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American Geography and GeographersToward Geographical Science$

Geoffrey J. Martin

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780195336023

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195336023.001.0001

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The Physiographic Provinces

The Physiographic Provinces

(p.204) 4 The Physiographic Provinces
American Geography and Geographers

Geoffrey Martin

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Forms of regional differentiation have characterized geography since its inception. Sets of phenomena dominate an area, are characterized according to these phenomena, are named, and are distinguished one from another. When physiographic characteristics are adopted as the chief indicators, each area is named, frequently after those characteristics. These names may be changed over the years as physiographers and geographers perceive the physical environment differently. It is also on the margins of such regions that differences are perceived. Through time, variant dimensions in physiographic provinces have been delineated, providing ever more accurate and greater detail. This chapter reveals the history of the quest by geographers for the location, definition, and character of what have been termed the physiographic provinces in the United States.

Keywords:   physiography, province, anthropography, boundary, committee

Forms of regional differentiation have characterized geography since its inception. Sets of phenomena dominate an area, are characterized according to these phenomena, are named, and are distinguished one from another. When physiographic characteristics are adopted as the chief indicators, each area is named, frequently after those characteristics. These names may be changed over the years as physiographers and geographers perceive the physical environment differently. It is also on the margins of such regions that differences are perceived. Through time, variant dimensions in physiographic provinces have been delineated, providing ever more accurate and greater detail. This chapter reveals the history of the quest by geographers for the location, definition, and character of what have been termed the physiographic provinces in the United States.

OBSERVATIONS, ASSESSMENTS, AND DEFINITIONS OF REGIONS by geographers in North America seem to have been initiated by Nathaniel S. Shaler in an essay entitled “Physiography of North America” published in Narrative and Critical History of America (1885),1 edited by Justin Winsor. Less than a decade later, Shaler confirmed his interest in regional geography with a seven-chapter contribution to The United States of America: A Study of the American Commonwealth (1894).2 This was a three-volume work which Shaler edited, and for which he contributed one-quarter of its content. It was in (p.205) the chapters “The Continent and the Reasons for its Fitness to be the Home of a Great People,” “Natural Conditions of the East and South,” and “What Nature Has Done for the West” that Shaler’s variety of regional geography revealed itself; these chapters were in part an elaboration of the essay which he had contributed to the Winsor volume. This observation concerning the genesis of regional geography in North America was, it appears, first noted by W. L. G. Joerg.3

In 1896, the National Geographic Society published its first and only monograph. This publication included three essays by John Wesley Powell: “Physiographic Processes,” “Physiographic Features,” and “Physiographic Regions of the United States.” It was the third of these that excited attention. Powell wrote:4

Gradually, as the new science of physiography has grown, physiographic regions have come to be recognized; and an attempt is here made, by map and verbal description, to define the principal regions of the United States, exclusive of Alaska.

The regions here delineated are held to be natural divisions, because in every case the several parts are involved in a common history by which the present physiographic features have been developed. They have been characterized by the more prominent features used in the name.

Of it, Fulmer Mood has written:5

Powell’s discriminating, factual and objective description of American sections (he himself preferred the term “regions”) laid the foundations for oncoming historians to prepare sectional interpretations of American history grounded upon reliable geographical and physiographic bases.

Powell’s work put the study of social data capable of a sectionalized treatment upon a new foundation. Four slopes (an Atlantic slope, a Great Lake slope, a Gulf slope, and a Pacific slope) and sixteen sections were usefully listed, described, and analyzed in his essay published in the National Geographic Society monograph. This (p.206) provided a scientific base upon which the data of sectionalism could be spun, and which brought historian and geographer-geomorphologist closer, though at the time the meaning of such propinquity was little understood. Physiographic reality perhaps led to recognition of geographical determinant, but the whole was kept within scientific bounds. Mood writes, “while the historians were displaying a marked interest in the sectional concept, F. J. Turner’s opinion was that the monograph by Powell et al. revolutionized the subject.”6

Turner, and before him Shaler, had studied a frontier migrating on the backs of pioneers across a continent. Shaler had observed that the frontier had an organic quality about it, was a process, and moved across a landmass differentiated by its physiography.7 For Turner, the frontier was also process, and it proceeded across the same landmass, but Turner could not comprehend the properties of the physical environment in quite the same manner as Shaler.

When Powell produced a regional scheme of the United States—especially the large, two-page colored spread map entitled “Physiographic Regions of the United States”—Turner was provided with an improved understanding of the physical environment through which his pioneer population had advanced. Recognition of the worth of physiographic regions came to the historians through Turner, who had recognized Powell’s regions as the physiographic platform on which had been played out the human predicament.8

My work in American history is based on natural physiographic divisions, as outlined by Powell in his Physiographic Regions of the United States (Am. Book Co.—pamphlet—National Geographic Society Monographs). I find it revolutionizes the study, and I hope sometime to work out a work along those lines. … The line between prairies and Great Plains is the line of the arid lands, cutting through the middle of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. This line explains very much in modern western ideas, as you will see by consulting the files of the “Irrigation Age”. The pioneer came into this region and vainly tried to follow old individual methods.

(p.207) This fundamental understanding of physiographic provinces was enlarged by Turner’s closeness to the geographers. Interesting in this context is the correspondence between Nevin M. Fenneman and W. M. Davis concerning acquisition of a young physiographer. The young Lawrence Martin was then a student of Davis at Harvard, and was strongly recommended by the latter for the post offered by Fenneman. The salary was very low, as Fenneman, then at the University of Wisconsin, recognized, but he offered as additional incentive:9

While the money alone is not very much of an inducement, it would seem that a man who is physiographically inclined might count it a bit of good fortune to be able to spend a year with our Professor Turner in American History …

Less than a decade later, Turner was invited to membership in the Association of American Geographers, which he joined in 1915.

Other students of the physical environment studied limited areas within the United States. For example, Curtis F. Marbut produced “Physical Features of Missouri” (1896), Cleveland Abbe “Physiography of Maryland” (1899), Robert T. Hill “Physical Geography of the Texas Region” (1900), and Ralph S. Tarr “Physical Geography of New York State” (1902). However, these authors selected politically delimited units of the earth’s crust as the locus of study, focusing on explanation of process, not delimitation of region.10

Following the essay by Powell came other schemes of regional division. These were frequently structural divisions of the United States. William Morris Davis published an essay entitled “Regional Geography,” exemplified by a diagram, “Physical Divisions of the United States,” in Hugh Robert Mill’s The International Geography (1899)11 (see Figure 4.a). This was a regional division of the United States that became widely known as a result of the wide reach of Mill’s compendium. Indeed a number of colleges throughout the United States adopted the book as a text for introductory classes in geography. It was the most detailed regional treatment of the country then available and included extended observations concerning human occupancy of the land and characterizations of a (p.208)

The Physiographic Provinces

Figure 4.a. Physical Divisions of the United States (by W. M. Davis)

(p.209) number of cities. It was here that Mill wrote of Davis’s contribution, “the novel and scientific plan adopted for the chapter dealing with them (the United States) make it perhaps the most instructive in the book, and it is also the longest.”12

Henry Gannett published a map of regions in the United States, whose boundaries followed the county boundaries, which most closely approximated the natural boundaries. Since Gannett had been geographer to the Tenth and Eleventh Censuses, and had coauthored (with Fletcher Hewes) Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States (1885),13 he was attentive to population distribution. Nevertheless, his map of regions was centered on physiographic characteristics.14 Alfred H. Brooks, chief of the Alaska section of the Geological Survey from 1903, provided a regional division of northwest North America in The Geography and Geology of Alaska.15 In 1911, Isaiah Bowman’s book, Forest Physiography: Physiography of the United States and Principles of Soils in Relation to Forestry, was published.16 The first section, extending to more than 100 pages, was entitled “The Soil,” the second section “Physiography of the United States.”

This book provided the most detailed study of physiographic regions to that time; it also contained thoughts and diagrams on climatic and forest regions. It was widely used as a text by students of pedology, forestry, geomorphology, and geography, and retained its authority for many years. It was clearly the product of his learning with Davis at Harvard, yet Bowman curiously dedicated the book to “Eugene Waldemar Hilgard, Leader in Agrogeology.” Hilgard was an authority on soils and agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley. Indeed, Hilgard had published a very important work on soils (1906) that Bowman had used at Yale University. It was titled Soils: Their Formation, Properties, Composition, and Relation to Climate and Plant Growth, in the Humid and Arid Regions.17 Bowman explained his decision in a letter which he wrote to Davis on the occasion of the latter’s retirement from Harvard University:18

When I finished my Forest Physiography I felt that every page was yours as well as mine and wished to dedicate it to you. But “on the advice of eminent and numerous counsel” did not (p.210) do so because it was said “a dedication ought not to carry with it any implication that the author wishes to gain attention or seek favors.” So I went to the opposite coast, as far away as possible, and dedicated it to a man whose friendship I enjoy though it is based on letters only. Now that you are out of Harvard I can tell you this but when my Physiography of the United States is finished I am going to make up for the delay by the length of the dedication!

Of the work Joerg wrote:19

Regional physiography came fully into its own with the publication of Bowman’s “Forest Physiography” (1911), in which the great body of relevant geological literature, and especially that of the U.S. Geological Survey, was summarized and set forth regionally. It contains (pp. 108–110) the first adequate statement of the regional principle in an American work on physiography.

The book, Forest Physiography, won from Andrew J. Herbertson the statement in 1912,20

… it may be stated at once that it is the best detailed description which we possess of the physical features of the United States, as well as a most valuable account of the soils, climates and forests of the chief “physiographic” regions. The work is one of the most valuable contributions to the descriptive physical geography of the United States. It summarizes the innumerable special studies which are the despair of the European.

From Robert P. Beckinsale came the view that it was “a masterly summary.”21 Reprinted in 1914, 1930, and again in 1970,22 Forest Physiography inspired works by Fenneman, Mark S. W. Jefferson, Joerg, and François E. Matthes. Bowman had made for himself a special interleaved copy of Forest Physiography on which he wrote extensive notes to the original text, apparently for his intended “Physiography of the United States.” The latter, however, was never (p.211) completed. He wrote and published a substantial number of articles concerning his South American work and travels before he became director of the American Geographical Society in 1915.23

In 1912, Eliot Blackwelder elaborated a scheme of physiographic provinces in the United States24 (see Figure 4.b). In the same year, Charles R. Dryer gave definition to “Physiographic Provinces and

The Physiographic Provinces

Figure 4.b. E. Blackwelder: Physiographic Provinces of the United States 1912

(p.212) Regional Geography of North America” in High School Geography: Physical, Economic and Regional.25 Ralph S. Tarr and Oscar D. von Engeln produced a map of physiographic provinces of the United States in A Laboratory Manual for Physical and Commercial Geography, 1913.26

Soils of the United States was also published in 1913, and was largely the work of Curtis F. Marbut.27 As U.S. Bureau of Soils Bulletin 96, it superseded Bulletins 55 and 78, and advanced the most developed classification of soils extant in North America. The work divided the United States into thirteen natural subdivisions; the first seven of these, east of the Plains, were referred to as “provinces,” and the remainder were referred to as “regions.” Each province or region was described in terms of geology, topography, climate, vegetation, and soils. A colored map displayed the subdivisions of the country, which approximated the extent of the physiographic provinces of the geographers. It offered a better fit than these provinces, however, for purposes of understanding the distribution of vegetation and crops. This contribution went beyond the system of parallel “life zones” based on temperature which had been adopted by the Biological Survey of the Department of Agriculture since the early 1890s. The work added a new dimension to the task of regional delimitation which had earlier been initiated but not completed by Eugene W. Hilgard in his work Soils (1906), and went beyond the soils section of Bowman’s Forest Physiography.

Bowman had essentially looked to Eugene W. Hilgard, George P. Merrill, Louis V. Pirrson, Nathaniel S. Shaler, and numerous other American authors for his knowledge of soils. Marbut had studied soils and topography at first hand in Europe, 1899–1900,28 and later read the work of the Russian Konstantin D. Glinka, and probably that of Vasilii V. Dokuchaiev and Nikolai M. Sibirtsev. Glinka was translated from Russian into German by 1914; Marbut then translated Glinka from German into English by 1920, although the work was not published until 1927.29

The matter of physiographic regions, their extent and definition, took on an institutional dimension when W. M. Davis led the Round Table Conference “Uniformity of Method in Geographic Investigation and Instruction” at the fourth annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, 1907.30 (p.213)

Interest in the discussion centered upon one central question, namely – Is it possible adequately to describe the surface of a given area in the technical terms of Systematic Physiography without resort to empirical descriptions? The interest manifested in this Round Table warrants the conclusion that similar conferences will become a regular feature of our meetings.

Studies of physiographic provinces continued and in the Association’s “Circular of Information” for 1914 one reads:31

A great deal of interest has been aroused by the two papers on physiographic regions given at our last meeting at Princeton. The United States Geological Survey is especially interested in the Association’s work on this subject. The Council has therefore decided that the question of physiographic regions and boundaries be made the subject of discussion at the next annual Round-Table Conference. Professor N. M. Fenneman has been selected to lead the Conference.

The two papers to which Bowman referred were Fenneman’s “Definition and Boundaries of Physiographic Provinces in the United States”32 and Joerg’s “The Subdivision of North America into Natural Regions.”33 Both were subsequently printed in full in the Annals. However a measure of dissent was expressed. Marbut wrote to Isaiah Bowman, February 15, 1914:

Personally I am opposed, not very strongly however, to the appointment of a committee to consider the matter of the definition of the physiographic and geographic provinces in the United States. Uniformity in official definitions is necessary. Where broader relations are concerned, when questions of general relationships are concerned I see no more reason for dictating uniformity than to require uniformity of plan in all buildings.

Later that year Marbut urged Bowman,34 (p.214)

The chief matter to be discussed by the Association … is the meaning of the term Physiography. A committee could restrict it to topography alone, to topography and rainfall, topography and temperature, topography, rainfall and temperature.

This was a time when physiography was still the dominant in American geography, having removed itself from geology largely by the topographic dimension. It was Francis W. Parker’s address at the International Geographical Congress in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 which asserted that “Geography is the science of the present appearance of the earth’s surface. Geology is the history of the present appearance of the earth’s surface.” This was perhaps the earliest explicit separation of geography from geology both at an international gathering and in print (in the United States). It was at least a focal point in an emerging field of learning for all geographers; it was also the primal region in a hierarchy of regions that were to become a vital and ongoing part of American geography.

Joerg’s essay surveyed previous classifications of regions in North America and the United States, adopting the categories structural, climatic, vegetational, zoogeographic, and natural regions. These classifications were made by both Americans and Europeans; it may have been the first such detailed essay of its kind to win publication. Joerg provided map illustration and physiographic provinces of Blackwelder (orographic, 1912) and (physiographic, 1912), Gannett (1902), Davis (1899), Tarr and von Engeln (1913), Bowman (1911), Dryer (1912), Powell (1896) and Brooks (1906). The simplicity of the Blackwelder (1912) diagram was typical of the offering; it was perhaps one of the most popular of the physiographic maps then available.

Fenneman’s essay sought only physiographic boundaries within the United States. He sought to remove the inconsistencies of sketched boundaries, to provide divisions having the greatest physiographic unity, to base these decisions on contrasts to be seen in the field, to designate the most suitable lines where contrasts in the field were not clear, and to comprehend these physiographic boundaries in terms of geologic structure and physiographic history.35 (p.215) He relied very considerably on the work of Powell, 1896, and while very aware of the work of Davis and Bowman, it was Powell’s work that he chose to revise.

Fenneman by now had traveled and undertaken fieldwork in much of North America. He had studied with Davis in the Harvard summer school, 1895, worked extensively for the U.S. Geological Survey, and functioned as “journalist” for the 13,000-mile American Geographical Society Transcontinental Excursion of 1912.36 He had also taught numerous university classes in geology and physiography, had developed an intense specialization in the physiography of the country, and had already published considerably on the subject.37

In his “physiographic boundaries” essay, Fenneman initiated a study that was to continue for the remainder of his life. He wrote carefully and in detailed vein about each of the provinces he had agreed (posthumously) after Powell, and gave his full attention to the matter of the boundaries. He included three maps to make clear his position, “Physiographic Provinces of the United States,”38 “Physiographic Divisions of the United States—Status of Boundaries,”39 and “Physiographic Divisions of the United States—Interpretation of Boundary Lines.”40 The article was the first of its kind.

At the 1914 Chicago meeting of the Association. a “round table” (conference) concerning division of the United States into physiographic provinces was discussed. Fenneman presided over the meeting, offering a framework for discussion in an abstract entitled “Bases for Dividing the United States into Physiographic Provinces.”41 Matthes later reported:42

The point that seemed to be of prime importance at the outset was whether a map of strictly physiographic subdivisions could be made to serve the purposes of the regional geographer as well as of the physiographer … it was seen that a map of physiographic provinces is primarily a physiographer’s tool, the making of which had best be entrusted to physiographers …

The meeting concluded with the passing of a resolution to the Council recommending the construction of a physiographic map of the United States.

(p.216) At the April 1915 meeting of the Association, it was agreed in the Council that the president, Richard E. Dodge, would appoint five persons to a committee on the delimitation of physiographic provinces. Dodge selected Fenneman as chairman as well as Eliot Blackwelder, Marius R. Campbell, Douglas W. Johnson, and François E. Matthes; Bowman wrote:43

The purpose of this committee is to further the work planned by Professor N. M. Fenneman on the more precise location of the boundaries of the various physiographic provinces. The Council believes that this is one of the most important pieces of work that the Association has undertaken to do, and I earnestly hope that every effort will be made by the committee of five to push the work to completion, and arrive at an authoritative result. We find no reason why the map should not be definitive. We believe that such a map would pass into the geographic literature the world over, and do much to increase respect for American geography.

Each of the persons invited to sit on this committee accepted. The detailed work of the committee, however, was accomplished largely by a subcommittee consisting of Matthes, Campbell, and Fenneman:44

From December 20, 1915, to April 20, 1916, this subcommittee sat from three to four half-days per week … The results of the above committee’s work are incorporated in a map of the United States showing divisions of three orders, called respectively, major divisions, provinces, and sections. This map, together with the naming and classification of the several units, constitutes the committee’s report.

Resulting from this work, a map of the United States was drawn, essentially by Fenneman, on the scale of 1:7,000,000 showing divisions of the three orders. Each of the units was named and classified. Fenneman sent a copy of the unpublished article to Davis for his thoughts. Davis wrote:45 (p.217)

Re-examination impresses me with great value of work—I am deeply interested in it and believe that, as it stands, it is a valuable step of progress But I urge further consideration of method—and for present I do not discuss the divisions or subdivisions; only “prominent features” I take exception to footnote—“Brevity is first requisite”—correctness and intelligibility are more important than brevity, and I think consistency of method (instead of alteration of “technical” [explanatory] and empirical style) is about as important as intelligibility, and more important than brevity. These statements of “prominent features” will be quoted verbatim by many users—they will be taken as standard definitions or descriptions. Hence correctness, intelligibility and consistency are of high importance. …

You have done a fine work in subdividing the things—Now, do another by standardizing the treatment of the subdivisions! Don’t stop halfway! Don’t let the unnecessary inconsistencies of the “prominent features” get into print. It is amateurish—not professional or workmanlike—eroded and dissected, used indifferently. Sometimes young, mature, subdued … sometimes not.

If the inconsistencies were essential, or helpful, or unavoidable, let them stand!—but they are not. They are like writing “I saw forty-three men, 27 women and XVIII children”. That is intelligible, exact, but inconsistent, bad style—better 43, 27 and 18 …

This screed of approximately 1200 words seems to have been written hurriedly, perhaps even while Davis was traveling. The handwriting appeared more hasty than usual, though the suggestions for change were delivered with rapier-like precision and led to revision of “characteristics” of each of the physiographic “sections” enumerated by Fenneman and his committee. The committee members recognized Davis as the leading physiographer of the United States. The first generation of Americans professionally trained as geographers owed a great deal to him. It is faintly amusing yet wholesomely instructive to read their correspondence, diary notes, and other written remarks about Davis’s intellectual priority.

(p.218) At that time, Davis was immersed in coral reef studies in the Pacific (he was to write more than forty articles relating to this matter before publishing The Coral Reef Problem in 1928).46 He was so dominant in the field of physiography that perhaps it was thought best to establish a committee of which he was not a member; clearly, he would provide input on the matter of the provinces, while in any case four of the five committee members had been his students.

The work by Fenneman’s “five” was published. An anonymous source in The Geographical Review (almost certainly Joerg) provided commentary under the title “A New Map of the Physiographic Divisions of the United States”:47

… the point of chief importance is that we now have an authoritative beginning for the interpretation of the human life of the United States. Hereafter the regional geography of the country will be written on an entirely new basis.

No better service could now be rendered than that of interpreting the distribution of population in terms of physiographic regions. Here lies the great importance to geographical science of the next census. It would be an almost inconceivable neglect of opportunity to have the population maps drawn without reference to the boundaries of the physiographic provinces. Detailed physiographic field work is essential to supplement the statistical facts and this ought to be done in co-operation with some physiographic committee which would actually and precisely delimit the details of each boundary in the field. The county unit is too gross for this purpose and even the township unity ought to be split in critical cases. This would afford geographers an opportunity for the first time to make a really scientific study of the distribution of population. It is not meant to imply that physiographic features are a primary control of distribution. But relief, and all that goes with it, is in many cases the primary control; and the extent to which this control is exercised can never be demonstrated—physiographic influence can never be isolated from other influences—until a study is undertaken on this plan. The Census Bureau will surely not fail to seize this great opportunity.

(p.219) A harbinger of the gradual dominance of the geographic over the physiographic was provided by Mark Jefferson’s presidential address presented before the Association of American Geographers, December 1916. In that published presentation, a distinction was drawn between geographic and physiographic provinces. In “Some Considerations on the Geographical Provinces of the United States,” Jefferson briefly defined geographic “influences,” “anthropogeography,” and “anthropography.” For Jefferson, it was the third of these genres that was the essence of the geographic:48

Anthropography. … It studies the distribution of men over the earth as a static fact, regardless of their movements or occupation, but paying much attention to the closeness with which they occupy their region, or the density of population from place to place. The full topical name, distribution of population - densities, is somewhat cumbrous. As an arbitrary name Anthropography would have some advantages

Under a subheading, “The Limitations in the Use of Physiographic Provinces,” Jefferson wrote,49 “physiographic provinces are unsuitable for human, statistical use, as in reporting the results of a census.” Fenneman thought otherwise. The point is that Jefferson’s geographic provinces contrasted starkly with physiographic provinces. This encouraged the study of what came to be called human-use regions.50 Within Association membership, correspondence suggests that there was concern that too large a percentage of members were essentially geologists, and that geographers henceforth should be encouraged to form an ever-increasing number of members in the Association.

The monograph—Physiographic Divisions of the United States—was published as the first “separate” of the Association. All copies of it had been sold by 1920, and Council allocated five hundred dollars for its reprinting. This was to be paid out of the Sinking Fund “with special vote of Council.”51 At the following Association meeting, held in Washington, D.C., December 30 and 31, 1921, at the request of the U.S. Geological Survey, conveyed through the person of Marius R. Campbell, the Association voted52 (p.220)

to appoint a standing committee on physiographic boundaries and provinces, Fenneman Chairman: President Barrows appointed Lobeck and Marbut as additional members. Committee will be completed later.

Lawrence Martin was later added to the committee.

Campbell had already suggested such an AAG standing committee, as the Physiographic Committee of the U.S. Geological Survey was in process of undertaking work of a similar nature.53 In fact, the Geological Survey committee had already invested considerable time in defining physiographic areas of various orders in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware for “The Geographic Handbook of the North Mid-Atlantic States.” Vigorous exchange ensued, especially concerning the terms “Piedmont Province” and “Appalachian Mountains.” The five-page letter from Campbell to Fenneman of March 15, 1918, and Fenneman’s reply dated April 1, 1918, are significant documents in the history of nomenclature relating to the physiographic provinces of North America. Exchange was frank, led to growth in thought, and in its continuation brought Marius Campbell to the presidency of the Association in 1927, at Nashville, Tennessee. The exchange, then and later, produced valuable discussion. Particularly significant perhaps was Fenneman’s proclamation:54

I should be very sorry to see Physiography come into the condition where men would scrap as the biologists do over the precedence of a term. I do not think that in Physiography precedence should count against aptness. It is plain that names must be had for these divisions and had at once, but I should be exceedingly sorry to see future names barred on the ground that older ones must have precedence …

I shall propose to the A.A.G. the matter which you suggest, i.e. a permanent committee which shall be a natural channel of communication. The suggestion seems to me good.

Fenneman’s long essay and map relating to physiographic provinces, 1916, had been in considerable demand. It was agreed (p.221)

The Physiographic Provinces

Figure 4.c. Nevin M. Fenneman

at the annual meeting of the Association for 1922 that55 (see Figure 4.c)

the price of Fenneman’s Monograph be $2 per copy and that not more than two copies be sold to one person or institution.

Voted that the question of arranging and publication of a new edition of monograph and map or of map separately be left to the Publication Committee with power.

Specializations were deepening: Marbut wrote on the Great Plains and the Ozarks, Matthes on the Sierras, Campbell on the Appalachians, Davis on the Northeast (and much else), Gregory on the Southwest, Johnson on the Appalachian piedmont, and there were numerous others. Warren N. Thayer covered Canada with “The Northward Extension of the Physiographic Divisions of the United States,”56 and Alfred H. Brooks offered “The Geography and Geology of Alaska.”57 By 1927, the third of the physiographic province versions loomed as demand for it intensified. Fenneman wrote to Brigham on May 23: (p.222)

I expect to spend four weeks more or less in Washington finishing up the revision of physiographic provinces. We are pushed for this both by the universities on one hand and by the Bureau of the Census on the other. The latter, after being labored with for a number of years, seems to be taking physiographic divisions seriously and are pushing us now for the necessary base map to enable them to allot townships to the proper provinces.

In 1928 was published the third edition, revised and enlarged, of “Physiographic Divisions of the United States.”58 The first nine pages of this publication were written by Fenneman, devoid of the work of the committee. In an introductory statement, Fenneman wrote under the subheadings “Need of Natural Divisions,” “Work of the Association of American Geographers,” “General Principles,” “Criteria Considered,” “Nature of Boundary Lines,” “Major and Minor Divisions,” and “The Naming of Divisions.”

In this introductory essay one learns more especially of the history of this study involving the Association and its “Physiographic Boundaries & Provinces,” that Fenneman was a Davisian (in terms of his physiography), and that he felt a compelling need for definition of the physiographic provinces. Especially compelling was his claim that59

no attempt has heretofore been made to define boundaries so that such units shall not overlook or leave space unaccounted for. Without such boundaries it is not possible to tabulate the population, resources, and industrial statistics of each natural division so as to show in an effective way the influence of physical environment on human life.

The third “edition” of this trilogy of physiographic province “separates” was eagerly consumed by geographers, geomorphologists, and geologists to a total of approximately 2,000 copies. It was the first time that the Association had committed itself to a project in this way. It was adjudged a great success and a project completed. The Committee on Physiographic Provinces was “discharged with thanks by the Association” in 1929.60

(p.223) While this process of physiographic subdivision of the country was proceeding, Fenneman continued to produce related essays which were published in other than geographical periodicals. Notably, “Physiographic Subdivisions of the United States” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 191761; “Physical Divisions of the United States” was published in The U.S. Geological Survey, 192862; and “Physical Geography of the United States” was published in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1929.63 Both Davis and Bowman were well disposed toward Fenneman and his physiographic studies. Bowman wrote to Fenneman:64

I think I have already exhausted my vocabulary in commending your papers on the “Physiographic Divisions of the United States” but lest two or three fugitive words of praise may have been left out of any former comments I take this moment off from routine work to again tell you how admirable I think it is … And it is not alone on the strictly professional side that you merit congratulations for after reading page 21 and again recalling the diverse personalities of the members of the Committee I feel that you deserve special credit for having held the team together and having put the stamp of the Committee on the map.

And Bowman wrote further to Fenneman concerning his attitude to publication of physiographic essays in The Geographical Review:65

In order that my attitude toward physiography might be perfectly clear I took particular pains to have the first number of The Geographical Review, January 1916, contain one of the longest physiographic papers ever published in the magazine of this Society-“Fault Coasts of New Zealand” by C.A. Cotton … I regard the New Zealand article, Davis’ “Mission Range” and his “Front Range” article as fine pieces of work. Your physiographic map of the United States and the text accompanying it and your earlier article on the same subject belong in the same category. No one who sends an excellent physiographic article (p.224) to the Review ever need fear that the editor will turn it down … because it deals wholly with the physical side of geography.

The Fenneman physiographic map series—as well it might have been called—lent itself to classroom work on many campuses across the country and was reproduced, modified or not, in textbooks, articles, and numerous other works. Fenneman wrote:66

You are doubtless aware that the map of physiographic provinces adopted a few years ago by the American Geographical Society and the U.S. Geological Survey is being adjusted to townships lines, mainly by Professor Lobeck. There is already an informal agreement with the Director of the Census that certain tabulations (provinces and sections) as shown upon this map, it being understood, of course, that such tabulation or plotting would be in addition to the usual showing by political units.

The essential map was exhibited at the joint meeting of the Association and the American Geographical Society in April 1916, shown less formally in other Association annual meetings, and then reproduced in simplified form in the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (1932).67 This was encouraged by the historians, who wanted a physiographic base for historical maps.

Fenneman became the recipient of much correspondence concerning his provinces. Correspondents very largely approved his divisions, and some asked questions about the matter. That was a process that continued throughout much of Fenneman’s life. Fenneman settled to the task of writing two definitive books concerning his provinces, Physiography of Western United States (1931) and Physiography of Eastern United States (1938). In the preface to the first of this definitive pair of works, Fenneman revealed his thought68:

The central theme of the work is the land forms of western United States and how they came about. There is no doubt about this center of interest, but the circumference of an appropriate mass of fact may be hard to fix. A companion volume on the “Physiography of Eastern United States” is now in preparation.

(p.225) It may be assumed that geologists and geographers have equal interest in land forms, but the quality of their interests is very different. To the geologist land forms are a kind of final product, the end of a story. To the geographer they offer a beginning, a point of departure. To the former, land forms depend on all the physical processes of geology. To the latter, they depend on nothing; almost everything else depends on them in some measure.

Fenneman drew on his own travel experience and that of other geologists and geographers, had Guy-Harold Smith draw a map for each of the provinces, and borrowed numerous photographs, especially of the desert, from Eliot Blackwelder. The book defines “Western” United States as all land west of the eastern limit of the Great Plains. Quite certainly it was the most comprehensive work of its kind, and was written by one who had traveled much of the area. The companion volume, Physiography of Eastern United States, was designed similarly. Comprehensive, and more voluminous than the western volume,69 the eastern provinces it described may have been even more thoroughly traveled by Fenneman than those of the west. He saw and studied all the provinces of which he had written by train, boat, canoe, horse, or foot, but never by airplane. Much of this was the product of work for the United States Geological Survey, or for state Geological Surveys, annually from 1901 to 1924 with only three exceptions. He spent a large part of each of his summers in the field. At age fifty-five, he wrote to Brigham:70

The last month (of summer) was spent on the Canadian Border, west of Lake Superior, with Grant and a crowd from Northwestern. We had an ideal life in camp, traveling long distance by canoe. I felt proud and young to think that I could still carry a ninety-pound canoe over a bad portage.

Fenneman also traveled Canada, always looking for the mass and margin of the physiographic province. In September 1927, he had written to Bowman:71 (p.226)

I returned two weeks ago from a canoe trip which took us down to York factory on Hudson Bay by the historical route used several centuries by the Hudson Bay Company. We returned by the partially completed railroad which is to carry the wheat of the western provinces to Fort Churchill … We took steamer from Winnipeg (or rather Selkirk) for 300 miles north on Lake Winnipeg to Norway House, an old Hudson Bay Company post. There we took our Indians and took to canoes.

He was aided in his abundant publications by a happy blend of clear thinking, academic learning, and substantial field experience. Additionally, he possessed an enviable literary style; as hobbyist he read sixty-six essays to the Cincinnati Literary Club (the oldest organization of its kind in the country). Two more essays were presented posthumously.72

Fenneman had continued to think in terms of physiography, though he did not care for the term. His usage was in deference to Davis, who cast a long shadow across the study of physiography in North America and beyond. Fenneman expressed himself briefly on the matter in the first sentence of the preface to his Physiography of Western United States: “In calling this book ‘Physiography’ we are merely accepting the American usage of a not very fortunate term.” Nevertheless, at this time “physiography” was a term descended from Davis and understood by the likes of Wallace W. Atwood, Charles A. Cotton, O. D. Von Engeln, Norman E. A. Hinds, Armin K. Lobeck, Curtis F. Marbut, and many others. Articles and books continued to be written on the subject.

Two men emerged in this period as creative cartographers. Both drew physiographic maps and pictorial representations with originality and exquisite sense of proportion. Both could stand at the blackboard with their back to the class, lecture, and draw accurate maps simultaneously with both hands. Both took their doctorates from Columbia University, Armin Lobeck in 1917 and Erwin Raisz in 1929.

Lobeck worked for The Inquiry, which had been established to help with peace negotiations at the end of World War I. He was then made part of the cartographic team of the American Commission (p.227) to Negotiate Peace, joining with Mark Jefferson and Charles Stratton in the Hotel Crillon, Paris. Upon his return to the United States, Lobeck took a post at the University of Wisconsin from 1919 to 1929, where he taught courses in physiography much embellished by blackboard sketches. During the summers from 1920 to 1927 he returned to Columbia University and offered summer courses in fieldwork and physiography, inevitably illustrated by many of his cartographic works. At Wisconsin in 1921, he established the Wisconsin Geographical Press, from which came Physiographic Diagram of the United States (1922), Physiographic Diagram of Europe (1923), Panorama of Physiographic Types (1926), and many others. He returned to Columbia University to continue there until retirement. His block diagrams were taught in classes, written about in articles, and published as Block Diagrams and Other Graphic Methods Used in Geology and Geography (1924). His contribution to a unique and artistic form of cartography facilitated in innumerable ways exploitation of his work in maps reproduced in both books and articles, especially physiographic maps.

Erwin Raisz arrived in the United States in 1918 from Hungary; like Lobeck, he studied at Columbia University and was greatly influenced by the teaching of D. W. Johnson. Raisz never did manage the English language with total fluency, and he remained attached to a stricter cartography. While taking a post with the Institute of Geographical Exploration at Harvard University from 1931 to 1950, Raisz drew maps and offered work in cartography leading to a textbook in cartography and later a series of atlases. However, in the earlier period of the 1920s to the 1940s, his artistic work led to landform maps of the United States and parts thereof when the physiographic provinces were being established on the map and in the literature. There were other workers in this genre, but Lobeck and Raisz were the most accomplished in the United States and need to be mentioned.

Of particular significance was Wallace W. Atwood’s The Physiographic Provinces of North America (1940). Atwood—himself an authority in physiography and mountainous parts of the West—found ten provinces in North America, each of which included one or more of Fenneman’s provinces elaborated in 1928. Atwood (p.228) extended the provinces into Canada, Alaska, and Mexico, and proceeded with an ecologic emphasis. Atwood’s color map of physiographic provinces is given a one-page display in his textbook. He supposed that attention given to settlement and development of these regions would add interest to a book that was intended for use by undergraduate students. In that respect, it seems to have been the first of its kind. Many articles and some books that dealt with the physiography of particular areas of one or more of the provinces had been, and would yet be, published. Davis had passed away in 1934, and his students, who had formed the first generation of professional geographers in the country, were themselves beginning to approach retirement age. Geography as it was practiced had begun to remove itself from the study of physiography.



(1) Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, 8 vols., Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1884–1889.

(2) Nathaniel S. Shaler, ed., The United States of America: A Study of the American Commonwealth, Its Natural Resources, People, Industries, Manufactures, Commerce, and Its Work in Literature, Science, Education, and Self-Government, 2 vols., New York, D. Appleton and Co., 1894.

(3) W. L. G. Joerg, “The Geography of North America: A History of its Regional Exposition,” Geographical Review 26, 1936, 640–663.

(4) John Wesley Powell, ed., Physiographic Regions of the United States, Monograph 1, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1896, 65–66.

(5) Fulmer Mood, “The Origin, Evolution, and Application of the Sectional Concept, 1750–1900,” in Merrill Jenson, ed., Regionalism in America, 1951, 8.

(6) Regionalism in America, 98.

(7) David N. Livingstone, “Science and Society: Nathaniel S. Shaler and Racial Ideology,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s., 9, 1984, 181–210. Also Robert H. Block, “Frederick Jackson Turner and American Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70, 1980, 31–42.

(8) Letter, F. J. Turner to Walter Hines Page, August 30, 1896. (HL)

(9) Letter, N. M. Fenneman to W. M. Davis, April 24, 1906. See also W. M. Davis to N. M. Fenneman, April 28, 1906; May 2, 1906; and May 3, 1906. (UCO and HU)

(10) William Morris Davis, “The Progress of Geography in the United States,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 14, 1924, 195.

(11) Hugh Robert Mill, The International Geography, 1899, 719.

(12) Mill, International Geography, 1899 & 1900. vii. New York & London: D. Appleton and Company.

(13) Henry Gannett and Fletcher Hewes, Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States Showing by Graphic Methods Their Present Condition and Their Political, Social and Industrial Development, New York, 1885.

(14) W. F. Willcox, A Discussion of Area and Population, 12th Census of the United States Bulletin, 149, 1902, 10. Reproduced in Bureau of the Census Bulletin 1, 1903.

(15) The Geography and Geology of Alaska: A Summary of Existing Knowledge, U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper Number 45, 1906, Plate 2, Geographic Provinces of Northwestern North America.

(16) New York and London: John Wiley and Sons.

(17) New York and London: The Macmillan Company, 1906.

(18) Letter, Isaiah Bowman to William Morris Davis, August 7, 1912. (HU)

(19) Wolfgang L. G. Joerg, “The Geography of North America: A History of its Regional Exposition,” Geographical Review 26, 1936, 640–663.

(20) Andrew J. Herbertson, “Physical Geography of the United States,” Geographical Journal 40, 1912, 208–209.

(21) Letter, Robert P. Beckinsale to Geoffrey J. Martin, February 8, 1977, 1. “The Geomorphological Importance of the Writings of Isaiah Bowman,” unpublished essay, I. (GM)

(22) Reprinted by Wiley in 1914 and 1930, and by Arno Press, New York, 1970.

(23) Letter, Isaiah Bowman to Mark Jefferson, January 31, 1910. (EMU)

(24) Eliot Blackwelder, “United States of America,” in Steinmann and Wilckens, eds., Handbuch der regionalen Geologie, Vol. 8 part 2, 1912. Figure 1.

(25) Charles R. Dryer, High School Geography: Physical, Economic, and Regional, 1911, Figure 307 and 301.

(26) The map of the physiographic provinces of this publication forms the frontispiece at the scale 1:25,000,000.

(27) The full list of authors given in the publication is C. F. Marbut, H. H. Bennett, J. E. Lapham, and M. H. Lapham.

(28) Louise Marbut Moomaw, 1942. “Curtis Fletcher Marbut” In H. H. Krusekopf, ed., Life and Work of C. F. Marbut, 11–27. Madison, Wisconsin: Soil Science Society of America, 16. In July 1899, he traveled to Europe with fellow academic Isidor Loeb, there “to see the great structures of the European continent,—the Alps, the Hungarian Plain, the great river valleys. … These were his laboratories, the great clinics he had wanted to see.”

(29) The Great Soil Groups of the World and Their Development, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Bros., 1927. See also letter, K. D. Glinka to C. F. (p.230) Marbut, March 23, 1926. “I am very thankful to you for the great labour you undertake in translating my book and I shall be delighted if that work will help us to find the same language for the study of the soils of our countries.” (UMO)

(30) Association of American Geographers, Annual Report by acting secretary Nevin M. Fenneman. (AAG)

(31) AAG Circular of Information, 1914, 2.

(32) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 4, 1914, 84–134.

(33) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 4, 1914, 55–83.

(34) Letter, C. F. Marbut to I. Bowman, April 17, 1914. (UMO)

(35) Fenneman Annals, AAG. 1914, 488.

(36) Memorial Volume of the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912 of the American Geographical Society of New York, New York: Published by the Society, 1915.

(37) Walter Bucher, “Memorial to Nevin M. Fenneman,” Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, June 1946, 215–228. See also Bruce Ryan, “Nevin Melancthon Fenneman, 1865–1945,” Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies 10, 1986, 57–68. It should be noted that there is a substantial holding of Fenneman papers in the archival holding of the University of Cincinnati. (UCO)

(38) Fenneman 1914, 90.

(39) The two maps follow Fenneman 1914, 134. (Figure 2)

(40) The two maps follow Fenneman 1914, 134. (Figure 3)

(41) N. M. Fenneman, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1915, 5136.

(42) F. E. Matthes, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 5, 1915, 127–129. “Conference on the Delineation of Physiographic Provinces in the United States.”

(43) Isaiah Bowman, copies to N. M. Fenneman, M. R. Campbell, D. W. Johnson, F. E. Matthes, and E. Blackwelder, April 18, 1915.

(44) N. M. Fenneman, “Physiographic Divisions of the United States,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 6, 1916, 21.

(45) “Notes by W. M. Davis on Outline of Phys. Divs. of U.S.” Undated and in Davis’s longhand. (HU)

(46) Isaiah Bowman, ed. Special Publication 9 of the American Geographical Society.

(47) “Geographical Record,” Geographical Review 4, 1917, 218.

(48) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 7, 1917, 4.

(49) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 7, 15.

(50) See H. J. Fleure, Human Geography in Western Europe: A Study in Appreciation, London: Williams and Norgate, 1918, and “Regional Consciousness and Nationality in Western Europe,” Geographical Review 6.6, 1918, 515–516. See also J. Russell Smith, Industrial and Commercial Geography, (p.231) 1913, and G. Martin, “J. Russell Smith, 1874–1966,” Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies 21, London and New York: Continuum 2001, 97–113.

(51) AAG Minute Book, Chicago Meeting, December 30, 1920, and January 1, 1921. (AAG)

(52) AAG Minute Book, Washington, D.C., Meeting, 1921. (AAG)

(53) Letter, M. R. Campbell to N. M. Fenneman, March 15, 1918. (UCO)

(54) Letter, N. M. Fenneman to M. R. Campbell, April 1, 1918. (UCO)

(55) AAG Minute Book, Ann Arbor, Michigan Meeting, 1922. (AAG)

(56) Journal of Geology 26, 1918, 161–185, 237–254.

(57) U.S. Geological Survey Prof. Paper No. 45, 1906.

(58) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 18, 1928. 261–353.

(59) Nevin M. Fenneman, “Physiographic Divisions of the United States,” Annals AAG 18, 1928, 264.

(60) AAG Minute Book, Annual meeting, Columbus, Ohio, December 29, 1929. (AAG)

(61) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 3, 1917, 17–22.

(62) U.S. Geological Survey 1928, map and table.

(63) Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 22, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1929, 714–723.

(64) Letter, I. Bowman to N. M. Fenneman, May 25, 1917. (UCO)

(65) Letter, I. Bowman to N. M. Fenneman, February 17, 1917. (UCO)

(66) Letter, N. M. Fenneman to I. Bowman, copies sent to C. C. Colby, A. K. Lobeck. L. Martin, O. E. Baker, and M. S.W. Jefferson. (UCO)

(67) Charles O. Paullin, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. Ed. J. K. Wright. New York: American Geographical Society, 1932.

(68) N. M. Fenneman, Preface, Physiography of Western United States, London and New York: McGraw Hill 1931, v.

(69) Physiography of Eastern United States contained xiii + 714 pages, Physiography of Western United States xiii + 534.

(70) Letter, N. M. Fenneman to A. P. Brigham, November 5, 1919. (UCO)

(71) Letter, N. M. Fenneman to I. Bowman, September 19, 1927. (UCO)

(72) Bruce Ryan, “Nevin Melanchthon Fenneman, 1865–1945.” Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, Vol. 10, 1986. Mansell Publishing Limited, 65 and 67.