Heading West & Touring West
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Heading West: Mapping the Territory; and Touring West: 19th-Century Performing Artists on the Overland Trail
New York Public Library.
Reviewed Dec. 2007.

The maps of the West and the imprints from touring companies on the Overland Trail at this combined Web site offer a refreshing diversity of subject matter on the American West. The two exhibitions first appeared as a creation of the New York Public Library in the spring and summer of 2001.

Heading West presents maps in five sections: “Imagining,” "Exploring,“ "Settling,” "Mining,“ and ”Traveling.“ "Imagining” addresses the transformation of the West of the imagination into the mapped West. Generally, the entire North American continent appears, but the imagined West once depicted California as an island off the Pacific Coast. “Exploring” features an 1822 map by Stephen H. Long that notes, even at that early date, the intent of removing the Cherokee to the “Great American Desert,” part of which was then known as Arkansas Territory. Maps by the late eighteenth-century map maker Aaron Arrowsmith show the latest explorations revealing new rivers in the West. “Settling” especially emphasizes the imposition of the grid system on the land surveys in early Ohio after the passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785 under the Articles of Confederation. “Mining” offers two early maps of California and Colorado. The G. Woolworth Colton map (1849) reveals the gold country in California. The text notes gold discovered at Sutter’s Fort rather than in a mill race at least thirty miles east of the fort in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. An 1888 map features the mining era in Colorado, but no maps appear denoting the silver and gold discoveries on the Comstock Lode in Nevada. The final section, “Traveling,” gives attention to the overland railroad to California. The accompanying text insists that gold in California made rail transportation imperative to the West Coast. An accompanying image of a national park served by rails emphasizes railroad tourism.

No section contains more than three images as samples of the larger collection held by the New York Public Library, and each section has a running text. One message tells readers that maps impose order, enhance understanding, and are instruments of power utilized by governments and those of influence in a society. The maps of the mid-nineteenth century also reflect the Victorian period, with its interest in exploration and knowledge about plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and deserts, all of which can be cataloged and illustrated.

The Touring the West exhibition “celebrates” touring companies that entertained audiences in the American West from 1803 (the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States) and 1893 (the Chicago World’s Fair or the Columbian International Exposition). Broadsides and advertisements are the chief representations used, but the site’s extensive text explains the popularity of Shakespeare in the West; Gilbert and Sullivan; singers; and orchestras. The dates chosen fall before the intervention of the electronic media of movies and voice amplification. Those technical advances helped take performers out of direct view and contact with audiences. The material assembled in Touring West is probably less available on the World Wide Web than the material in Heading West. In addition, the images in Touring West are readily enlarged, a feature unavailable for the maps in Heading West.

William D. Rowley
University of Nevada
Reno, Nevada