The AGS Collection

The world encompassed in Milwaukee

Michael Thompson


hen The Caxton Club traveled to Milwaukee last March to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, we also stopped at the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to see examples from its extensive collection of fine printed books and livres d’artistes. Our host was Max Yela, Special Collections Librarian, who with great enthusiasm and erudition told us about the library’s holdings and let us handle (i.e., actually touch) books produced by William Morris, Bruce Rogers, and numerous living artists who have chosen books as their medium of expression.

Time and circumstances did not permit us to visit another collection at the library that was of special interest to me as a collector of exploration and mountaineering books. It was the American Geographical Society Collection, housed in a separate section of the main library building, and comprising over one million books, manuscripts, and cartographical materials including 475,000 maps, 8,000 atlases, 159,000 photographs, and 200,000 satellite images. The university acquired this important material in 1978 as part of a national search by the American Geographical Society (AGS) to find a suitable home for its valuable but deteriorating collection.

The AGS is an organization of professional geographers founded in New York in 1851 to promote the accumulation and dissemination of geographical data and knowledge and to maintain a library for the use of serious geographical scholars. In 1978, the society and the library were headquartered in an aging building at 156th Street and Broadway on Manhattan’s West Side in a small enclave of museums known as Audubon Terrace. With insufficient resources to provide for adequate conservation of a collection valued at the time at more than $12 million and located in a neighborhood that a contemporary guidebook discretely described as “unpretentious,” the AGS transferred its holdings to Milwaukee. The AGS still exists apart from its library as a sponsor of events, scholarships, and scholarly papers, and it publishes the refereed journal, The Geographical Review.

I made arrangements to visit the AGSC, as the collection itself is known, through Max Yela and Christine Adamson, the Milwaukee Caxtonian who graciously hosted the reception on our March trip at her elegant penthouse apartment. Max and Christine put me in touch with Dr. Christopher Baruth, Curator of the AGSC and Assistant Director of the library, and Jovanka R. Risti, Senior Academic Librarian.

When I arrived on a Friday morning, there was an exhibition installed commemorating the centennial of Charles A. Lindbergh’s birth and the 75th anniversary of his trans atlantic flight. The highlight of the exhibition was Lindbergh’s own flight plan, prepared in California, while he awaited the completion of his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. It is a gnomonic sailing chart showing a great circle route plotted, by hand by Lindbergh, as a straight line from New York to Paris. Lindbergh achieved the necessary arc by planning for a southerly course change every 100 miles or so. It is annotated and initialed by Lindbergh: “Used in laying out great circle course for New York to Paris flight. San Diego, Calif., C.A.L.” This chart was donated to the AGSC by Lindbergh in 1939.

The collection’s holdings of earlier navigational charts are equally impressive. It has four manuscript charts prepared by James Cook (1728-1779), the English explorer best known for his three Pacific voyages, all showing various portions of the east coast of New South Wales on the Australian continent. These maps were drawn by Cook on his first Pacific voyage, when he was a lieutenant and commander of the bark Endeavour, which departed England in 1768 and sailed around Cape Horn to Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia, returning in 1771. Cook’s were the first charts made of the Australian coast.

On the third voyage, in the sloops Resolution and Discovery, Cook was searching for the Northwest Passage, although Cook and the Admiralty would have been equally happy with a Northeast Passage around Siberia. The point of the search was to find a route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the Northern Hemisphere. Cook’s secret instructions from the Admiralty’s Earl of Sandwich were to sail straight away to the Pacific coast of North America, making landfall at 45ºN (around what is now Portland, OR), and then to follow the coastline north and west to about 65ºN (around what is now Nome, AK): “When you get to that length, you are very carefully to search for, and to explore, such rivers or inlets as may appear to be of a considerable extent, and pointing towards Hudson’s or Baffin’s Bays.” Cook was instructed that if a promising route for a Northwest Passage did not materialize during his first season, then after wintering in a suitable southerly climate, he was to sail north again in the ensuing year to look for a passage to the Atlantic or to the North Sea by way of either a northwestern or northeastern route.

Cook left England in July 1776, sailed east to the Pacific by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and then followed the North American coastline from the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska, around the Aleutians, and into the Bering Strait. With him on this trip (and on the prior second voyage) was George Vancouver, eventually the namesake of the island and the city, but who at the time was a midshipman on board the Resolution. He made manuscript charts of the coastline he passed with Cook and used them on his own voyages in 1792-1794. The only extant Vancouver chart from either Cook voyage is at the AGSC, depicting the Bering Strait and, in Vancouver’s words, “the track of his Majesty’s sloops Resolution and Discovery, from May to October, 1778.” Vancouver’s dating is significant because it marks the end of Cook’s personal involvement in the expedition’s pursuit of terra incognita. In October of 1778, in the face of the approaching Arctic winter, Cook turned his ships south and set sail for the Sandwich Islands, an archipelago in the North Pacific now known as Hawaii. He was killed there in February of 1779 in an altercation with the indigenous population.

These hand-written maps made by famous explorers are indeed rare and fascinating, especially to a person of my collecting interests, but even I would have to admit that one of the most noteworthy maps in the AGSC was made by a mapmaker. It is a late Medieval map of the world made by Giovanni Leardo, a 15th Century cartographer in Venice, who had established for himself something of a specialty in the genre of so-called mappamundi, a cartographic compromise between the relatively accurate portolan charts used by mariners for navigational purposes and the relatively inaccurate representations of the world made for theological purposes by Christian clerics. The Leardo map reflects this dual goal well: it is oriented to the east, Paradise, rather than to the north where a compass would point, and it places Jerusalem at the center of the world. Its outline of the Mediterranean, fixed vertically in the center of the map just beneath Jerusalem, is, on the other hand, accurate, portraying Italy, Greece, and the Straits of Gibraltar quite recognizably.

Made in 1452 or 1453, this AGSC map is the latest of four known mappamundi made by Leardo. The first, from 1442, is in the Biblio-teca Communale in Verona. The second, made in 1447, is not extant and is known only through references in literature. The third, made in 1448, is at the Museo Civico in Venice.

The AGSC map, at 23" x 28.5", is the largest of the group. The media are paint and parchment with water painted blue (except for the Red Sea) and land left the color of the underlying material. Mountains are shown as mounds in various colors. The map itself is surrounded with concentric circles, which constitute a calendar to be used for calculating the date of saints’ days and feast days. The circles also contain eight faces for each wind direction and, outside the rings in the corners, are the attributes for each evangelist: an angel for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John. The historical and cartographical importance of this map is best shown by the fact that the AGSC has chosen to use its maker’s name as the address of its own website:

While maps are at the forefront of the AGSC holdings and couldn’t go without serious discussion in any article about the library, my trip to Milwaukee was actually motivated by my interest in books, and in particular in mountaineering books. Before my arrival, library staffer Jovanka Risti kindly pulled some of the mountaineering titles that she felt would be worth a look. Her selections were well made, including many classic mountaineering accounts and reference books, but two of the more interesting were relatively obscure books that I had not seen before: Bourrit, Description des Aspects du Mont-Blanc..., Lausanne: Société Typographique, 1776, and Browne, The Conquest of Mt. McKinley, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913. The first was written by a man who created from whole cloth a dispute about the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, and the second was written by a man who resolved an actual dispute about the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.

Marc-Théodore Bourrit’s principal occupation was chantre at the Geneva Cathedral. He was also a writer, an artist, and a persistent mountaineer who was obsessed with the Alps. He made several attempts at climbing Mont Blanc and eventually succeeded, in 1788, making the fifth ascent. The first ascent, however, for which a reward had been offered by a Geneva aristocrat named Horace Bénédict de Saussure, was made in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a Chamonix doctor, and his guide Jacques Balmat.

Paccard, Saussure, and Bourrit were acquainted and corresponded with one another about their climbs. Among the three of them the person most dedicated to promoting his own adventures was Bourrit who, after Saussure offered the reward for the first ascent, wrote a series of books about Mont Blanc, of which the Description in the AGSC is but one. His letters and his books were not strictly factual, however, and they usually contained wild exaggerations about his own exploits and the dangers of mountain climbing.

Paccard and Bourrit had made an attempt on Mont Blanc together in 1783. Bourrit described the event as a rueful experience in which he and Paccard were engulfed in torrents of rain and had to confront “horrible” crevasses and intimidating barriers of sheer vertical cliffs. Paccard, on the other hand, described the event in his journal differently: “Mont Blanc was covered with clouds, and M. Bourrit did not dare to go on the ice.” They did not climb together after that.

Paccard’s taciturn nature and lack of self-promotion eventually worked against him. After he made the first ascent and claimed the reward from Saussure, Bourrit looked up Paccard’s guide Balmat, an irascible villager, and published an account of an interview with him in which the guide described Paccard as unfit and largely unable to make it to the summit without extraordinary assistance. Paccard, in reaction, confronted Balmat and produced a statement that Balmat signed before several witnesses stating that the route used by the two had been identified and proposed by Paccard and that Paccard had been the one to reach the summit first, with Balmat struggling to keep up. Balmat later asserted that the statement was a forgery, but this claim has little credence.

Balmat’s motivation for the Bourrit interview had probably lain in a dispute with Paccard about splitting the reward from Saussure. The size of the reward is not known nor is the compensation paid to Balmat by Paccard, but Bourrit’s correspondence indicates that Balmat felt he had not been treated fairly. It may be that he received nothing more than standard guide fees, the availability of which, it is important to understand, is the sole reason he was on the mountain at all.

Views differ about which version of the Paccard/Balmat controversy is true, but I can see little merit to the Balmat side. Balmat had a reputation as a drunkard and a spendthrift, two characteristics that could have motivated him to make baseless claims for money, and his statements on the issue itself were contradictory. Bourrit was a losing contender for the Saussure reward, had reason to be spiteful of Paccard, and had a history of writing mountaineering accounts that played loose with the facts. Paccard, in contrast, was given to understatement and had a history of respectable mountaineering both before and after the Mont Blanc climb. He did little to promote his own interests after securing the Balmat affidavit; even his journals were not published in his lifetime. This may indicate that he enjoyed favorable public opinion in Chamonix where both he and Balmat lived and where the local population would have had good knowledge of their comparative veracity.

The resolution of the Mt. McKinley controversy, on the other hand, rests less on speculative inference than on hard facts, thanks to the reconstruction of the scene of a photograph by Belmore Browne, described completely in The Conquest of Mt. McKinley, the other book that I saw for the first time in the AGSC.

The first ascent of Mt. McKinley, 20,320 feet above sea level, was accomplished in 1913 by Hudson Stuck. When he did it, however, he had to contend with an earlier claim by Dr. Frederick A. Cook that Cook had climbed the mountain in 1906. Cook is better known for making a false claim to have reached the North Pole in 1908, one year before the more credible claim made by Robert Peary. It was the publicity surrounding the much more auspicious achievement of the Pole that eventually undermined Cook’s reputation and led to the uncovering of the McKinley fraud.

Cook wrote a book about his alleged McKinley climb entitled To the Top of the Continent, which was published in 1908. Hudson Stuck said of the book that one can follow the progress of Cook and his French-Canadian guide, Edward Barrill, camp for camp until one reaches about 10,000 feet. Thereafter, the descriptions grow ambiguous, overly general, and somewhat romantic. Cook had taken a photograph, to be used as proof, in which Barrill is shown standing on top of an outcropping of rock, somewhat pointed in appearance, which Cook said was the summit. His claim to have climbed the mountain was generally accepted outside Alaska, and he was honored by invitations to lecture at the American Alpine Club and at the Explorers Club. After his lectures, the latter organization elected him its president to replace Adolphus Greely, a noted Arctic explorer who had held the “Farthest North” distinction in the early 1880s.

When the North Pole controversy hit, many in the exploration community who were Peary supporters, or who had never thought Cook physically or mentally capable of either climbing McKinley or reaching the North Pole, set out to discredit him. They did this by contacting Barrill, who had earlier confirmed Cook’s McKinley claim, and persuaded him to sign an affidavit admitting that the photograph had been faked. Cook’s advocates alleged in response that Barrill had been paid to recant his original support of Cook, which is probably true, but Peary supporters responded that Barrill had originally been bribed by Cook to corroborate the fictitious ascent, which is also probably true. Robert Bryce, in his comprehensive book Cook and Peary, reports that Cook injudiciously offered even more money to Barrill in the midst of the dispute if he would simply travel to St. Louis to meet with Cook and, in the meantime, “[k]indly give no press interviews whatsoever.”

Barrill soon lost all credibility about anything he had to say, and this growing skepticism meant that little could be known with certainty about what actually happened on McKinley in 1906. General Thomas H. Hubbard, a wealthy railroad lawyer and long-time backer of Peary, offered to finance an expedition to McKinley to retrace Cook’s route and to verify the location of the summit photograph. He recruited two experienced mountaineers who had spent a lot of time in Alaska. They were Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne.

Browne’s book traces the Cook route on McKinley, identifies the location of the purported summit photograph, and produces a photograph with a figure standing atop the same outcropping of rock in a pose identical to Barrill’s. Named by Parker and Browne “Fake Peak,” the location of Browne’s photograph lies at 5300 feet above sea level and about 16 miles from the top of McKinley. For most people, this development largely put to rest the question about Cook’s claim, although some contended that it was Browne’s photograph that was faked. Eventually evidence emerged from other expeditions showing that most of the photographs in Cook’s To the Top of the Continent were taken on a tributary glacier about 16 miles from the mountain. The last significant work on the subject was undertaken by Bradford Washburn, a noted mountain climber and photographer, who from 1955 to 1957 undertook a study under the auspices of the American Alpine Club, which corroborated the evidence of fraud on the part of Dr. Cook.

There was never any doubt about the falsity of Cook’s claim in the mind of Hudson Stuck, who, in addition to being a climber, was the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon. He apparently never thought much of Cook and had made a bet with a friend that Cook’s attempt in 1906 would fail. He never paid the bet, even during the period when Cook’s claim was generally accepted, believing that it was all a fraud. Stuck’s own observations on the mountain belie any notion that the Cook photograph is genuine: There are no outcroppings of rock on McKinley above 19,000 feet, and the summit has an elongated shape without a clearly defined point.

On a more poetic note, however, the good Archdeacon was more convinced by Cook’s errors of omission than his errors of commission. In Stuck’s own book, The Ascent of Denali (Mt. McKinley), Stuck made the following observation from the top of the mountain: “Across the gulf, about three thousand feet beneath us and fifteen or twenty miles away, sprang most splendidly into view the great mass of Denali’s Wife, or Mount Foraker, as some white men misname her. Denali’s Wife does not appear at all save from the actual summit of Denali, for she is completely hidden...until the moment when [it] is surmounted. And never was [a] nobler sight displayed to man than that great, isolated mountain spread out completely...beneath us.” Later in his book, when he assesses the Cook claims, he concludes his stinging criticism by returning to Denali’s Wife: “[Cook] does not mention at all the master sight that bursts upon the eye when the summit is actually gained – the great mass of Denali’s Wife..., filling the middle distance. We [on the summit team] were all agreed that no one who had ever stood on the top of Denali...could fail to mention the splendid sight of this great mountain.”

Although Hudson Stuck is not as well known as Charles Lindbergh, James Cook, and George Vancouver, the AGS has not overlooked Stuck. It has his manuscript journal, including his sketches of the McKinley Climb, but the journal is unfortunately not in Milwaukee. It was retained in New York at the new AGS headquarters in the financial district. Excerpts are available on the Society’s website,, and it is available for purchase on CD-ROM.

In conclusion, the AGS collection is a very good reason for anyone interested in cartography or exploration to make a trip to Milwaukee. The resources there are impressive both in their breadth and depth. Many of the monograph materials are in open stacks and the helpful staff, especially Dr. Baruth and Jovanka Risti, are willing to assist serious scholars with the materials in the rare book and special collections room. Details about paying a visit can be had at

A late Medieval map of 1452 or 1453 by Venetian cartographer Giovanni Leardo. From the AGSC, through whose courtesy it is used.

Title page of Belmore Browne’s The Conquest of Mount McKinley (1913), from the AGSC, through whose courtesy it is used.

Title page of Marc Bourrit’s Description de Aspects du Mont-Blanc (1776), from the AGSC, through whose courtesy it is used.

Return to Caxtonian table of contents

Return to the Caxton Club home page