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Review: 500 years of mapping Florida at Tampa Bay History Center

So we look with wonder at the intrepid men (because they were all men) who, centuries ago, sallied forth across an immense ocean, unsure of what awaited them or when they would find out. And we can look with wonder at their ambitions, successes and follies, because they were charted by cartographers who mapped what the explorers reported they were seeing.

"Charting the Land of Flowers: 500 Years of Florida Maps" at the Tampa Bay History Center is a collection of 150 maps that tells us in geographic detail the first impressions of Florida and continues through five centuries of change. As a point of reference, it begins in 1493 with a map of the known world, which consisted of Europe, Asia and Africa, before Christopher Columbus' voyages began a shift in thinking about land masses.

The Florida story begins several years later, with a map from 1502. The Cantino World Map represented one of the most enticing world views of the time, showing remarkably accurate contours of Africa, for example, and several slices of the lands beyond the sea. Most historians believe it to be the first mapping of the east coast of North America, but there is also the accepted possibility that it reflects Columbus' erroneous view that the lands he found were in Asia. (And Florida does resemble India on it.) It also could suggest that Ponce de León wasn't the first European to set foot in Florida, though he is credited with discovering it in 1513.

Maps evolved through the 16th century as expanded knowledge of the New World became available. "Florida" was first used on a map in 1524, making official Ponce de León's name given in honor of the Easter season, called Pascua de Florida in his native Spain, when he first explored it.

Its contours varied greatly throughout the century, as did its boundaries. At one point, "Florida" was the entire area that is now the southeastern United States, all of which was claimed by Spain.

Exploration continued into the 17th century, but it was accompanied by serious colonization. As Europeans moved in, maps reflected a better understanding of the topographical details and new names such as Baya de Tampa (Tampa Bay) on a 1630 map. More precision from new mapping devices helped Spain develop accurate trade routes for hauling the silver and gold being mined in Central and South America. Cuba was the biggest way station, but Florida was important (though it had no gold) because it was a major buffer between Spain and territories north of Florida controlled by Britain and France. Florida was a long way from becoming a tourist destination but it, along with all the Americas, generated interest and curiosity in armchair travelers and a brisk business in maps that were more decorative than those designed for maritime use.

And then . . . Hello, pirates!

All that precious metal didn't go unnoticed. Pirates had been sacking Spanish settlements and sinking ships from the beginning, but the 17th and early 18th centuries were known as the Golden Age of Piracy (cross-reference Johnny Depp). The French, Dutch and British had also established successful Caribbean settlements that grew lucrative cash crops such as sugar and tobacco, and the slave trade was growing. Europe was roiled in war and piracy was supported, encouraged or at least sanctioned by rival European governments. Francis Drake and Henry Morgan were considered criminals by Spain for their looting and pillaging, for example, but in England they were heroes. Trade route information was stolen or smuggled, maps were made and made available to buccaneers, which is probably the story on a 1715 map made by a French cartographer for the Dutch showing the Spanish treasure routes.

Florida's contours were still all over the map in the early 18th century, but by the time of the American Revolution, little was unknown about its true shape. A British map from 1776 of the colonies, which included Florida, had not only roads but also distances that would aid army strategy. And a British mapmaker was one of the first to affix "United States of America" onto a 1783 map.

Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, and it became a state in 1845. Pre-Civil War maps, such as one from 1839, have Florida parceled into named areas with post offices and the roads, canals and railroads that connected them. Hillsborough and Monroe counties had been established, but a vast swath along the east coast was referred to only as "Mosquito." The oldest known map of Tampa is from 1838, and the only surviving element today is Tampa Street. One of the most visually arresting maps in this show is from the Civil War era, when John Bachmann created a bird's-eye view perspective of the state with locations of forts and blockades.

At the turn of the century, Henry B. Plant was remaking much of Florida with extended railroad lines, steamships and vacation destinations for wealthy winter tourists, followed by Henry Flagler. They commissioned maps touting their empires, and developers platted existing land (in St. Petersburg, for example) and land that would be created through dredging and fill (Davis Islands in Tampa). It was boom time all over Florida until the real estate market went bust in 1925.

After World War II, represented by a restricted (or classified) map of Florida used for aeronautical training with illustrations of bombing runs, maps focus on the increasing development of the state. Rube Allyn, the late outdoors writer for the St. Petersburg Times, produced a delightful fishing map in the 1960s that identified dozens of fishing holes in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, yours for 25 cents.

The exhibition ends with 21st century NASA photographs of Florida taken from space and the Google mapping project, which is explained in a fun video.

This such an intelligent and interesting show. You can spend hours, as I did, eyeing the details, reading the wall text and making comparisons. Or be less intense, just enjoying the aesthetic variety of them. There are also rare objects, such as globes and a copper engraved plat with the resultant map, which have amazing histories. Curator Rodney Kite-Powell said he and others had been thinking about this exhibition since the center opened in 2009 but had been actively working on it for two years. It shows.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.


Charting the Land

of Flowers: 500 Years

of Florida Maps

The exhibition is at the

Tampa Bay History Center,

801 Old Water St., Tampa, through Feb. 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $12.95 adults, $10.95 seniors, college students with ID and youths 13 to 17 and $7.95 kids 4 to 12. or (813) 228-0097.

Review: 500 years of mapping Florida at Tampa Bay History Center 09/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 4:32pm]
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