Mapping Texas — 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.
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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’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.
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.”
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, D.C. His map details the coastal areas of Texas and marked the interior as unknown country (pays inconnus). Humboldt also extends Texas’ borders beyond the Sabine River, though he recognized that these limits had not been approved by the United States Congress.