Illustrating History

Historic maps often contain illustrations depicting the cultural and societal norms of that time (especially those that fall within the theme of pictorial maps); at first glance, these small artistic flourishes placed against the general technicality of maps are eye-catching and elicit responses of creative appreciation.

But we know that many cultural and societal norms throughout history have significantly fallen short of justice and equality and oftentimes, a closer look at the illustrations found within maps will expose these truths.

The map above provides us with this opportunity to not only appreciate a cartographer's artistry but to also acknowledge the full narrative of a defining event in the history of the United States of America.

At first glance, I was drawn to the highly stylized compass and typography but with a closer look, I noticed an oft-forgotten narrative illustrated with a level of detail I had not seen before on a map.

Join me below as I deconstruct this illustrated narrative:

The First Transcontinental Railroad

In North America, westward expansion largely defined the 19th century, and the California gold rush and first transcontinental railroad were two pins in this intense desire for economy and industry at any cost. The Central Pacific Railroad began laying track eastward in Sacramento, California in 1863 while the Union Pacific Railroad began laying track westward in Omaha, Nebraska; on May 10, 1869, these two efforts met in the middle for a ceremonious driving of the last (gold) spike at Promontory Summit, Utah.

The photograph above is a common version of what comes to mind when one thinks of this ceremonious event in which members of the Big Four, and others prominent enough to be invited to such an event, are pictured. Those more familiar with full narrative will know that careful and precise zooming will reveal one or two of the estimated 15,000 Chinese railroad workers who were primarily responsible for the actual construction of the railroad.

Chinese Railroad Workers

With most white men preferring to secure an income through mining or farming, the initial call for laborers was largely answered by Chinese workers already living in the United States. The ever-increasing and treacherous workload incited the need for more workers and by 1865, several thousand workers were recruited from China to construct tunnels and lay track.

Hart, A. A., photographer. Heading of east portal Tunnel No. 8. , None. [Sacramento, calif.: golden state photographic gallery, between 1865 and 1869] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Hart, A. A., photographer. Heading of east portal Tunnel No. 8. , None. [Sacramento, calif.: golden state photographic gallery, between 1865 and 1869] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

During the railroad construction, Chinese workers resided in segregated camps that were substandard and placed near the tracks. Following the completion of the railroad, construction camps transitioned to section stations in which Chinese workers continued to provide critical maintenance to the railroad.

Further Learning

For further learning, I recommend the following projects:

About Me

Andria Olson - Map Librarian, Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections

I am an accidental newcomer to the world of map librarianship but having always been in awe of art, design, and history, it has been a serendipitous endeavor. Being a visual learner, maps continuously provide me with new insight into the history I learned as a child; they often reconstruct what I previously knew and serve as an enticing method for continued learning and now teaching. Deconstructing maps in this manner to recount the narratives woven within using multimedia has quickly become a favorite approach for our map libraries and education program.