Cartographers – Mapping the West


Until last year, when I thought of a mapmaker, I envisioned some fastidious fellow with a pencil and protractor sitting at a desk. And then I found a book called Maps of the Civil War, which is actually a book about the Civil War cartographers, and I discovered the lives of many cartographers were so much more than paper and measurementsโ€”to get those measurements many led the lives of explorers and adventurers. surveyors_and_equipment

During the Civil War skilled cartographers were highly sought after and pulled out of their offices and stationed on the front lines. They had the hair-raising task of sneaking onto proposed battle sites to survey the land, delivering vital tactical information to the officers commanding the troops. A captured cartographer was considered a real prize by the opposing side, in the hopes of gaining some helpful geographical tidbit to give them an advantage.

land-serveyWhen the war ended cartographers were still in high demand, as focus shifted from battle fields to mining fields. In 1866 railroads all over the nation were in a race to reach the booming minefields in Wyoming and Montana and survey crews were deployed by a number of railroads and companies to find the best routes, everyone wanting to be first to tap into the quickest transport of those riches. surveying

The series I’m currently writing follows one such survey crew marking a route through Montana. Their five man crew has a trained cartographer, a scout, and three field hands to haul gear and do the grunt work of assembling levels, leads and metal tape and calling out readings. Much like the cowboys on a long cattle drive, this entailed weeks or months of living in tents, traveling on horseback across treacherous, sometimes hostile, terrain while enduring rain, sleet, heat and snow. By day theyโ€™d take readings consisting of lines of numbers and symbols, and then by lantern light equipment3at night, use those readings to create topographical maps and charts. Some were also artists, drawing the beautiful landscapes along the route to accompany their readings.

Cartographers: another rough and tumble lot whose impact and influence certainly had a hand in taming and shaping the wild west. And really, once you have a map to something, it’s conquered in a sense, don’t you think?ย  Maps offer security, a certain liscence to explore.

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20 thoughts on “Cartographers – Mapping the West”

  1. Stacey, What an intriguing post. I love learning more about other types of western men and women who helped tame the frontier. And those pictures were fabulous. Through your research, have you learned how all those little surveying gizmos work? Fascinating stuff. Surely there would need to be a beautiful female artist to help illustrate some handsome cartographer’s map. Don’t you think? (wink)

  2. Hi Stacey – Oh, I’d love to hear about the stories you’ve developed from your research about map and mapmakers. Love stories about guides and men who forged the west in every way.

  3. Hey, that’s a great idea, Karen! Ya know, the heroines are always harder for me to figure out and develop. Heroes on the other hand always seem to stomping around in my brain *lol* I hadn’t considered a female artist angle ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I love old photos. Ya know, I’m such a research nerd, I think reading up on all those strange survey gizmos was part of the draw for me–though not a whole lot ends up in a romance novel *g*

  4. Thanks, Charlene! They’ve been entertaining–figuring out which guy on the crew got the first book was a real battle–the scout won the shouting match, not that the cartographer and the guys just stand around in the background waiting for the spotlight ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Hi Stacey! What a terrific post and a great occupation for a hero! Having just moved to a new city, I’m in debt to mapmakers. Without the GPS, we’d be lost all the time. With it, we know right where we are. There’s nothing more precious than a map when you’re lost.

  6. A couple of months back, Honey and I ventured into
    a part of the state (TX) with which we were not familiar. (I know, stalwart Texans, not familiar
    with a part of Texas!) Any how, we had detailed
    directions, yet I didn’t feel safe until we stopped and got a map. That’s my Dad’s influence, whenever we took to the road we had to have a map! Even if we were only going to Cleveland! Cleveland, Texas, that is, which is just down the road piece! (One of my Dad’s favorite phrases!)

    Pat Cochran

  7. Very interesting, Stacey! I never thought of the role of cartographers in the opening of the west. And a cartographer hero…hmmm, it sounds like you’ve got a great story going here.

  8. Should be a good series. Even today, people don’t appreciate what it takes to make a map. Just try making an accurate one of your home area. What the early explorers went through and what they accomplished amazes me. It would have been a fantastic experience in spite of all the hardships. Wonder id any had their wives accompany them.

  9. I love maps and love using them with my sped students for math, history, and science. I usually have a map open no matter how many times I have visited a place just because I love all the information on them.

  10. Thanks, Elizabeth–I hope so ๐Ÿ™‚ I was really blown away by all the info in Maps of the Civil War–I think I mentioned the book here before–each page is pocket containing a map, and those pages tell about the cartographer who drew. I’ve been an old map junkie for ages, but this insight on the mapmakers mesmerized me ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Hi Paty! Thanks ๐Ÿ˜‰ The entwined history of all the guys in the survey crew has been a blast to write. The actual mapmaker has to wait until book three, but I’m hopin’ by then readers will be anxious for his happily-ever-after ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Hi Patricia! I agree–having just remodeled the house and still writing up landscaping plans with my hubby–egads!!! Can’t even imagine, perhaps that’s part of my fascination. These guys were part mathematician, part artist and explorers–and putting up with all elements in a hostile climate besides. Heroes for sure ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. Connie, that is sooo great!! You know, one of the things that really lit my fuse for my writing historicals was my college history teacher (also my high school history teacher–waving to Mr. Gaunt), he gave me all his old west National Geographic maps and it was being able to see exactly where my characters were going and plotting journeys with those maps that got me so caught up in writing BRIDE OF SHADOW CANYON and MUSTANG WILD. I blame him entirely for starting my map fetish–which led to me buying that map book and discovering the hunky world of cartographers ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Teachers, another great source of heroes ๐Ÿ˜€

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