The Western Debate: Provenance and Use of Dana’s Geographical Sketches of the Western Country

The Page of Interest

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





When I began this project, I stated that my interest in picking Edmund Dana’s Geographical Sketches of the Western Country was in understanding what the mind of an early 19th century American reader may have found in the reading of its descriptions of a land way out west.  If I’m honest then, the most bibliographic interesting feature of the particular copy of Geographical Sketches held in special collections at Colby College is for me, the signs of provenance一ownership and use.  From the early days of my time with the book, the stamp reading “Colby University”, the book plate reading “Colby College”, and the oxidized ink writing that reads Erosophian Adelphi has been a savory entree for my bibliographic inquiry, and one I intend now to fully enjoy in hopes that it can position Dana’s work within the context of a new and growing nation, and the formation of the ideology that would govern the United States expansion Westward in institutions that educated the men who put that governance into action.

This admittingly, seems contradictory to the textual evidence of the book’s purpose.  Dana’s own subtitle reads “For Emigrants and Settlers” after all, suggestive of an intended audience of new proprietors and those seeking to make a living in the western country, rather than that of the established gentry of the east coast who would send their young men to Waterville College (later to become Colby College) where this particular copy of Geogrphical Sketches has a long history.  Examining the physical evidence of the book, however, can provide new meanings to the text beyond that of what is explicitly stated.

The earliest sign of ownership and use in this copy of Geographical Sketches is the now oxidized pen inscription “Eroshophian Adelphi” on the pastedown of the end pages at the beginning of the book.  Its prominence is striking within the context of the books lacking of marginalia, a reminder that there has been physical contact between this book and readers before I stumbled upon Dana’s work in special collections.  It denotes the books ownership by a literary fraternity at Colby College, one of the first student organizations at the college and one which was fairly typical of the northern colleges established in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America.  The particularities of the history of the literary institutions at Colby College are well summed up in an article published in 1944 by then Colby librarian N. Orwin Rush and head cataloger Mary Herrick. (1944) These literary fraterni


Image result for benjamin butler
Benjamin Butler, civil war general, colby alumni, and founding member of Ersophian Adelphi.

ties operated as an extracurricular societies devoted to the practice of letters, debate, rhetoric, and social functions expected of the upper class gentlemen of the early 19th century.  They also, crucially, collected and operated their own libraries, of which Geographical Sketches was a volume in. Colby’s first literary fraternity was founded in 1824, but with growth of the institution, a second, rival fraternity was founded in 1835 and incorporated in 1836一Eroshophian Adelphi.  According to it’s charter, this society started with 30 members, of whom it is worthy noting civil war general and Colby alumni Benjamin F. Butler was one. (1835)

Geographical Sketches was part of the library which Eroshophian Adelphi would build in it’s 40 years of existence (1836-1876).  An 1856 catalogue of American higher education put this library at 2,500 volumes, which is far smaller than the reported 10,500 volumes of the college library.  The size of the library however, is not as important in determining to what extent a book like Geographical Sketches was read.  As is pointed out in Harding’s history of the literary society in American universities, the college library at Colby was very limited in accessibility, being open “one half-hour twice a week.” Adelphi’s student library then, was much more suited to the everyday literary needs of the College’s students in that it was accessible and catered toward use.  The extent of Geographical Sketches circulation in the library is unknown to me.  The society kept a record of books it came into possession with that is available still in Colby’s special collections, however, after a fair amount of digging, attempts to trace the time that Geographical Sketches spent in the Adelphi library have been fruitless.  The inclusion of the “Colby University” stamp on the publisher’s page of Geographical Sketches indicates that the Adelphi gave the volume over to the college library sometime between 1869-1900, when Colby boar the University title.  The most apparent date would be in 1876 when the Adelphi ceased operations an

Colby University Stamp

d donated the remainder of its library to the college library, about 1,000 volumes. (1944)  This number, 1,000, is notably smaller than the quoted 2,500 volumes in the 1856 catalogue, indicating that Geographical Sketches at least remained in circulation in the library of the
Adelphi when others did not.  There is some physical evidence to suggest its circulation in readership, including a few torn and bent pages.  It is notable that these signs of use are fairly clustered around the beginning of the book, either in the end pages or the extensive preface written by Dana.  I have no way of knowing exactly when these physical imperfections (that is, from the rest of the book’s form) took place in the book’s history, but it does indicate that the book was read while in circulation.  The book plate denotes the current owner, Colby College, but unlike a lot of volumes in the special collections of the same period which I’ve seen in my work this semester, it does not bear the “Treasure Room” stamp that would have denoted it’s being in special collections at the time it was moved from Colby’s original campus in the mid 20th century. (see 1st image)  This would indicate Geographical Sketches remained in regular circulation into the 20th century, making it difficult to narrow exactly when reader’s were most interested in reading it.

Physical Wear and Tear


When considering this particular copies usage then, this physical evidence has to be followed with a question; why?  Why purchase this book for a literary fraternity? And why keep it in collection for so long? In answering this, it is important to note the disparity between authorial intent and when this particular copy shows signs of usage.  Geographical Sketches publication in 1819 is anachronistic to the history of it’s ownership, Erosophian Adelphi having acquired it at the earliest in 1836.  The books likely advertorial intent would have been dampened for the reader who came into contact with it and catalogued it for the literary society of early Colby College, even if it was acquired at the Adelphi’s inception.  It instead then, would perhaps serve an informative intent for the Erosophian Adelphi, a way to come into contact with a land far west of Waterville, ME removed from any intent to be emigrants or settlers to that land. Instead, it could serve as a way of knowing about the West that would feature in the public debates that the members of the society would grapple with in their weekly meetings, “7pm on Wednesday evenings” according to their charter. (1835) An interesting way to speculate on this is in considering what other volumes Colby still holds that are similar to Dana’s work.  When looking at a bibliography of “travelers and observers (1763-1846)” found in A History of American Literature, in which Geographical Sketches is listed, I found there to be multiple other examples of notable works from the early 19th century on voyages and travels that Colby now houses in it’s special collections and have a similar history as the copy of Geographical Sketches I’ve been studying, including entries by Winterbotham, Morse, Guthrie, and Harris.  Viewed within the context of this canon of other work from the first half of the 19th century in a similar genre, Dana’s work can be seen as serving a vital role in shaping the perception that the dominant class of protestant anglo-saxon Americans who studied at places like Colby in the 19th century had of the West, and therefore in our modern reading we can come into contact with the formation of an ideology of Western expansion that would shape the history of the United States up to today.

These findings are exciting in that they are insightful into the questions that excited my interests in Dana’s Geographical Sketches.  By analysis of the physical evidence of provenance of the particular copy held at Colby, one can come into contact with the regional socioeconomic structures that governed where and when people expanded West, from a land of commerce in the East to an agrarian West.  In light of this, I can begin to formulate the history of me, the people around me, the places I’ve lived, and the reasons, some two hundred years in the making, that this has all been this way.

For Further Reading on the History of Literary Societies at Colby College: Herrick, Mary D., and N. Orwin Rush. “Early Literary Societies and Their Libraries in Colby College, 1824-78.” American Library Association, Dec. 1944, pp. 58–63.

A thank you to Erin Rhodes in Colby College’s Special Collections for her help in exploring the history of Erosophian Adelphi.