New Mexico Through Its Maps


What is a map? The answer to this apparently simple question is wide-ranging and laced with complexity. Academically speaking, maps give graphic display to spatial relationships, but more notably, cartography comprises a powerful, widely used, intricate, and little‑understood form of communication that is at least as old as language itself. Consequently, maps speak not only to their users in their own times, but across time to us as well. More than geography, maps mark historical development and much of the economic, political, social, cultural, scientific, and intellectual circumstances of their age. Furthermore, maps can be viewed as art and a part of the wider human aesthetic experience. They have always helped people define who they are, where they are, and how they move about. Simply put, maps have helped to chronicle and to make history.

Humanity achieved “graphicacy” even before it achieved literacy. We learned to draw before we learned to write, and we also probably mapped before we wrote. The oldest recognizable maps, which are on stone and bone, date back well over eight thousand years to Asia Minor and the Near East. There are perhaps older examples extant, but not discernible as such because there are no Neolithic survivors to serve as translators. In such cases, we have become the current addressees for now-unintelligible messages transmitted millennia ago by unknown senders; communication is no longer even partially possible. Similar problems exist in understanding the maps of more contemporary peoples such as Native Americans and South Pacific Islanders of the period shortly before they were encountered by Europeans. But no one group can be credited with originating cartography. Different peoples around the world almost certainly began mapping independently as the need arose.

Since the late Renaissance, the unique graphic language of maps has made them important to those interested in history as sources, illustrations, and teaching-learning expedients. Maps are more than pictures of the past; they extend our range of historical vision to observe the world as others before us did. They improve our understanding of the thinking that shaped historic events. In this way, as a part of the centennial celebration of New Mexico’s statehood, the twenty-nine maps in Between the Lines: Culture and Cartography on the Road to Statehood trace the diverse history of New Mexico from the sixteenth century to the present with an emphasis on the last hundred years. The maps of the exhibit are more or less grouped into four parts—“Land,” “Boundaries,” “Territory,” and “Statehood”; the majority of them fall under the last two categories.

Any map presents a static image of the area it depicts at the time of its rendering. Accordingly, I. P. Berthrong’s lithograph State of New Mexico of 1912 shows the state with its boundaries, the borders of its counties, infrastructure, and topography when President William Howard Taft gave New Mexico life, as he put it, on January 6, 1912. However, the extended story of how the area grew to statehood and thereafter developed more fully as the forty-seventh state is told by the other maps in the show.

For example, one of the earliest maps takes a rather cosmographical view of New Mexico. A small copperplate engraving published in Paris in 1684, Allain Manesson- Mallet’s Vorstellung des ganzen Weltkreises (“description of the universe”) proffers a map of the solar system with the land that would become New Mexico located somewhere on the Earth in the third orbit around the Sun. Mallet was a soldier-engineer and the master of mathematics to King Louis XIV of France, and his map reflects the then-new ideas of Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler. An even earlier engraving, this time depicting New Spain, Girolamo Ruscelli’s Nueva Hispania Tabula Nova of 1564, correctly has Baja California and the Yucatan as peninsulas and the Mississippi River labeled as the “R. de Spirito Santo.” Yet, the future New Mexico is little more than white space, except for some generic mountains, unnamed villages, and the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, rendered as “Ciuola.” While the Cibola reference reflects an awareness of the information from the wanderings of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues in 1527–1537 and the entradas of Fray Marcos de Niza and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1539–1542 in the area, New Mexico largely remains terra incognita on Ruscelli’s map.

The picture really began to take shape in the latter half of the eighteenth century with the coming of members of the new Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers, created under the Bourbon Dynasty, to northern New Spain. Nicolás de Lafora was a captain in the corps and joined the expedition of inspection (1766–1767) of northern New Spain, led by the Marquez de Rubí, which traveled approximately 7,600 miles. Along the way, Lafora scientifically mapped various parts of the country. The Royal Engineers mapped primarily what they could observe and measure and generally discounted hearsay information, even from local Native Americans. The beautiful, unique, manuscript, horizontal map of the Rio Grande (1778), hand painted on very durable vellum (split sheepskin) by Lafora, is not one of the official maps of the Rubí expedition but was probably created at the later date as a more aesthetic presentation piece when he was the corregidor (district magistrate) of Oaxaca. The growing number of Spanish place names on this map (filling in Ruscelli’s white spaces) are not only indicative of the progress of European settlement but also of the wresting of control of the land of the province from the Native peoples in it.

This more “scientific” recording of New Mexico begun by the Spanish, especially with regard to its resources and boundaries, was inherited and continued by Mexican and American military and civilian surveyors. Some of the best examples of the cartography of the United States Corps of Topographical Engineers in the Greater Southwest come from William H. Emory, a surveyor who eventually achieved the rank of major in the corps and mapped the region from 1844 well into the Civil War, including the Mexican-American boundary and Gadsden Purchase in 1848–1855. On his singular annotated copy of his 1847 Map of the Territory of New Mexico, Emory added hand-written boundaries. The information on this and others of his maps proved useful to the military during the Mexican-American War and helped to establish New Mexico’s future territorial and county boundaries.

Possibly the most famous (or infamous) map of the period of the Mexican-American War was John Disturnell’s Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico of 1847. Disturnell was a publisher and travel guide compiler from New York City and a founder of the American Geographical Society, but his map was by no means the best map of Mexico at the time. Although riddled with inaccuracies, it was used during the boundary negotiations by American and Mexican diplomats leading to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. It especially was favored by the American plenipotentiary Nicholas P. Trist and was accepted as “authoritative” not because it was absolutely correct, but because it was in wide use in the United States and Mexico. Since this map placed El Paso thirty-four miles north and a hundred miles east of its actual location, the boundary settlement based on it was flawed and after some wrangling led to the 1854 Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico for ten million dollars as a corrective measure.

It was during the ensuing territorial era, leading up to statehood, that New Mexico’s various resources were more fully exploited, the railroads arrived, and its internal and external geographical and political limits were better determined, all of which was chronicled on contemporary maps. For instance, whereas the southern boundary of New Mexico was determined by the surveys connected with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase, the other borders of the territory and future state were surveyed and agreed upon later. Just so, the elegant, large, folding map titled Map of Part of the Boundary between Colorado and New Mexico on the 37th Parallel, published in London in 1868, depicts the results of Ehud N. Darling’s civilian survey for the American government of the part of the thirty-seventh parallel that established the border line between the New Mexico and Colorado territories.

Closely preceding Berthrong’s previously mentioned state map, there appeared the instructive and somewhat premature 1910 Map of the State of New Mexico with Portraits of Delegates to the Constitutional Convention (see page 47). After several previous attempts to gain statehood had failed and New Mexico was caught up in the politics and emotions of slavery leading to the Civil War, the territory was approaching statehood again, this time successfully. The Lithograph Map Publishing Company of Trinidad, Colorado, hopped on the bandwagon and produced this map of New Mexico surrounded by eighty-six of the one hundred delegates to the constitutional convention, the very authors of statehood.

New Mexico’s progress as a state right up to the present also is well documented on its maps. The average person today is probably most familiar with the road map. The exhibition includes three of them, from 1932, 1936, and 2011, tracing not only the development of the invaluable highway infrastructure of the fifth largest state in the country, but also its relationship with vital industries such as energy and tourism. The 1932 map was published by the Santa Fe Railroad and emphasizes its well-known “Indian Detour” opportunities for getting off the train and onto the roads. The Standard Oil Company issued the 1936 copy with its attractive advertising cover and gave it away to promote the fun of driving (and the use of its gasoline). And the 2011 map is regularly produced by the New Mexico Department of Transportation to support travel across the state and to its many attractions.

Moreover, in the long tradition of state railroad maps, New Mexico Rail Runner (2009), from the Department of Transportation, illustrates the progressive latest addition to New Mexico’s vital transportation matrix. The Rail Runner is designed to more closely link the state’s major urban centers and to alleviate some of the dangerous overcrowding and resulting air pollution on the interstate and other highways connecting them.

To specifically advance tourism—the state’s second largest industry—artistic, colorful recreational maps have also become important. Recreational Map of New Mexico: Land of Enchantment, issued by the New Mexico State Tourist Bureau in 1941, includes what is probably one of the first gubernatorial portraits and accompanying greetings on such a map. In 1941 Governor John E. Miles pointed to the state as a “restful” place, and on the 2011 official road map, Governor Susana Martinez praised the state’s “rich heritage and beauty.”

The maps in this centennial of statehood exhibition tell the stories of the land and its physical and political definition; of its Native people and the coming and interaction of the Europeans, Mexicans, and Americans; of the territory; and particularly of New Mexico as an integral part of the United States.

Between the Lines: Culture and Cartography on the Road to Statehood is on view in the Governor’s Gallery at the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe through May 4. The exhibition was co-curated by Dennis Reinhartz and Tomas Jaehn.

Dennis Reinhartz is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington, and has taught at Rutgers, New Jersey Institute of Technology, James Madison University, Bridgewater College, University of London, and Oxford University. He is the author and editor of fourteen books, including Essays on the History of North American Discovery and Exploration(1988); The Cartographer and the Literati: Herman Moll and His Intellectual Circle(1997); The Mapping of the Entradas into the Greater Southwest (1998); Mapping of Empire: Soldier Engineers on the Southwest Frontier(2005); Transatlantic History(2006); the forthcoming The Art of Maps; and numerous book chapters and scholarly articles relating to transatlantic history and cartography.