Maps have pointed the way to hidden treasure, adventure and to broken dreams.
The Montana Historical Society has a new exhibit called “Mapping Montana: Two Centuries of Cartography” that tells a visual story of significant moments in Montana history.
“All of the maps in the exhibit promoted something about Montana,” said Brian Shovers, research library manager and curator of the exhibit.
“What I was trying to do with this exhibit is tell the Montana story, starting with Lewis and Clark and (geographer) David Thompson,” said Shovers. “I think a lot of these maps are also pieces of art.”
One soon learns there’s more to a map than meets the casual glance.
“A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of a man’s faith in other men,” were the eloquent words of 1930s adventurer and aviatrix Beryl Markham in her memoir, “West With the Night”: “it is a symbol of confidence and trust. ...A map says to you ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not … I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.”
Explorers, miners and homesteaders ventured west with copies of the maps now on display at the Montana Historical Society.
Some maps pointed true; others were so riddled with misinformation that they led the way to ruin.
One of the first maps a viewer of the exhibit discovers is a copy of an 1801 map, drawn by surveyor Peter Fidler of the Hudson Bay Company, based on talks with Blackfeet Chief Ackomokki. Striking in its simplicity, it’s oriented to the western Sea Coast, rather than pointing north. The rivers pouring from the Rocky Mountains bear such intriguing names as the Pearl, Sheep and Warm Water rivers.
Other maps show Montana’s land shuffling in and out of the Missouri and Oregon territories, before securing its own territory and statehood.
One of the most eye-catching is a 1937 Montana State Highway Department map, illustrated by artist Shorty Shope. It’s chock full of quirky and richly illustrated details — a hangman’s tree where 13 men were executed, the 4th of July arrival and demise of two horse thieves in Lewistown, expansive cattle country such as the Hat X Range, and places near Jordan where jackrabbits roamed.
“I just think all the illustrations are beautiful,” Shovers said. “It’s all hand lettered, free style.”
In the 1950s Darrell “Goodie” Gudmundson, inspired by Shope’s map, carved an expansive wooden version that hung for years in the reception area of the governor’s office.
Visitors can also envision the Battle of the Little Bighorn viewing a new interactive electronic map, showing where troops and warriors advanced and fell back hour by hour on June 25-26, 1876.
Nearby hangs The Great Northern Railway map that lured homesteaders here in 1914. Montana was the new Promised Land, boasting a climate that was “the most healthful of any state in the union,” with mild winters and pleasant summers that were never oppressively hot.
Then drought and other disasters from wind to locusts struck. Between 1919 and 1925 half of Montana’s farmers would lose their land, and 11,000 farms were abandoned.
Also shown are richly illustrated maps extolling the glories of Great Falls, down to its tiny sheep and cattle grazing in the fields; a bustling Butte a burst with mines, mills and belching smokestacks; a 1914 topographical map of Glacier National Park “mind-boggling” in its detail; and also an arresting view of the loss of lands tribes suffered over the decades.
The 50 maps on display are just a small sample of the 5,000 in the society’s collection.
“I would hope they (viewers) have a new appreciation for how varied the landscape is,” concluded Shovers, “and how Montanans have reshaped the landscape to their needs or desires.”