Making Maps, mapping history



by Margaret Beattie Bogue

“Making Maps, Mapping History” mirrors centuries of human experience in the Great Lakes region and at the same time reflects major changes in the art of mapmaking. These maps show how the Great Lakes influenced the development of the mid North American continent and how human activity changed the lakes. Viewing the display, in the mind’s eye one sees a human procession led by prehistoric Native People, followed by French explorers, missionaries, fur traders, and empire builders. It concludes centuries later with farmers, lakeside city dwellers, sportsmen, summer home builders, people concerned about Great Lakes water quality, and scientists pondering remedial action to save the lakes. From hundreds of miles above the earth a Landsat satellite maps the Great Lakes.

Nearly 12,000 years ago, the first human inhabitants began to adapt to the Great Lakes environment. They relied on the region’s natural wealth of fish, wild rice and game for food, and they used the Great Lakes to travel from the St. Lawrence River in the east into the very heart of the continent.

More than three centuries ago, Native guides escorted the first Europeans through this maze of waterways. Using the skills, technical knowledge and trade networks of the Native People, the French ventured into the fur trade, an enterprise that became the economic foundation for New France. As the French continued to explore North America, they collected a vast body of knowledge that mapmakers in Europe used to depict the land and waterways.

By 1840, the fur trade was fading, and the westward thrust of growing U.S. and Canadian populations signaled a new era. Settlement and agricultural development rapidly changed the wilderness and the lives of its Native inhabitants. Miners moved into southwestern Wisconsin’s lead fields during the 1820s and into Upper Michigan’s copper-rich Keweenaw Peninsula during the 1840s. The U.S. and Canadian governments obtained land cessions from the Native People through treaties and then surveyed the region’s land to encourage frontier development.

As farming and mining began, port cities along the western shores of Lake Michigan became centers of commerce, trade and manufacturing. The Great Lakes facilitated this rapid change, serving as the region’s principal transportation routes until 1860. The port cities pressed the federal government for harbor surveys and improvements, lighthouses, navigational charts, weather reporting and canal construction. Hoping to imitate the success of the Erie Canal, Wisconsin sought and secured federal aid to build two canals joining Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. The most famous of them, the Portage Canal, linked the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

By mid-century, the railroads challenged the waterways, and a quarter-century later they domi- nated transportation in the region. Although Great Lakes ships lost most passenger traffic and much of the package freight business, they continued to carry bulk cargoes—the rich timber harvests, Lake Superior’s iron ore, and wheat, coal, stone and petroleum products.

Lake and railroad carriers ultimately became interdependent. Car ferries across Lake Michigan linked railroads in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and Wisconsin to provide east-west traffic. Great Lakes port cities eagerly sought railroad connections to enhance shipping, commerce and manufacturing. The spread and dominance of railroad transportation from 1850 to 1920 brought a marked growth in the region’s population, agriculture, urban areas and industry.

Economic development produced major environmental changes in the region. Lumbering and farming destroyed much of the original vegetation and encouraged soil erosion. The draining of wetlands and the construction of dams altered water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. Urban sewage, industrial waste and mining runoff introduced a variety of toxic chemicals into the waters. By 1900, thoughtful observers already were worrying about pollution of the Great Lakes.

These problems became worse during the next 100 years. Cars and trucks began to replace the railroads after World War II, and the vast urban-industrial-residential expansion increased the demands on the water, fish and other resources of the Great Lakes. At the same time, the growing popularity of outdoor recreation and the region’s growing abundance of state and federal parks and forests helped create a new awareness of the natural environment. The 20th century’s view of Earth from space brought home the knowledge of the fragile nature of life on this planet.

And so these maps bring the viewer full circle—from the incomplete and distorted views of the Great Lakes during the Age of Exploration to the comprehensive and sweeping view of the lakes in the twenty-first century.

© 2007 UW System Board of Regents - Aquatic Sciences Center
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