For all two of my readers not from class (hi Mom!), I’ve just started a History and Cartography class for the semester. This week’s readings (week 1) focus on the idea of maps as primary sources containing arguments and agendas.

Admittedly, in spite of years of advanced history education, this is not a way I had consciously conceptualized maps before. This is a bit ironic since I used to stand by a map (of recent vintage) of the Republic of Texas when I worked at the Alamo and point out its errors to visitors. Most glaringly, it only showed how the Republic of Texas conceived of its own borders (extending to the Rio Grande, including not just present-day Texas but half of New Mexico, much of Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and even Wyoming) and not the territory it ever actually controlled (about a third of that). Visitors were usually surprised. Using that map opened up the story of the border dispute that helped lead to the U.S.-Mexican War. But in spite of that experience, and realizing that map most certainly had an agenda and a story that it hid, I didn’t take the next step these readings helped me take.

I had thought of maps, and used them, as primary sources, but more as references. For example, this summer I used 1830s maps to gauge locations of roads and towns in my own creation of a map of the journey of Antonio López de Santa Anna to Washington in 1837. Could I indeed find Columbia, Arkansas? Where did my travelers cross the Brazos River? Maps from that period told me this information, and that was the extent to which I used them.

But this week’s readings helped me think more about how maps shape our perceptions of reality, and carry messages–whether intended or not–from the cartographer. What did the cartographer choose to emphasize? For example, J.B. Harley notes (page 39) that U.S. Geological Survey cartographers typically indicated woodland density, because these maps were initially made for military use.

The readings prompted me to go back and look at the maps I used as primary sources for creating my Google Map. Let’s take this 1837 map of the United States, which I primarily used for road locations. This map’s main emphasis, from a quick glance, is the political organization of the United States, rather than topography. As I did my Google Map, I only thought about my travelers going into the mountains as I looked at the Google Map in topographic view; I didn’t get that idea from the 1837 map. The 1837 map does, however, contain roads, rivers, and towns. It also includes statistics about U.S. states and cities, as well as traveling distances. So evidently the cartographer, publisher, etc., thought the customer would perhaps be most interested in trade, in getting around the country.

Admittedly, I hadn’t looked at the map much beyond the, well, map portion; in fact, I cropped out the rest when I adapted and used it for my Clio 2 project. The presence of engravings of six cities, plus George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, along the side convey a patriotic message (not to the extent of the eagle map of 1833, but close). Each city engraving gives an idea of bustling commerce.

So looking at this map as a primary source beyond a reference, it becomes clear that the cartographer, publisher, etc., are trying to convey an image of a prosperous, commercial country in 1837–a country with its autonomous states, but linked together by roads and rivers that carry commerce. A country showing reverence to its founding father, and his French aide. Why these two were chosen is a question for another day…