New York State would not exist if it had not been mapped. Although it may seem exaggerated, this statement is literally true, for there is nothing “natural” about the State of New York. As a distinct and separate entity, it exists only in our minds, and it could not have come into being as we know it were it not for its conceptualization through maps (in conjunction with other forms of symbolic representation). The very mention of the state is likely to conjure up a kind of mental mapa vague image of its boundaries, and the approximate location of its most prominent features. Historically speaking, New York, as we know it, was formed in large part through the use of maps on paper. The first European explorers found their way to the East Coast of North America with the aid of maps, and they made increasingly accurate and detailed maps to guide others to their discoveries. Maps played an essential part in the establishment of the boundaries of the state, which is a process that took place over more than two hundred years, and is still not complete. Much of what exists within the state also could not have come into being without maps. Settlers and landowners have used them to claim and define their properties. Without maps of boundaries within the state, New York’s political and electoral procedures could not exist as we know them. Census and tax maps are indispensable for its administration. Without street and road maps, people would not be able to find their way from one part of the state to another. Many other examples could be given to illustrate how maps have profoundly shaped both our conception of New York, and how we live within its boundaries.

Old maps and other cartographic materials (including atlases, aerial photographs, and digital geospatial data) can also tell us much about the past. They are densely packed with information; it has been estimated that the contents of an average-sized map would occupy an entire volume if presented as written text. Maps also present their information in a tangible and graphic form, which enables us to perceive at a glance geographic patterns and relationships that might not otherwise be evident. Thus, maps made in the past constitute a huge library of information about what is or was in the state, and also about what previous generations of map makers knew about the place, and what they thought important.

Like other historical documents, maps need to be interpreted. It is an illusion to think that they depict what is or was “really there” on the surface of the earth. They are symbolic and stylized representations of the human version of “reality” (whatever that may be). It is true that most of what maps show is in some sense reflects what is “out there” in the “real world,” but they are selective, and distort what they depict. They may also contain errors or be deliberately misleading. They reflect the interests, biases, training, and abilities of the persons who made them. Because maps are expensive to produce, they generally serve the needs of the rich and powerful. Like poetry and music, they are cultural creations, and they cannot be fully understood outside their historical contexts.

These generalizations apply to maps of any state or nation, but New York has a particularly rich cartographic heritage because of its diverse history over the last 500 years. Early maps of this region reflect the differing viewpoints, needs, and traditions of Native American, Dutch, French, and British mapmakers. Since the end of the colonial era, maps have reflected the perceptions of successive generations of explorers, soldiers, scientists, land speculators, tourists, bureaucrats, and others. Consequently, they tell us as much about the people who made them as they do about the changing geography of the state.

Because of New York’s diverse heritage and its centrality to the history of the United States, the cartographic history of New York can also serve as a window onto the mapping of our nation and the world. Developments within the state often reflect trends which began elsewhere, or are part of larger trends. The development of large-scale topographic mapping, thematic mapping, and the application of aerial photography or computer imagery to maps are examples of larger trends that are not specific to any particular place, but whose overall features can be understood through studying their application to New York.

Because maps are so essential for the study of anything that has a geographic aspect, the cartographic history of New York is of interest not only to historians and geographers, but to many others. This book should be particularly useful to educators, urban planners, map collectors, environmental analysts, and those interested in the development of transportation.

Different users will probably want to use this work in different ways. Some may want to read it through from beginning to end, as it tells a coherent story of how cartography has developed in New York over several centuries. For me, it is fascinating to see how map making has changed over time, even in the limited context of a fairly representative portion of post-Renaissance Western culture. The changes depicted here do not constitute a celebratory story of teleological progress, but they do show a kind of structured development as map makers have responded creatively to the needs and possibilities of an increasingly populous, wealthy, complex, and technologically sophisticated society. Specialists may want to use this work as a guide or reference work for research on specific subjects, or on specific areas of regional history. In addition to providing an overview of developments, this work includes extensive footnotes, a bibliography, and numerous hyperlinks to other resources for those who want to use it as a starting place for further research.

The existing literature on the mapping of New York is uneven. The literature on the mapping of New York City, particularly of Manhattan, is quite extensive and generally of high quality. A good deal has also been written about the mapping of New York during the era of the Revolutionary War. Other regions and certain subjects are quite neglected. I have not ignored completely the mapping of New York City, since it forms an important and integral part of my subject, but I have focused more heavily on the relatively neglected topics and places. Where a subject is covered in depth elsewhere, I usually provide a summary, and refer the reader to more detailed accounts.

This book is the result of more than twenty years of intermittent work, much of it during my career as a map librarian at Stony Brook University (State University of New York). Portions of this study have previously been published in The Portolan, Meridian, The Long Island Historical Journal, Coordinates, and the Web sites of The New York Map Society and the Stony Brook University Libraries. Complete citations for these and other works used in this publication can be found in the bibliography.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *