by Rachel DeShong, Special Event Coordinator and Map Curator
“Recalculating” is a term that many of us are far too familiar with. We hear it when the GPS navigation system on our phone is telling us how to get from Point A to Point B, but we somehow managed to miss the turn. It is hard to imagine a time when maps were unable to give accurate directions in real time. Modern maps are expected to be flawless and up-to-date. So, what happens when maps are wrong?
Maps drawn centuries ago often contain inaccuracies that seem painfully obvious to viewers in the present day. For example, let us consider A New Map of the North Parts of America Claimed by France Under Ye Names of Louisiana, Mississippi, Canada, and New France with Ye Adjoyning Territories of England and Spain. (What a mouthful!) Produced in 1720 by Herman Moll, this map was a direct response to an earlier French map entitled Carte de la Louisiane du Cours du Mississippi that claimed French ownership over portions of the Southwest and the Carolinas. Moll’s map, by contrast, attempted to assert British ownership over the Carolinas. However, Moll’s map contains numerous mistakes:
- California is portrayed as an island
- Florida is much too small
- the Great Lakes are far too large
- all the rivers in Texas flow north and south
- non-existent mountain ranges are depicted in western Texas
This begs the question, “Was Herman Moll a skilled cartographer?” In actuality, Herman Moll (c. 1654-1732) was an eighteen-century cartographer who was well-respected for his maps. He was so revered during this time that he was asked to create the map for the fourth edition of Robinson Crusoe (1719). The map included in the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was “traced” from one of Moll’s maps. When considering cartographers from the past, we must accept certain truths:
- Cartographers openly copied from one another. There were few copyright laws during the eighteenth century, so it was easy to “borrow” the work of another person.
- Most cartographers did not actually visit any of the places they depicted. Cartographers of this period relied heavily on the accounts of explorers, surveyors, and other eyewitnesses to provide the necessary information. Maps were merely aggregates of the most current information.
- Most published maps were not intended for use by explorers, but rather, to entertain an expanding middle class who was curious about the world.
Moll’s map was fairly accurate considering the information he had access to, although he was one of the last holdouts in believing that California was an island. His map provides numerous insights into the thoughts and beliefs of cartographers and society at large, thus making it a truly valuable and informative map.
Reinhartz, Dennis. The Cartographer and the Literati: Herman Moll and His Intellectual Circle. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1997.
Reinhartz, Dennis, and Charles C. Colley. The Mapping of the American Southwest. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1988.