Charles Dunn

Finding Our Way: A Map of Our Past

I was asked by the editor of the Arkansas Literary Forum to write a brief essay regarding my deep interest in and affection for old maps, particularly antique maps of Arkansas and the American South.  This request was made, I believe, as a result of a comment I made in my 1999 “state of the university” address.  In reference to our latest strategic planning effort, entitled Bold Strokes, I noted that we were proceeding to implement our peculiar mission as Arkansas’s public liberal arts university without a map.  I noted further that, like many ancient maps that described unknown portions of the world with phrases like “here be dragons,” we were certain to enter difficult, if not dangerous, areas.  That comment was included in the context of my deep interest in antique, if not ancient, maps.  I believe the editor’s interest in having me write an essay stems from his belief that my interest in maps has a purpose deeper than an appreciation of their beauty.  To that belief, I must simply say “perhaps.”

Maps produced prior to the twentieth century have a beauty that is not often found in modern and more utilitarian versions.  For maps, first of all, have great utility.  They provide us a tool by which we can find our way from one location to another.  They inform us of many physical and cultural characteristics of a defined geographic area; however, both the physical and cultural characteristics of our geography are subject to change.  One may expect that the physical structure of the earth is less susceptible to change than cultural characteristics.  It must be noted, however, that rivers change course from time-to-time, weather patterns cause physical structures, such as lakes and estuaries, to expand or contract, and, occasionally, mountains are moved (for instance, Mt. St. Helens in the State of Washington).

While physical changes in geography are significant and may be reflected on maps produced at a given time, they are not so interesting to me as those that directly reflect cultural change.  When transportation routes (roads, railroads, etc.) change and when cities develop and later disappear from maps, significant cultural change is indicated.  Examination of my 19th century maps of Arkansas reveals that many modern roads originated from mere trails.  One may suspect that significant early-19th century roads, such as the various “military” roads, started out as Indian trails.  The trails (and, later, roads) reveal something important about the people who lived here before us.  Likewise, cities that were centers of trade 150 years ago are virtually deserted villages now.  Some have literally disappeared, had name changes, or have been washed away by rivers or the Corps of Engineers.  Exploring the reasons these changes took place and determining their impact offers important clues about our current condition. 

  One of my recent acquisitions, an 1827 map of the middle South, shows much of Arkansas as Indian Territory nearly a decade prior to statehood.  The map is a lovely lithograph printed in Brussels with watercolor boundaries.  On it one can find lines that depict areas that had been ceded to various Indian tribes, long before the infamous “Trail of Tears” removed many Native Indian tribes to Oklahoma.  One wonders, “How did many Cherokees come to be in Arkansas prior to the ‘Trail of Tears?’”  Research reveals that President Thomas Jefferson offered the Cherokees land in Arkansas between the White River and the Arkansas River if they would voluntarily move from North Carolina.  Many Cherokees did in fact move; indeed, an early visitor to Arkansas territory noted that about 3,000 Cherokees were living in the northwest quadrant of the state in 1820 and most were more civilized than the Europeans living in the territory.  The Cherokees farmed, constructed corn mills and salt production areas, and provided an educational system for their young.  That much of this progress was lost to our state as a result of the “Trail of Tears” is a tragedy.   One cannot but wonder how Arkansas would be different today if that very industrious and proud group of people had been permitted to continue to live in our state.

The most important reason for my love of old maps, therefore, stems from my curiosity about how we came to be in this place at this time.  I deeply value the beauty of my maps, but I value even more what they tell me about those who were here before us.  A sequential review of 19th century maps reveals towns and villages appearing and disappearing.  Some remain centers of trade today.  Others literally withered away.  One wonders “why.”  Why did Memphis, Tennessee, become an important metropolis and center of trade while Helena, Arkansas, which, in the late 19th century was much the same size as Memphis, remained a small, mainly agricultural community?  Why did historic Old Washington, which served as the capital of the state under the Confederacy, cease to be a center of trade and population in the late-19th century?  What happened to towns like Paraclifta and Panther that seemed to be important on the western border of our state over a century-and-a-half ago?  What happened to Cadron and when did Conway emerge?  How did the many dams constructed by the Corps of Engineers produce cultural change along Arkansas’s rivers?  Answers to those questions may tell us much about those who came before us.  Those are the questions that arise in my mind when I “explore” the antique maps in my collection.  It is an effort that offers promise in our search to better understand how we came to be the way we are.  It perhaps will provide us clues as we determine what we will become.

*Click on image to enlarge.

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