The entrance to the Mapping Texas: From Frontier to Lone Star State at The Witte Museum in San Antonio. Photo credit: Mylynka Kilgore Cardona, Texas General Land Office

Mapping Texas: From Frontier to the Lone Star State

In the nearly three hundred years that it took for Texas to take its current shape, the space changed from an extensive, unexplored and sparsely settled frontier under the Spanish Crown to its iconic and easily recognizable outline. Mapping Texas: From Frontier to the Lone Star State traces the cartographic history of Texas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, from contested imperial claims that spanned the continent to individual rights of ownership all with the understanding that in order for a place to be claimed, it needed to be mapped.

Over forty rare maps from the collections of the Texas General Land Office, the Witte Museum, and the private collection of Frank and Carol Holcomb, of Houston, are on display at the Witte Museum in San Antonio through September 18, 2016.

As part of the 7th Annual Save Texas History Symposium, you will have the opportunity to see this exhibit by registering for the evening reception, which will be held in the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center at the Witte Museum. Support the Save Texas History program, visit with other Texas history enthusiasts over drinks and BBQ, and check out this acclaimed exhibit before it closes in late September. Shuttles will be provided between the Menger Hotel and Witte Museum. Registration for this reception is $50.

Frontiers of Discovery: “The Great Space of Land Unknown”

European cartographers imagined the territory that became Texas as a vast region eager to be claimed and colonized despite the existence of indigenous communities. Mapmakers borrowed from native informants, European explorers’ writings and other printed sources to chart coastal areas and waterways and ease the navigation and exploration of the territory. Their vague, and often contradictory, information led to contested claims that fueled further exploration. These campaigns spurred the eventual establishment of fortifications and cities from which to govern the territory. While Spain and France made inroads into territorial claims in Texas, England concerned itself with charting the waters of the Gulf.

To view any of the maps below in greater detail, click on the image to access the map’s database entry, then click on the magnifying glass icon to enter “Zoomify” mode.

Girolamo Ruscelli, Nveva Hispania Tabvla Nova, Venice, 1561, Map 93796, General Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Girolamo Ruscelli’s “New Map of New Spain” is an excellent example of how mapmakers borrowed from each other and from the narratives that early explorers published in Europe. The floating island of Mexico City is far off to the east of New Spain, very near the Gulf of Mexico. A vast mountain range from Texas to Central Mexico divides the known world from the mythical seven cities of gold in the west.

Nicolas Sanson, Amerique Septentrionale, Paris, ca.1659, Map 93684, General Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Nicolas Sanson’s landmark map of North America was the primary source of cartographic information for the Great Lakes region, an important French possession. Sanson’s work also mirrored others in their mapping of California as an island. The Bahía de Espíritu Santo (possibly Corpus Christi Bay) is shown as the confluence of many rivers — perhaps as an early attempt to map the Mississippi Delta — and a mountain range traverses Texas from east to west.

José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez, Nuevo Mapa Geographico de la America Septentrional, Perteneciente al Virreynato de Mexico, 1768, Map 93835, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Dedicated to the “wise members” of the Royal Academy of Science in Paris, José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez’s [New Geographic Map of North America] depicts Spanish North America based on the information available to him in the archives of Mexico City. The map is divided into the six religious districts (arzobispados) in New Spain at the time. Alzate is also one of the first to identify the area around Texas as the “Provincia de los Texas.” This map is on display at the Witte Museum courtesy of Frank and Carol Holcomb.

Alexander von Humboldt, Carte Générale du Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne depuis le Parallele de 16° jusqu’au Parallele de 38° (Latitude Nord) dressée sur des Observations Astronomiques et sur l’ensemble des Matériaux qui existoient à Mexico, au commencement de l’année 1804, Paris, 1809, Maps 93781 and 93782, Texana Foundation Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Made to accompany his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Alexander von Humboldt’s [General Map of the Kingdom of New Spain] was composed from archives in Mexico City and Washington, DC. His map details the coastal areas of Texas and marked the interior as unknown country (pays inconnus). Humboldt also extends Texas’s borders beyond the Sabine River, though he recognized that these limits had not been approved by the United States’ Congress.

Can’t make it to San Antonio? You can view the majority of the maps in this exhibit in high definition on the GLO’s website where you can also purchase reproductions of the maps and support the Save Texas History program.

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