Mike Bunn often uses maps to research exhibits that he’s responsible for at the Columbus Museum, where he is the curator of history.
In “X Marks the Spot: Our Region in Five Centuries of Maps,” which opens Aug. 30, maps aren’t just used for research, they’re the focus of the exhibit.
“It just made perfect sense to use maps to learn about our region’s history,” Bunn said.
He borrowed maps from the University of Alabama’s W.S. Hoole Special Collections’ map collection. Slowly and quietly, the University of Alabama has been collecting not only maps, but manuscripts, photography, rare books relating to American music, popular culture and Southern culture. The collection is named for Hoole, who was the librarian who organized the collection.
Of the 30 maps in this exhibit, 16 are from the University of Alabama, with five from the Columbus Museum’s permanent collection. The rest are copies of original maps from the Library of Congress. The oldest map dates back 1507, and Bunn said that one is one of the copies. This is the first map that has the word “America” on it, and was made by German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. It’s from the Library of Congress, which bought it (the only existing copy) in 2001 for $10 million.
The oldest original map is dated 1593 and was made by Cornelius de Jode in Antwerp.
Bunn divided the maps and placed them into the century that they were created. Visitors will notice that the first maps were world maps that showed all the “explored” continents. The focus becomes closer to our area as centuries go by until the maps of Columbus in the late 1880s.
The last map in the exhibit shows Muscogee County in 1907 produced by topographical engineers Duncan Hannegan and Oscar Jones.
Maps, Bunn said, used to be considered art. They weren’t mass-produced, so you wouldn’t have a family traveling west with the father looking at a map as he struggled with the horses pulling a wagon.
The earliest maps were made to provide information on the region. Usually, Bunn said, the maps would start on the coast and go inland as the areas were explored. Many of the early maps were provided by the Native American Indians, Bunn said. There is a 1667 map by Nicholas Sanson d’Abbeville, that shows the locations of many Native American villages in the Southeast.
Until the 1700s, most maps were produced in England, France and Germany, Bunn said. American map makers didn’t make them until William Blodger published a map of Vermont in 1789.
One map that caught Bunn’s eye was the 1797 map, “A Correct Map of the Georgia Western Territory,” by Jedediah Morse, the father of telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. This map shows Georgia going from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, claiming all of what are known as the states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Sometimes, maps were drawn to prove ownership, Bunn said. But basically, maps were made to document what was discovered on unexplored land.
Bunn learned a lot of maps and their makers, he said.
“I learned that map makers were incredibly talented and produced maps, drawing without modern technology,” he said. “You can see what they were able to do” with a piece of paper and a pencil.
He also learned that many of towns in the area had different names. Eufaula was called Irwintown and Phenix City was Brownville and later Girard.
“It’s a quick tour of Southeastern history,” Bunn said. “I think this exhibit will appeal to a pretty broad spectrum of people. People who are curious about maps, and how they were used in the past and how they are used today.”