David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Mapping

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…

Map: Santa Anna Goes to Washington

For a long time, I’ve wanted to make a comprehensive map of the journey of Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, Barnard Bee, George Washington Hockley, and William Patton from Texas to Washington in 1837. The project for my summer New Media Minor Field Readings class builds on previous attempts:

  • For my Clio 2 website in spring 2012, I drew their route on an 1837 map of the United States. I planned to add interactivity to the map, but ran out of time for the project. Also, the map was not geolocated at all–it was just a static map.
  • For Clio 3, I used the journey to learn basic mapping software that is available online. I used Laura O’Hara’s tutorial (not available online at the moment). First I created a basic spreadsheet of the places cited in Almonte’s diary, then fed that into BatchGeo, an engine that spits out latitude/longitude and a KML file. I then fed that KML file into Google Maps. I also used MapWarper to place my 1837 map as the background. While I wasn’t happy with some of the automatic locations, I was able to move them to roughly the right places. I embedded the map on this webpage, but ran into trouble when I tried to embed it in my Omeka site. That map represented a good start, but I was looking for a more precise map, one that could depict the journey and not just points.

Our next assignment for this summer’s course is to prepare a Google Map of a journey. Since we had five weeks between classes, I decided to try again, but this time, make the map more precise, more interactive, and more indicative of a journey. Here is where I am:

Like Jordan, I used Google Map Engine Lite Beta. I could have gone through the steps that I did for the Clio 3 version, with a full KML file and such, but wanted to see how this software worked for me. It seems to have done the job.

To get the locations where the travelers stopped, I relied a great deal on a Southwestern Historical Quarterly article by the late, lamented Dr. Margaret Swett Henson. Henson annotated Almonte’s diary as an appendix to her article about the treatment of Mexican prisoners of war held in Texas following its 1836 war of independence. The diary itself contains only basic information, such as where the travelers stopped each night. Henson tracked down many of these locations.

I used Dr. Henson’s descriptions, cross-referencing other geographic sources, to plot precise locations on my map. I found the rough locations that I wanted to use in Google Maps, then right-clicked (a trick I learned after the first few places!) to get the exact latitude and longitude. I corresponded those with the dates in a Google Docs spreadsheet.

I found areas where I disagreed with Henson’s analysis; these were instances of more information being available at hand to me in 2013 than was easily available for Henson. For example, Henson suggested that Almonte’s reference to passing “Columbia” meant a steamboat, because she found no river town of that name in Louisiana, Arkansas, or Mississippi. Indeed, that is true today. However, starting with a Google Search for “Columbia Arkansas 1836,” I found reference to a steamboat exploding near a town called Columbia, Arkansas, in 1836. I then checked a 1850 Library of Congress map of Arkansas, and located the town of Columbia. That town no longer exists today. While I found these within a few minutes in 2013, I don’t want to know how far and hard Henson would have had to look for this information–or how much it would be worth it to do so for a footnote in an appendix of an article on another subject…

I also felt that including Almonte’s diary entries, Henson’s analysis, and my notes where appropriate would enhance the user’s experience with the map, so I put each into the spreadsheet. Finally, I ran the map engine with the spreadsheet, and voila, I got clickable dots for each day!

But because I am obsessive, that was not enough for me. Some of my surmising of imprecise locations came from combining Almonte’s distance calculations, Henson’s knowledge of what routes they took, and my comparisons to 1837 maps. As such, I wanted to be able to show not just the dots, but the route the travelers took. Thankfully, I discovered that Google Maps Engine also offers the option of drawing on the map. Some parts were easy, such as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers or the National Road. Other parts were more difficult, such as figuring out the routes the travelers took through East Texas, so I had to guess or just draw straight lines.

So in the end, I produced a map that shows the places that Almonte mentioned, as well as the route they took. There’s still more that I could do with this (and indeed may). For some parts I felt a great deal of certainty–e.g., where I could find an exact location for the hotel where they stayed–while in many other parts I chose a central spot within a town. I may go back and depict the certain and uncertain locations in different colors. Also, I may add more links to external information. And finally, I need to figure out how to handle multiple dots in the same spot.

In the end, this exercise helped me think about this journey in different ways. I started researching this journey off and on in 2009 (research that helped lead me back to graduate school). Looking more closely at the map gave me ideas of new sources, such as local newspapers from towns along the way. I also gained a greater understanding of the topography, especially through using Google Street View.

In the future, I may try to embed this map in my updated Omeka site (once I get around to customizing the theme for Omeka 2.0). I may, though, instead try Neatline, as it seems that will help me depict the space in time all the better. Have others used Neatline for these purposes? What have been your experiences?