Mapping and Empire: Soldier-Engineers on the Southwestern Frontier

Edited by Dennis Reinhartz and Gerald D. Saxon, University of Texas Press 2005, ISBN 0292706596

In a world where Global Positioning and Geographic Information Systems have become the accepted norm for identifying and delineating borders separating nations, this book details how, in earlier times, this process was done using less sophisticated techniques.

This book consists of seven essays by prominent cartographic historians, several of whom are also members of the California Map Society. All focus on the exploration and mapping of the southwestern portion of the United States and how that border separating this country from Mexico was identified, surveyed and mapped.

Appearing daily in the news media are controversial accounts of this border being illegally crossed. Proposals being offered to prevent these crossings range from installing various forms of electronic surveillance to building an extended fence. Any acceptable method requires the ability to precisely locate this     dividing line.

The book describes the sequence of events leading to the eventual mapping and acceptance of this international border. First in this timeline was the exploration and conquest of this territory by the Spanish, eventually evolving into control by an independent Mexico.

This phase is follow by confrontation between Mexico and the expansionism of the United States. The Mexican American War and Mexico’s defeat lead to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, later modified in 1853 by the Gadsden Treaty. These treaties identified the territory to be ceded to the U.S.

Ralph Ehrenberg, in his essay titled “U.S. Army Military Mapping of the American Southwest during the Nineteenth Century,” gives a detailed account of how the surveying of this border was conducted.

Paula Rebert’s essay titled “Unknown Works and Forgotten Engineers of the Mexican Boundary Commission,” discusses how, through the establishment of four joint U.S. and Mexican study commissions, the detailed survey data taken in the field was utilized to generate the maps that precisely located this dividing line.

All seven essays provide explicit detail of these events and the individuals who helped to shape them. Those readers who are interested in southwestern frontier history will enjoy learning the names of these individuals and the role each played.

This book contains numerous pictures of maps that were generated by many of the individuals mentioned in all of the essays. However, given the reduced size of these photos, almost all of the detail is lost to the reader.

The importance of the ability to locate this precise line separating these two nations was recently highlighted when the United States inadvertently built a large section of fencing with its associated electronics on Mexican territory, resulting in wasteful expenditure and diplomatic embarrassment.

Reviewed by Chuck Gray
From the Society’s September 2007 Newsletter