David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Hist 615 – History and Cartography – Fall 2013 (page 2 of 2)

Cartography: Reliving my 20s through hand-drawn maps

This week’s assignment for History & Cartography was to create, first, a hand-drawn map and, second, a map drawn on a computer.

After much indecision, I chose to hand-draw a portion from an 1836 map of the town of San Antonio de Béxar and its nearby mission-turned-fort, the Alamo, by Mexican Army Colonel Ygnacio de Labastida. Although the map is inaccurate because it exaggerates the size of the Alamo, I nonetheless thought it would be interesting to produce a version of it. Since Labastida was a military engineer, and his enemy was holed up in the Alamo, perhaps it is no surprise he would exaggerate the size of the Alamo in comparison with the town of San Antonio de Béxar.

Here is the original:

LaBastida Map

Ygnacio de LaBastida map of San Antonio de Béxar and the Alamo, 1836.

I printed out a version of the map (on my black-and-white printer) and proceeded to draw a grid over the portion showing the town of San Antonio and the Alamo. By chance, I chose a 4.5 inch by 6 inch portion–perfect for blowing up into a 9 inch by 12 inch sketchbook. So I then, essentially, doubled the size of my printout. I free-drew the map to correspond with the grid, then covered the lines in ink and used a fancy eraser to (mostly) get rid of the pencil. I then used some basic colors for it, different from those used by Labastida. Importantly, I chose to use green as the background. This harkened back to my days working at the Alamo in my early 20s: visitors were commonly surprised by how green San Antonio was, due to John Wayne having filmed his movie in the desert. So I wanted to show that. Here’s the finished product:

Hand-drawn Labastida map.

My rendition of the Labastida map from 1836.

I definitely don’t have the cartographic skills, especially with my hands, of a Mexican Army engineer. Indeed, in doing this exercise, I gained appreciation for the skills of cartographers, particularly before the age of computers! Like others have said, I certainly learned that my art skills are lacking…

This exercise also helped me study the map more closely. When coloring it in, in particular, I had to choose how much to reflect the accuracy of the Alamo (with buildings on the walls, not just walls) or to keep with Labastida’s map. In the end, I chose to show the buildings, somewhat.

Perhaps a better exercise would have been correcting Labastida’s map, but that can be for another time.

For the computer portion, I chose to relive another part of my early 20s: my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. Before leaving in part for medical reasons, I spent seven months in a small community called El Llano, six miles from the town of Sensuntepeque, capital of the northern department of Cabañas. El Llano is part of a broader community called San Lorenzo.

Not surprisingly, most Salvadoran villages don’t show up on Google Maps or Google Earth. After much trying a couple of years ago, I finally was able to locate El Llano, mainly because of its cemetery. Here is El Llano in Google Maps:

El Llano on Google Maps

Screenshot of Google Maps, showing the location of El Llano

As this image somewhat shows, the sole map element that Google Maps provides here–the roads–don’t even line up to the reality of where roads run through the community. Not using the Earth feature, there’s even less:

Same spot, just roads.

Same spot, just roads.

So, I decided to add some depth to the village in my map, showing, in particular, homes, shops, civic institutions, and locations of wooded areas, which then show where farm fields are. In this case, I traced over the Google Earth view in Illustrator. Here’s the result:

My version of El Llano.

My version of El Llano.

With this map, I had some choices to make–specifically, how literal to make it. I considered making the houses one symbol, and equal size. However, I also thought it best, because this is at such a small scale, to show the true sizes, and the dispersal of the population. I also showed the shops, which, in every case, operate out of people’s houses. The building functions are based on my memory from ten years ago; I last visited in 2005, so presumably things have changed. With trees, I chose a more figurative rendition, using small and large circles for clusters of trees. I did choose the color of the roads based on the deep red soil that exists in that region of El Salvador, though.

Since my experiences in El Llano were, literally, on the ground, it was interesting for me to do this map and see how the community is laid out. The distances between houses didn’t seem so far to me when walking as they appear on the map, but now, looking back at it, things were rather spread out… I also wasn’t sure whose property was whose, so I chose not to put that. For someone using a map like this to, say, understand land tenure, particular after the country’s civil war-inspired land reforms in the 1980s, this map would not do. But it does show population dispersal in a Salvadoran village from that time period, and for that, I hope it is of value.

Cartography: ¿Dónde estan los españoles?

While I greatly enjoyed Susan Schulten’s article “Mapping American History” in the edited volume Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, I couldn’t help but ask the question “Where are the Spaniards?” in the discussion of 18th and early 19th century maps of North America.

By this I don’t so much mean Spanish maps–Schulten states that she uses a selection of maps–but, rather, Spanish cartographic knowledge, particularly of what was then the northern reaches of Spain’s North American claims, what today is the U.S. Southwest. In particular, I’m thinking of the 1804 Aaron Arrowsmith and Samuel Lewis map that shows a much smaller distance between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; as Schulten says, “Stepping back, one notices that the entire continent is foreshortened, which might indicate the persistent hope that a waterway existed from the headwaters of the Missouri to the Pacific” (178). Surely, there existed European knowledge (not to mention, Native American knowledge) of the region, enough for a cartographer to know that, indeed, the Rockies are not that close to the Pacific?

That then had me wondering about exchange of cartographic knowledge between the Spanish Empire and others. In its early days, the Spanish Empire considered maps of its empire a state secret (as Nate and I discussed in previous blog comments). So did this lack of geographic knowledge stem from the Spanish Empire keeping its maps a secret? Did U.S.-Americans have that little knowledge of the northern reaches of New Spain, much of which was Native American territory but in which the Spanish crown had missions, towns, and forts?

But then, browsing through other maps of North America from before 1804 on both the Library of Congress’s maps site and David Rumsey Maps, I saw several that more accurately depicted that distance. Of particular interest was this one, printed by the same Aaron Alexander nine years before, showing vast blank spaces through North America, but a more accurate distance between the Rockies and the Pacific.

This 1795 map led me to question whether the 1804 map Schulten cites is more of an aberration than a typical one. Schulten says of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s impact on cartographic knowledge, “As a result, the continent widened” (179). While she, in part, is referring to the idea that the Rockies were just one range, and saying that Lewis and Clark disproved that idea, at the same time she suggests that the Lewis and Clark expedition brought knowledge that North America was wider than previously thought. But that assertion is based on the 1804 map. Do these other maps change that argument, though? Even without Spanish geographic knowledge, did early U.S.-Americans know that their continent really wasn’t as narrow as the 1804 Arrowsmith map makes it out to be? Answering those questions would require further research, but it did have me curious. What do others think?

Addendum: This week I commented on Michael’s map assignment blog post.

Cartography: Historical GIS

This week’s main reading was Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, which came out of a 2004 conference at the Newberry Library. This volume should be recommended reading for any scholar of history, not just those interested in GIS, and should be used in historical methods classes.

Although one could take many angles in discussing the articles in this book, I’d like to focus on one of the methodological concerns that the book addresses: the disjuncture between the seeming certainty required for data entered into GIS software, and the uncertainty that is inherent in much of what we do as historians (as David J. Bodenhamer discusses in his essay “History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline”). GIS requires us to input data sets showing a degree of certainty, when, as those of us who took Clio 3 last fall can testify, our data sets (whether we or someone else created them) tend to be far from certain. Indeed, we spent much of Clio 3 not as much using data as getting it ready for different types of applications. Many of us struggled with how to display the uncertainty inherent in our data. For example, mySQL databases require an exact date (yyyy-mm-dd) for a value to be read as a date, instead of as a plain old number. Often we don’t have an exact date, just a year–if we’re that lucky. Entering just the year in a mySQL database, though, yields a date on the first of the year. Sometimes that’s fine, but often it isn’t. How do we convey that? As this indicates, uncertainty isn’t just the province of using data for GIS applications. In the end, the applications to which we could put our data sets outweighed the concern about ambiguity, something the authors of the essays in Placing History argue, but there were still those questions.

As of the publication of the book in 2008, those questions were still unresolved in GIS. I’m curious how much things have advanced in the time since. Are software packages like Neatline and d3 good ways to show ambiguity, or are they not viable alternatives to something like ArcGIS? What do others know about how the field has advanced in this time?

Addendum: This week I commented on Nate’s blog post.

Cartography: Historical Atlas Evaluation

Cover of the atlas.

Cover of the atlas.

With the permission of Dr. Petrik, instead of using one of the U.S. atlases for my evaluation assignment (directions here), I’m using the Historical Atlas of Central America by Carolyn Hall and Héctor Pérez Brignoli, drawn by John V. Cotter. Hall is a retired professor of geography at the Universidad de Costa Rica, Pérez Brignoli a professor of history at the same university, and Cotter a professor of geography at Southwestern University.

In their detailed preface, the authors explain that they intend the atlas as not merely a collection of maps but a synthesis of the history of Central America, both of which they argue are lacking. They lay out the argument of the atlas and historical synthesis: that Central America has been an important region in world history, but one often ignored. Admittedly, I’m not sure I would have picked up the book had I not spent ten months living in Central America.

The authors present a hybrid thematic-chronological approach to the atlas. Chapter 1 discusses and shows the geography–natural and human–of the region, then proceeds to a synthetic overview of the evolution of its political boundaries. Chapter 2 presents a broad overview of the isthmus’s human history, from the first migrations to the present. Chapters 3-5 then focus, respectively, on the colonial era (mostly Spanish but with some British), nineteenth century, and twentieth century, focusing more on specific stories within each country. Throughout, political, natural, and social history are mixed.

A chart of governments of the 19th century.

A chart of governments of the 19th century.

As both a historical synthesis and an atlas, this book works for me. One can flip through and get an idea of Central American history by looking at the maps and accompanying images. The authors also include charts, such as graphs showing the political history of the seven countries in different eras, such as the late 19th century (photo).

Page on the U.S.-American Revolution in the Historical Atlas of Central America.

The page on the U.S.-American Revolution.

This comprehensive masterwork is not without its faults, though. The statement about one being able to flip through and get an idea of Central American history by looking at the maps is mostly true, but not completely. In portions, the atlas is dependent upon the text, such as in its description of the effects of the U.S.-American Revolution on Central America (something I’m sure most of us didn’t know!). To understand the military maps on these pages, one must read the text. Each two-page spread is chock-full of text–some spreads more than others. At times, the text can be dry–more of a list of facts woven mostly into a narrative.

Graphically, the design is solid. The cover presents a historical feel, and the text inside the atlas is clean. The maps and pages are neatly contained within a frame around each two-page spread, rather than bleeding to the edge. The neutral color scheme provides historical gravitas to the atlas and, perhaps more importantly, avoid exoticizing Central America. In fact, the design could be used for almost any historical atlas, not just one about Central America. The maps are clear and consistent. They do a fine balance of giving one an idea of geographic location without over-emphasizing political borders. In the U.S.-American Revolution spread, for example, the cartographer’s plain maps work to draw one’s attention to the military operations. Other spreads, however, have much more richly-detailed, colorful maps, depending on what they show.

That said, this is certainly a noble effort and a must-have for any Latin Americanist’s bookshelf–or simply the bookshelf of someone who wants to know about the history of a region from which so many people in the United States now hail. While the text is dry at times, one could read this atlas–both the text and the maps–in place of other syntheses on Central American history and gain a comprehensive overview of the region. Thus it fulfilled the goals of the authors.

That said, as a general statement, I’m not sure that I would first turn to an atlas for a synthesis; indeed, when I was looking for a synthesis on Central American history a while back, I looked at another book I found at a book sale, rather than this one, already sitting on my shelf (I should note that I found this one superior to the other one I read). I’m curious how many people read an atlas cover-to-cover–something we should consider as we create our own atlases.

Cartography: Historical Atlases & Dilemmas of Legitimation

This week’s book, Jeremy Black‘s Maps and History, focuses on the history of, well, the historical atlas. Like the other readings in the class so far, this brought to light the contested nature of maps–in this case, how the genre of historical atlas always, in particular, carries its own view of the past. Are borders or topography more emphasized, for example? I particularly enjoyed Black’s discussion of “greatest extent” maps found in historical atlases–helping to convey the idea that a nation-state, for example, was robbed of its proper territory. One example he gave was the publication of a historical atlas of Poland after its dismemberment in the late 18th century–the very idea of an atlas of Poland gives the no-longer-extant state legitimacy (71-72).

This got me thinking about my own upcoming historical atlas project. Thus far I’ve considered two options. One is Antonio López de Santa Anna’s journey to Washington in 1837, something I have done in multiple formats here, here, and here, and written about here and here. Thus, although it might be a good way to try new technology (to me) with a familiar story, I think I’ll pass on doing this journey, unless I include it with others by Mexicans like Lorenzo de Zavala (and even other international travelers like Alexis de Tocqueville) through the United States in the 1820s-1830s, to illuminate their comparative journeys.

My other thought is to map the sea voyages I’m finding in the records of the 1841-42 U.S.-Mexican claims commission, the subject of the database I created for Clio 3. Thus far I have mapped only the starting and ending points of some of the voyages in that collection, but this does not give the richness of the voyages. They stopped at multiple ports. Mapping the voyages contained in this collection, perhaps in batches by time period, will help convey a visual story of U.S. trade with Mexico, and for that matter Latin America, during the early 19th century. At this point, I’m leaning toward this option.

The reason I mention both is that an issue raised by Black will be front and center as I contemplate this project: how to portray borders. In this case, borders are extremely important to my story. A voyage from New York to Brazoria, Texas, would not be a domestic voyage at this time–an important point for any viewer of my maps. But the boundaries of the nascent nation-states of the Americas were anything but solid at the time. Do I show the full extent of what the post-colonial successor states controlled and disregard indigenous entities like the Comanche Empire? Am I thus legitimating the claims of the United States, Mexico, etc., over indigenous territory by showing those borders? By not showing those borders, am I removing an important interpretive layer for the story I am trying to tell, of trade among those nascent nation-states? By showing the nation-states and their actual boundaries/zones of control, along with indigenous zones of control, am I making my maps too complicated, not just for me but for my end-user?

What do others suggest?

Addendum: This week I commented on Chris’s link of a fascinating animated map of European borders from 1000 C.E. to the present.

Cartography: Maps & Conquests

This week’s readings focused on mapping in the Americas, particularly in the time of Contact and European colonization. For me, this was rather appropriate, as my Latin America and the World minor field readings course addressed the topic of Conquest last week. The cartography readings nicely complemented that, and particularly showed a difference between English and Spanish colonization and conquest.

Barbara Mundy’s fascinating deconstruction of the 1524 Nuremberg map of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan showed something about the Spanish mode of colonization. She argues that the map, European in appearance due to the styles of Tenochtitlan and other Lake Texcoco cities, actually reflects Mesoamerican influences in how it depicts the geography of the region. She speculates that the model for this engraving was a now-lost map Hernan Cortés sent to Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain).

This comports with the understanding I’ve gained of the Spanish “Conquest” era from my recent readings and classes. The Conquest was not top-down and complete; as James Lockhart shows in his book Nahuas After the Conquest, Mesoamerican cultural structures (such as separate, Nahuatl-speaking courts and communities) remained for a long time after the Spanish decapitation of the Mexica Empire. Spaniards depended on indigenous geographic knowledge. Because of the nature of the Spanish conquest of the Mexica Empire–as part of an alliance with Tlaxcalans and Tarascans–then indigenous names and ways of thinking, including geographically, melded with European.

Contrast this with English colonization of, well, New England. As J.B. Harley points out in Chapter 6 of The New Nature of Maps, English colonists did a symbolic erasure of Native American names, even while incorporating Native American knowledge into their maps. This is not to say that these contrasts are absolute; after all, present-day Mexico (and more) was the Viceroyalty of New Spain for 300 years, and plenty of indigenous-named places took on Spanish names. But these two articles, read together, are further demonstrations of the general idea that Spanish colonizers sought people they could exploit, while English colonizers largely sought to displace native populations. So perhaps no surprise that not only indigenous knowledge but indigenous styles of cartography went into Spanish maps, while only indigenous knowledge went into English maps. Thus, we have another way of using maps as a primary source to illuminate the past.

Speaking of Latin America and Maps…

I remember mentioning how Peace Corps does world map projects on the first day of class. As it turns out, they have a whole website devoted to these projects now. At least from what I saw in El Salvador, maps tended to be on the sides of schools. A great way to show people the world–although sometimes people would realize just how small El Salvador actually is…


This week I commented on Amanda’s blog. Forgot to post that last week I commented on mwill4’s blog then (sorry I don’t have your name down yet!).

Cartography: Map as Argument

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…

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