Utah Capitol exhibit shows how the West was mapped

First Published      Last Updated Feb 27 2017 08:46 am

‘Utah Drawn’ » Free exhibit at the Capitol traces almost 400 years of history through 40 rare maps.

In this day of global positioning systems and Google maps, it might be difficult to think of mapmaking as an inexact science or even as art.

But a new exhibit on the western side of the Utah State Capitol's fourth floor called "Utah Drawn: An Exhibition of Rare Maps" shows mapmaking as an artform capable of revealing interesting tidbits of history.

The free exhibit consists of 40 rare historical maps tracing how mapmakers viewed what is now Utah from the early-1500s through statehood.

"Maps serve many purposes," said Brad Westwood, Division of State History director, whose agency put together the exhibition that is scheduled to run through this summer. "Maps identify physical geographies and record landmarks and boundaries. They also reflect the imaginations, values and goals of mapmakers. This is certainly true of these remarkable and rare maps."

Westwood said maps provide one of the best access points to history.

"The information draws you from one place to the other," he said. "They tell a story. They are not neutral objects. They are acts of power."

Many of the maps in the exhibit came from the private collection of Stephen Boulay, who moved to Utah 30 years ago.

Boulay started his collection with Russian maps and documents.

"Utah has such a unique history with a wealth of interesting material," he said. "When you collect, you can see new geographic knowledge of what is there, such as a mountain, river or lake. And you can see new political knowledge when the state was part of Spain, Mexico or who knows."

Boulay said Utah was largely unknown to the English-speaking world until about 1820.

"When you look at the maps of any era, I think you put on two sets of glasses," he said. "One is what are they trying to sell you. … The Spanish went up here and thought there was money to be made, so in the early maps, there are references to making money."

Six of the maps can be viewed on the Division of State History's website, history.utah.gov/utahdrawn. But, to get an idea of the scope of the exhibit and more of a feel for the maps, visiting the Capitol is worth the trip.

The maps, the exhibit explains, "represent physical geographies, recording landmarks, routes and boundaries. But they also reflect varying perceptions, imaginations, values and aspirations."

Westwood said this is evident in the early maps of Salt Lake City, which showed an audacious act of Brigham Young plotting out a city that included four parks in a place where only a few folks lived at the time.

The earliest maps of North America showed little if any knowledge of what would eventually become Utah. One simply labeled a big swath of the West as "parts unknown."

One 1641 map by Dutch cartographer Jan Jansson is believed to be the first atlas to give North America its own page. But it greatly erred in showing California as an island, which organizers say was not uncommon in those early days.

The exhibit shows that the Great Salt Lake did not enter into the written record until the Timpanogos Utes told Dominguez and Escalante of its existence in 1776.

Most Utah history buffs know that the state was part of Mexico when Mormon pioneers first settled here. But few are likely to know that the reason the name Deseret was changed to Utah was that Congress thought Deseret sounded too much like "desert."

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