Published: February 20, 2001
NEW YORK CITY – In the mythology of the America West, it is the heroic adventurers and other independent spirits who usually get the glory, but much credit for “winning the West” is due the mapmakers who captured the lay of the land on paper. The exhibition “Heading West: Mapping the Territory” at The New York Public Library traces the evolution from an imagined and imaginary West to a concretely defined and mapped West through approximately 175 maps, atlases, photographs, and books.
“Heading West” will be on view from March 9 through May 19, in the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 2nd Street. A complementary exhibition,” Touring West: 19th-Century Performing Artists on the Overland Trails,” will be on view in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room from April 6 through July 7.
“Heading West” is organized thematically and chronologically in to five sections: “Imagining the West,” “Exploring the West,” “Settling the West,” “Mining the West,” and “Traveling the West.” The first section showcases maps that reflect the imagined or hoped-for geography of the North American continent rather than actual geographic fact. The earliest map in the exhibition, Sebastian Munster’s 1540 chart, shows a clear, open waterway form Europe to Asia. Nearly a century later, John Speed’s map of America depicts California as an island and continues to maintain the existence of a Northwest Passage, a fiction that survived well into the Nineteenth Century.
Often richly embellished, maps from this period convey much more than geographic information and stand as striking art objects in their own right. The maps in this section also reflect European power shifts, such as Spain’s loss of Louisiana to France. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase effectively ended French domination in the New World and set off a round of government-sponsored exploration of the newly acquired territory, such as the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. As factual information about the geography of the land reached cartographers, their maps began to reflect, by fits and starts, a more accurate picture of the lands west of the Appalachians.
Nineteenth Century exploration of the West can be divided into two distinct periods: “before 1848” and “after 1848.” The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California that year set off a frenzy of exploration and marked a turning point in the push westward. Overnight, the interest in mapping the West shifted into high gear. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action, and the federal government allocated more and more resources to the project in an effort to find routes to the Pacific.
The second section of the exhibition, “Exploring the West,” contains numerous materials documenting the expeditions of men whose exploits have crossed the threshold from history into myth – men like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Zebulon Pike, John Charles Fremont, and Jedediah Smith. Also included are numerous perhaps less glamorous, but no less important, workaday maps incorporating information from military and scientific surveys.
Once routes west explored and mapped, the floodgates of settlement were opened. Section III, “Setting the West,” includes maps created for display in frontier Land Offices. Many maps reflect land divisions of the “township and line survey,” establishing by the Continental Congress with the Ordinance of 1785, illustrating the orderly and inexorable westward march of European settlement. Others, chillingly, describe the plight of so-called “emigrant Indians,” on their forced push west of the Mississippi.
Throughout the process of mapping the American West, Native American knowledge of the land was regularly tapped and incorporated into maps. Explorers relied on Native American pathfinders, and their trails developed into wagon roads, highways, and railroad tracks. While the exhibition documents the westward expansion of the United States, the maps also reveal the patterns of displacement of Native Americans.
The maps in Section IV, “Mining the West,” focus on gold and silver. The gold strike in California totally transformed patterns of westward expansion. California and other gold-rich areas such as the Black Hills, Colorado, and the Yukon became important destinations. As gold fever invaded the popular imagination, travel guidebooks became instant bestsellers and writers and explorers from Mark Twain to John Charles Fremont wrote about the gold fields. Thousands of maps showing where gold could be found were marketed. The gold rush also heightened tensions with Native Americans that, like the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, were the direct result of the many treaty violations brought on by the quest for wealth.
The exhibition’s final section, “Traveling the West,” specifically considers the transport of people and goods across the continent. Among the many railroad maps are promotional maps for specific companies such as the Union Pacific Railroad and the American Union Telegraph Company. Also included are tourist maps, such as the popular Cook’s Tours, that helped define the West as a tourist destination. On view, too, are maps of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park, established in 1872, pointing out “Lunch stations” and showing the geyser “Old Faithful,” and other landmarks sought by early tourists.
“Heading West” comprises approximately 175 objects drawn primarily from the Map Division’s collection of 6,000 sheet maps and atlases of the American West, supplemented by materials from the General Research Division, the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy, and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. Included in the exhibition are maps by renowned cartographers such as John Arrowsmith, Baron Von Egloffstein, and G.K. Warren alongside maps published by the US War Department and the Army Corps of Engineers and maps created for the Railroad Survey.
“Heading West: Mapping the Territory” is curated by Alice C. Hudson, chief of the map division of The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library.
Heading West and Touring West: Mapmakers, Performing Artists, and the American Frontier is the companion volume for “Heading West” and its complementary exhibition, “Touring West.” Illustrated with 70 black-and-white and full-color images from the exhibitions, the 88-page book is published by The New York Public Library.
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