Society for the History of Discoveries

Francaviglia, Richard. Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin: A Cartographic History. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005. xx, 231 p., 63 illustrations. Hardcover ISBN 0874176093, $44.95, pbk ISBN 0874176174, $24.95.

The great basin, whose exploration and mapping are the subject of this work, is an oval-shaped area that extends westward from Salt Lake City over the vast region between the Wasach Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Interspersed with spectacular mountain ranges, its 165,000 square miles include parts of present-day Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, southern California and almost all of Nevada. It is the heart of the Great American West. Early travelers described it as “the poorest and most worthless country that man ever saw … barren, God-forsaken, valueless …”

It is not surprising that the mapping of this harsh, sparsely populated desert landscape, none of whose streams enter the sea, was accomplished in fits and starts rather then in a chronologically uniform and progressive way. It was the last area of North America’s interior to be explored and mapped. From the 1500s and continuing through colonial times and the Manifest Destiny period of territorial expansion to the present day, the author represents the Great Basin’s cartographic development through maps ranging from Münster’s 1540 Tabula Novarum Insularum to twenty-first-century satellite images, and places groups of them side by side for comparison. 

Beginning with two introductory chapters (“Maps and meaning” and “Comprehending the Great Basin”), the author chronicles the area’s uneven cartographic evolution through seven periods: Terra Incognita (1540-1700), Early Spanish Exploration (1700-1795), Westward Expansion (1795-1825), Demystifying Terra Incognita (1825-1850), Maps in the Sand (1850-1865), Filling in the Blanks (1865-1900) and Maps of the Modern/Postmodern Great Basin (1900-2005). A final chapter, “Comprehending Cartographic Change,” compares the weeks and months of searching for and reconstructing the scattered pieces from the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 over a huge area, with the decades and centuries – a piece here, a revelation there – during which the map of the Great Basin evolved. The work concludes with an epilogue which extols the images, magic and mysteries which inspire explorers, mapmakers and sailors.

Throughout the work, the author’s primary emphasis is not so much on the maps themselves, but on the process by which the region’s geography was comprehended through maps and other visual images, on the process by which maps reveal the character of places, on how mapmakers have depicted the area in the tradition of Western mapmaking, on the people who made the maps and those who motivated them to do so, and on the especially strong role the human imagination played in shaping the Great Basin.

It is the detailed comparisons and their associated analyses which comprise the heart of the work. They include, among other things, the important role played by native Americans, who astounded European by drawing accurate maps in the sand, the early belief in waterways that cut across much of North America, the appearance of a large interior lake on an early eighteenth-century manuscript, the scientific and political objectives of eighteenth-century explorers and cartographers, the relationship and differences between surveying and mapping, the downplay of distances for the benefit of western railroads, and the effect of the mining of precious metals on the region’s maps.

The book differs from other regional histories of cartography by providing substantive insights into the interactions and interdependencies between the maps, people, people’s dreams and imagination, geography, geology and the history involved. Despite some minor problems such as the assertion on page 26 that “no maps by Ptolemy existed in the Age of Enlightenment because the great fire at Alexandria had destroyed them in AD 391,” it is a major addition to the study and understanding of a vast and important area of the United States.

Eric Wolf
Falls Church, Virginia

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