Cartographica Extraordinaire

by David Ramsey and Edith Punt

Published by ESRI Press

200 pages, 2004

Buy it online





Maps: Envisioning Our Land

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


I have never seen a book quite like Cartographica Extraordinaire. Though slim, it's a truly magnificent undertaking and a document that charts -- excuse the unintended pun -- the movement across the land that has become the United States.

In more than 100 historical maps created in the 18th and 19th centuries, the story of this book is told mostly by implication. Namely, how did a vast wilderness that stretched 3000 miles from the Atlantic become a civilization? How did it develop? What does the progression of its cartography tell us about the nation itself -- and its population?

The starting image of the book is an antique globe from 1731, the view that God might have had if He were sketching Earth from space. Great sweeps of land and water, few details, a sort of quaint version of our world.

It is juxtaposed with early maps from the same period, maps of America and Mexico, with their respective details, such as major cities, rivers, even the beginnings of topography.

There are maps of Northwest America, drawn by George Vancouver in 1798. Maps resulting from the explorations of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. One fascinating spread shows one such map from 1814 merged with the General Land Office's first complete land survey of the United States (circa 1870), a map from the 1970 United States Geological Survey National Atlas, and a mosaic of Landsat satellite imagery from NASA. The astounding result shows the almost overwhelming accuracy of the two explorers' work, as well as how the western two-thirds of North America have changed in the last 200 years.

There are gems like this throughout, such as the Skeleton Map of the Territory of the United States West of the Mississippi River, created by George Wheeler in 1873. In this grid-like drawing, Wheeler clearly places Western states and cities within the vast territories that comprised the U.S. at that time. His plan to divide the vast area into 94 quadrangles became the basis for the modern USGS system that maps the United States today.

There's a series of maps of the State of Illinois, each showing a different period of the state's survey. Between 1820 and 1874, a variety of men cast their cartographic eye on the state. Though there were differences (in one, even a peculiarly-shaped Lake Michigan), the state's details come gloriously alive, culminating in an 1874 map by Asher & Adams which relies almost entirely on towns connected by rail service.

In addition to maps of states and cities, the book includes maps of topography. One example was created using steel engraving, another (of a 100-mile swath along the 40th parallel) using shaded drawings to indicate height. The authors note that the latter overestimates mountainous elevations, but the detail is no less fascinating.

Maps of roads are included, such as those from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. And maps of rivers, such as the Mississippi. One such map is more than three meters long and seven centimeters wide, mounted on linen and kept rolled on an enclosed spool.

Finally, the book displays maps of cities: Quebec, Chicago, Washington DC, and others, complete with city grids, hotels and the like, showing how nature's topography has given way to man's.

Cartographica Extraordinaire is just that -- extraordinary. In its scores of examples, it's easy to understand that if we can look at paintings and drawings and get a sense of man's culture, we can look to maps for a sense of man's reach and imagination. Just as paintings can be based on real things or on the artist's dreams, maps do no less than document our very lives, telling us what we knew then about where we were, but also, in a quiet, almost modest way, where we were going -- and where we wished to go. | July 2004


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He writes advertising for a large marketing firm and is building a small book publishing company in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.