Putting History on the Map

Aug 1, 2014

All maps are historical.  They represent specific moments in time and very quickly become out of date as new towns are incorporated, new canals or railroads or highways are built.  Some maps, however, are not only historical, but deliberately retrospective.  They represent a time other than the time in which they were made, sometimes a time within the living memory of the mapmaker, sometimes an historic era long past.

Some of the earliest such maps at the Connecticut Historical Society incorporate the memories of very old men.  James Wadsworth drew his map of New Haven in 1748, when he was an eighteen-year-old student at Yale.  When it was finally printed and published in 1806, almost sixty years later, it had become an historic document, recording the appearance of New Haven not only before the American Revolution, but even before the French and Indian War.  The popular author Douglas Grant Mitchell (known as “Ike Marvel”) was born in Norwich in 1822.  As an old man he produced a map of Norwich in 1830, as it would have appeared when he was eight years old.  In addition to the names of residents, businesses, and geographical features, the maps also shows where Mitchell found “early peas” and “cranberries” and where he went skating.  

Other historical maps reflect the historic consciousness of communities, the collective memory of their citizens.  Such maps were often issued in conjunction with anniversaries celebrating a town’s founding, or especially significant events in the town’s history.  A map of Ridgefield, issued in 1935, in conjunction with the celebration of Connecticut’s Tercentenary, shows the sites of important events associated with the Battle of Ridgefield during the Revolutionary War, including the sites of the first and second engagements, the place where Benedict Arnold lost his horse, and the spot where General Wooster was shot.  About the same time, Katherine G. Bartholomew and Dorothy G. Spalding drew their Cultural and Historical Map of Hartford, showing the sites of the Charter Oak, the Old Jail, and the homes of Hartford’s famous nineteenth-century authors.  The map won first prize in the Junior League's educational map contest in 1933.  

With funding from Connecticut Humanities, The Connecticut Historical Society recently concluded an ambitious project to digitize and catalog its map collection.  Some of the most significant items in the collection, including a selection of retrospective maps, will be featured in a special behind-the-scenes tour at the Connecticut Historical Society at 2 p.m. on Saturday August 9th.  For more information call (860) 236-5621x289 or email Jenny Steadman.