Nicholas King (1771-1812) was born in England and raised in a family of surveyors and cartographers. He came to the United States in 1794 and became a surveyor in Philadelphia. In 1796 and 1797 he served as the first surveyor of Washington, D.C., an office he again held from 1803 until his death in 1812. King prepared maps related to the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, William Dunbar, Zebulon Pike, and others.
In March 1803, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), asked King to prepare a comprehensive new map of western North America for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Gallatin, who, like Jefferson, was a lifelong student of science, geography, and the Indian cultures of North and Central America, played an active role in the planning of the expedition. He instructed King to incorporate the work of Ellicott, Cook, Vancouver, Arrowsmith, Mackenzie, Thompson, Mitchell, Anville, and de L’Isle into his map.
King’s map was essentially a copy of the western portion of Arrowsmith’s 1802 map of North America, although the map synthesized the most advanced representations of the Missouri River system including its relationship to the Pacific Northwest. King, in contrast to Arrowsmith, shows the northern branch of the Missouri as the main branch of the river and represents the northernmost source of the Missouri closer to the Great Lake River on the western slopes. The King map also differs from Arrowsmith’s in that it depicts the Rocky Mountains not as a long, solid chain of mountains but as a shorter range that ends near the 45th parallel in today’s Montana. Gaps in the range near the present-day Canadian border suggest the possibility of an easy crossing of the Continental Divide. King’s map also tracks a southern branch of the Columbia skirting the southern end of the Rockies. These latter concepts were probably based on the work of Fidler, Mackenzie, and Thompson. In addition, King’s map affirms the pyramidal height-of-land theory by situating the source of the Rio Grande near the source of the Columbia River on a high plateau.
The map on display is the actual map drawn by Nicholas King and carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific; it is on loan from the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.