The world in glorious color
Museum people can get passionate — even a little maniacal — when it comes to the rarer items in their collections — like maps. At the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, there are more than 6,000 maps, an astounding variety that includes maps of the Southwest produced by cartographers to French kings in the 17th century, more than a thousand colorfully illustrated highway maps, and 100-foot-long railroad maps. The New Mexico History Museum hosts Map Mania Symposium on Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25. On the cover is a map of Mexico and its internal provinces prepared by J. Finlayson from Humboldt’s map, 1822; image courtesy the Angélico Chávez History Library.
One of the gems in the collection at the New Mexico History Museum’s Fray Angélico Chávez History Library is a map of the Southwest drawn in 1674 by Nicolas Sanson, royal geographer to King Louis XIII of France. It is a beauty, but is not entirely accurate. For example, it shows California as an island, and has the Río Grande beginning at a “great lake of the West” and emptying into the Gulf of California (named the “Vermillion Sea” on the map) rather than the Gulf of Mexico. That was corrected on a 1688 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, royal cartographer to King Louis XIV, but California is still an island. “Even after they did know more about the geography, they liked that idea,” said librarian Patricia Hewitt. “They thought California was sort of a mythical place with Amazonian women. It was out there.”
The interesting intricacies of the cartographer’s art are the focus of Map Mania, a free event co-sponsored by the History Museum and the Historical Society of New Mexico. The symposium takes place at the museum on Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25.
Map Mania is the final element of activities funded by a $179,000 grant the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library received in 2011. The main objective of the grant awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) was cataloguing the library’s collection of some 6,300 maps. Hewitt said most of the maps are of New Mexico, New Spain, and the Southwest. “Our maps provide rare insight into early explorations of the New World and the historic trade routes of the Southwest,” Hewitt writes in an article about the Chávez Library map collection in El Palacio published last autumn. More than 300 of the library’s maps depict Santa Fe’s history.
The maps range in size from a tiny specimen showing the Copernican universe to a railroad map that is 122 feet long. The library’s cold-storage facility holds approximately 1,200 right-of-way maps from 14 railroad companies that have operated in New Mexico.
The museum’s Sanson map is printed, but there are also manuscript maps. One is the Bernardo Miera y Pacheco map. “It’s an oil painting, so we consider it to be a manuscript map,” Hewitt said during a tour of the map collection. Miera y Pacheco settled in Santa Fe in 1756 with his family and a few years later was commissioned by the governor to draw a map. It takes in most of what would be New Mexico, showing mountain ranges and indicating all of the Spanish villages and Indian tribes that were known at the time.
Of course, it is amazing that early maps are as accurate as they are, given the fact that the cartographers had no aerial views available to them: Everything was done on foot. In her
El Palacio story, Hewitt writes, “Some cartographers were forthright enough to acknowledge that they did not know what existed in some areas. Thomas Kitchin indicated a ‘Great space of land unknown’ on a 1777 map of what is now the Midwest.”
“The circa-1848 E. Gilman map is one of my favorites, because it has the border of Texas coming way up to include Santa Fe, and California has a horizontal shape,” Hewitt said. “I love the maps that show the world as it might have been if various legislations had gone through. I also love the old maps with drawings of New World animals in the cartouche — the scroll-like frame that has the name of the map and other information — as on the Sanson map. They had never seen these animals, so they are rather fantastical.” She referred to American draftsman E. Gilman’s Table Showing the Estimated Surface of the Territories of the United States. The Texas “panhandle” is mistakenly drawn as bloated north and west, even including Santa Fe —