To Master the Boundless Sea

The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire

By Jason W. Smith

280 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4044-0
    Published: June 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4045-7
    Published: April 2018

Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges

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As the United States grew into an empire in the late nineteenth century, notions like “sea power” derived not only from fleets, bases, and decisive battles but also from a scientific effort to understand and master the ocean environment. Beginning in the early nineteenth century and concluding in the first years of the twentieth, Jason W. Smith tells the story of the rise of the U.S. Navy and the emergence of American ocean empire through its struggle to control nature. In vividly told sketches of exploration, naval officers, war, and, most significantly, the ocean environment, Smith draws together insights from environmental, maritime, military, and naval history, and the history of science and cartography, placing the U.S. Navy’s scientific efforts within a broader cultural context.

By recasting and deepening our understanding of the U.S. Navy and the United States at sea, Smith brings to the fore the overlooked work of naval hydrographers, surveyors, and cartographers. In the nautical chart’s soundings, names, symbols, and embedded narratives, Smith recounts the largely untold story of a young nation looking to extend its power over the boundless sea.

About the Author

Jason W. Smith is assistant professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University.
For more information about Jason W. Smith, visit the Author Page.


“Smith splices together, in a remarkably cogent and concise manner, a vast array of disparate genres recording the American maritime experience in the nineteenth century and offers an important corrective to how we define not just maritime history and nineteenth-century science, but also Americans’ very experience venturing afield.”--Matthew McKenzie, University of Connecticut

“This is an impressive and original piece of scholarship, and I applaud the ambition. I don’t know of any other work like it.”--Kurk Dorsey, University of New Hampshire

“This dramatic study of the scientific and cartographic currents that underlay American dominance on the world’s oceans brings innovative perspectives and vivid prose to the environmental history of naval operations. Jason Smith describes how the U.S. Navy gradually came to understand the ecology of the oceans, despite the fact that the Navy’s leadership often neglected the emerging science. This important study will appeal to both military and environmental historians, as well as the broader public interested in the global reach of American power.”—Richard Tucker, University of Michigan

"Jason Smith adds the ocean itself to naval history, revealing the tight yet underappreciated connection between American sea power and knowledge of the ocean throughout the U.S. Navy’s 19th and 20th-century history.  Long before submarine warfare and beach landings drew the navy into a strong partnership with oceanography, the navy pursued science of the sea and employed technologies to investigate, represent, and attempt to control the ocean.  Knowing the ocean played an integral role in the navy’s support of commerce and maritime enterprise in the 19th century, and continued at the turn of the century to provide a critical foundation for emerging military and strategic interests.  Alfred Thayer Mahan’s famous theory of sea power, long recognized for shaping the expansionist American empire, rested on the notion that the ocean environment could be controlled strategically.  By putting the ocean at the center of this history and featuring the work of often invisible hydrographers and surveyors, Smith has prompted a reevaluation of the role of science in the US navy and the contribution of knowledge of the ocean to American expansion."—Helen Rozwadowski, University of Connecticut