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The Way It Was
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 • Posted December 26, 2012

In my last column a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the unusual geography that has appeared on some of the early maps of North America, particularly those that were published before the American revolution. Certainly one of the most interesting misrepresentations that was common for about a hundred years before 1730 was the depiction of California as a large island parelleling the west coast of America. The size of that supposed island varied, but unless some miraculous event occurred while no one was looking, California has been firmly attached to America for all of human history and is not expected to float away to the west any time in the near future. However, this is not the only irregular or imaginary boundary that has appeared in American geography and I would like to share a few of the interesting mapping histories of Texas.

The boundaries and borders of Texas did not become “set” in the patterns that we know today until the boundary surveys were completed by the Army in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s and reported to Congress by William Emory and published in 1857. He reported not only on the southwestern boundary with Mexico, but examined and reported on the plant and animal life, the fossils he found and the Indians and villages along the border. His maps were the first truly accurate depiction of Texas that was based on the surveys of Army engineers and completed the previous exploring expeditions that had traveled throughout the southwest for the previous fifteen years.

To go back a few years, before Texas gained its independence after the battle of San Jacinto in the spring of 1836, the area we now know as our state was just a province of Mexico and it was very sparsely settled and much of the interior had yet to be explored. The very first map printed after Texas independence was published in 1836 by T.G. Bradford in a atlas that contained in addition to the map descriptions of Texas as “at present engaged in an arduous struggle for independence” and concluded that “it is needless to enter into details ... as they are fresh in the minds of all.” What this really meant was that the typesetting was done in Philadelphia before details were really known of the fights for independence, and the map itself shows a Texas few today would recognize: the gulf coast was compressed, the western border was along the Neuces River rather than the Rio Grande and the interior was filled with land grants, mountains and rivers that were just laid out as the imagination might believe.

Just a few years later south and eastern Texas had begun to assume its final shape, and the Rio Grande was considered to be the regular western border although so few people lived in the no-man’s-land strip between it and the Neuces River that arguments continued over whether that portion was Texas or Mexico for many years. However, because some of the earlier maps of the Mexican Republic showed the province of Texas going north all the way to Santa Fe there were many politicians and adventurers that claimed all of that additional territory and even sent a military patrol to claim that territory for the new republic. The group of adventurers were soundly rejected by the citizens and local government of Santa Fe, but the boundaries of Texas continued to show a large northern “stove pipe” addition for another decade, even after Texas joined the United States in 1845. The very popular maps published by Mitchell even as late as 1846 showed this northern extension of Texas, and it was not until the Mexican American War of the late 1840’s that the issue of the western and northern boundaries were settled by treaty and Texas assumed the shape we have come to know.

It was still several decades later that the settlement of the western portions of the state occurred to the extent that the counties of north and western Texas were formed and the interior of our state was filled in with correct geography and county lines as the 1800’s drew to a close. While the maps of the 1890’s are relatively the same as we know today (although now we have the state crisscrossed by roadways) the earlier maps give a fascinating glimpse of the exploration and discovery of this new land. In the early part of the century there were mountain formations in the wrong places, rivers that were far off course of their actual path, and even large lakes in far west Texas that probably represented some explorer’s experience in a specifically rainy spring time not to be repeated for decades or longer.

The lands of Texas are always a fascination to any of us who were born here or want to call this their home, and the actual mapping of our vast state is a story all to itself. If you would like to see for yourself some of the irregularities of early Texas and the later claims and changes that war and politics set in place, come by Red Door Antiques on the north side of the Square on Friday or Saturday and I will be very glad to show you some of the original maps I have described. History always has a story to tell, and when that story is about Texas I am all for learning more and sharing it with anyone interested enough to stand still for a few minutes. So stop by and together we will look at maps that show us just exactly “the way it was....”

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