of 1819, was Looker and Reynolds of Cincinnati, OH.  The location of this being important in that Cincinnati was a leader in the book trade in the early 19th century, as is reported by The Rise of Modern Publishing, “by the 1830s, Cincinnati was the capital of the Western book trade.” (480)  It is explained though, that this rise in the 1830s was fairly sharp, that in 1826 only nine publishers existed in the city, far less than one-hundred and seventy-nine that would be noted in the middle part of the century.  The authors of Modern Publishing indicate that this rise was probably the result of steam powered presses finding their way to the city by 1830.  Looker and Reynolds then, one, were fairly unique in publishing at the time, and two, predated the steam press in Cincinnati.  This indicates the book was printed on a hand press, and the signature marks throughout the book affirm this (for more on this: Additions). In my research on worldcat, I was only able to find a few other titles published by the house, with a eulogy to president James Monroe and a romantic poem being the only other works aside from Dana’s. The latest work published by them was in 1823.

However, another publisher in Cincinnati at the time, with titles dating back to 1815 is listed as Looker, Reynolds, and Palmer.  I suspect that Palmer was a third partner in the operation of Looker and Reynolds, but am uncertain as to why he may have been dropped by the time Dana’s work was published.  Looker, Reynolds, and Palmer’s titles are also fairly utilitarian; mainly lecture notes and the same type of travel descriptions as Dana’s.  Other publishing companies in Cincinnati I found in the worldcat published at the time, such as The Emigrants guide, or Pocket Geography of the Western States published by a Phillips and Speer in 1818 bear the same subject matter as Dana’s work.  This indicates that the town of 18,700 by Dana’s count in Geographical Sketches was still very much on the frontier, without the established literary publishing cultures that could be found in the Eastern cities at the time.

Dana’s Table of the population of Ohio Towns revealing Cincinnati to have a population of 18,700 at the time in 1819

This is reflected in the materiality of the book.  Its size, 6.5X3.5in makes the book portable.  Its binding is calf, which is not ornate and does not attempt to “show off” the book in the way that something like a jewel binding would. Reflecting on what is known about the publisher who worked and shaped this materiality is helpful in building the repository of evidence towards Dana’s intent. It shows that the publishing trade in Cincinnati was not rich in resources, but was geared toward bringing resources, and more people, to Cincinnati and the Western Country.  When considering this, it is also I think worth noting that the publication of Dana’s work in 1819 coincided with the first real economic panic in American history一a time that no doubt would have caused everyday folk in the East to question the power structures there and look to the West for hope of a more Jeffersonian existence than the Hamiltonian slant that the new nation had taken after the war of 1812.  Perhaps this contributed to the book’s publication in 1819 and the subsequent disappearance from the market of Looker and Reynold’s shortly thereafter.

Geographical Sketches then, is an object of representative of a new nation stuck between its embryonic development and the clear direction westward it would take in the 19th century.  The author, a somewhat mysterious vagabond from a family that was known and established, is one I suspect had no doubt he could still change the nation from his place out West as much as at his home in Boston.  The books publishers were forerunners to what would be marked as an important center of printing, and knowledge in the new western lands.  And the book itself, the object incarnate of the plain-spoken hopes for a land to the west, is produced to be read, and help sell new Americans on a land somewhere out west, in order to inform them in their deciding what the young republic would be.

Works Cited:

Atkins Elliot, Samuel. A History of Cambridge, 1630-1913. Cambridge Tribune, 1913.

Cresson, W P. Francis Dana, a Puritan diplomat at the court of Catherine the Great.  The Dial

Press, 1930. Hathi Trust.

Dana, Edmund P. A Voice from Bunker Hill. Bunker-Hill, 1840.

United States, Congress, Cong. Senate, Committee of Claims. 0AD. United States Senate

Congress, document,


Van Atta, John R. Securing the West. Google Books,

books.google.com/books?id=qy4_AwAAQBAJ&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=edmund p dana&source=bl&ots=fWyAM8dQPm&sig=gjOwImz_6hMsD-Xjr0OPqVbl0ho&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwir2_mw-NPZAhVKzoMKHbFCDDMQ6AEILDAB#v=onepage&q=edmund%20p%20dana&f=false

Also, The Rise of Modern Publishing which I need to cite and will after I visit Special Collections again.