Grafton Tyler Brown, Trailblazing Cartographer of the American West

By Tim St. Onge

Historically, “cartographer” has commonly been a profession wearing many hats: artist, craftsman, communicator, documentarian, entrepreneur, and pioneer (among many others). To celebrate cartographers who embraced these multitudes of roles to achieve success, it is worth remembering their stories. Today, we recognize Grafton Tyler Brown, a trailblazing African American cartographer of the Pacific Northwest.

Picture of Grafton Tyler Brown, San Francisco artist and lithographer, from Anacostia Neighborhood Museum’s exhibition “Blacks in the Westward Movement.” Photographer unknown, c1883. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Brown was born free in 1841 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where slavery had been in the process of gradually fading out (as designed by law) since 1780. As a teenager, Brown moved to Sacramento, California, where he became an accomplished, self-taught artist. Brown was light-skinned, which led early employers and business partners to believe he was white and not African American, allowing him to skirt the racist hiring norms common for the day.

Brown first worked for San Francisco lithographer Charles Kuchel, for whom he created, among other maps, a popular bird’s eye view of Virginia City, Nevada. The 1861 illustration captures the early, bustling beginnings of the silver-mining boomtown. Drawings of important local buildings around the edge of the map capture the commerce and culture of Virginia City, further evoking what daily life was like for its townspeople.

“Virginia City, Nevada Territory, 1861.” Grafton Tyler Brown, 1861. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Brown purchased the lithography business after Kuchel’s death, renamed it G.T. Brown & Co., and expanded his services throughout the region. As a lithographer, he and his small team produced not only bird’s-eye view panoramic maps but also mining stock certificates and advertisements that won Brown great acclaim. In the 1880s, Brown shifted his focus from lithography to painting, producing popular oil paintings of mountainous Pacific Northwest landscapes, including Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Yellowstone National Park.

In the 1890s, Brown moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he lived until his death in 1918. Although Brown had gone to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of St. Paul during this time, he is still credited with illustrating “Reno, the commercial center of Nevada,” a late-career bird’s-eye view from 1907. This piece points to the technological changes that had taken place since Brown’s portrait of Virginia City in 1861: both panoramic views are surrounded by images of important local landmarks, but while the Virginia City map has hand-drawn illustrations, the images in the Reno map are photographs with typed captions.

“Reno, the commercial center of Nevada.” Grafton Tyler Brown, 1907. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Despite having to obscure his African American heritage for much of his life, Brown was able to achieve a highly successful career in the arts, leaving behind a legacy as a leading American lithographer, painter and cartographer of the era. His work is inspiring for those who understand cartography as a fusion of spatial awareness, impactful design, and an appreciation for both natural and human landscapes.

Tim St. Onge is a cartographer and GIS analyst in the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress.