The earliest cartographic depictions of the American West appeared on maps of North America made by or for European imperial states during the early modern age of exploration. The establishment of American colonies was an extension of the competition among these powers for political and economic hegemony around the world between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. European governments commissioned sophisticated maps enabling them to comprehend the scope of North America and visualize their colonial ambitions. As European powers vied for control of the continent, maps helped to establish boundaries, publicize territorial claims, and recruit settlers. Maps frequently acknowledged the presence of Native Americans, but not their rights to the land.
The examples in this section illustrate various national styles of both cartography and imperialism. They demonstrate how empires were created, practically and imaginatively, through maps. European declarations of ownership of the continent foreshadow the American proclamations of manifest destiny that spurred westward expansion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.