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 measurements—to get those measurements many led the lives of explorers and adventurers.
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.
When 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.
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 they’d take readings consisting of lines of numbers and symbols, and then by lantern light at 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? Maps offer security, a certain liscence to explore.