In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, which included most of Kansas, from France. Wanting to find out more about the newly acquired land, the U.S. government sent explorers out to investigate. Lewis and Clark headed out in 1804, and Zebulon Pike made the trip in 1806. Pike was unimpressed with the nearly treeless prairie of the Great Plains and called it the "Great American Desert."
Stephen Long, who visited the area in 1819-1820, produced an early map of Kansas. Using Pike's description, he included the label "Great American Desert" on his map. Even though the area was covered by prairie grasslands and not a desert, the name remained on many maps until the 1860's.
Figure 44. When Kansas was still a territory, it included land all the way to the Rocky Mountains. This map was drawn in 1855 (photo courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society).
Long's and other early mapmakers' interpretations of the area were simple and not very accurate. They lacked the time and equipment to make better ones. As more people came to Kansas and the surrounding territory, they became familiar with the area and maps became more reliable.
Early maps were made primarily to help people find their way through unfamiliar territory. Many modern maps serve the same purpose. One of the most common maps, the road map, shows major roads, rivers, lakes, landmarks, other places of interest, and distances between cities.
Road maps are good for travelers, but other types of maps also are needed. Geologists, paleontologists, road builders, architects, city planners, and others need to know more details about the land. They use topographic maps, which, like road maps, show county boundaries, cities, roads, rivers, and lakes. But topographic maps also show hills, mountains, valleys, plains, plateaus, and other landforms. Together, all of these ups and downs form the lay of the land, which is known as the topography.
Hills and valleys and other landforms are represented on a topographic map with curved lines called contour lines. Each line represents a certain height above sea level. Sea level is the average level of all the oceans in the world. It is used as a base to measure the height of the land, which varies from place to place.
Figure 46. This is what North America looked like at one point during the Cretaceous Period about 100 million years ago when a sea covered part of Kansas. Can you find Kansas? Click on the map to see!
The distance above sea level at a particular point is called the elevation. If you were standing on a sea shore, you would be approximately at sea level. The elevation of the top of a hill rising 10 feet from the flat beach would be 10 feet above sea level. Even though some areas of land can be below sea level, all land in Kansas is above sea level ranging from about 700 feet in the southeast to over 4,000 feet in the west.
Many other types of maps besides road maps and topographic maps have been made. Maps can be flat or round, like a globe. Some are sketchy and not very accurate. Others are much more detailed and extremely precise. You can fit small ones into your pocket and barely fit some big ones on your wall.
Maps can guide you around the world or into outer space. But even if you stay in just one state, such as Kansas, maps can lead you to an endless number of places. Next time you ramble through the hills and plains of Kansas in search of mosasaurs, camels, or large woolly mammoths, take a map. You may not know exactly where you're going or what you're going to see along the way, but you'll know where you are once you get there.