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.”
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).
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.
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.