Maps tell the stories your GPS never could

The Hackley Land Trust Map shows the 11 million acres Richard Hackley, a New York attorney and U.S. consul to Spain, bought from a duke in the early 19th century. Unfortunately for him, and the people he sold land to, a court determined he didn’t own it after all.
Library of Congress
The Hackley Land Trust Map shows the 11 million acres Richard Hackley, a New York attorney and U.S. consul to Spain, bought from a duke in the early 19th century. Unfortunately for him, and the people he sold land to, a court determined he didn’t own it after all. Library of Congress
Published Nov. 23, 2013

I'm a map guy. They're on my wall, in the glove compartment. I like spreading them out and remembering where I have been and dreaming about where I would like to go. Memories come flooding back, even a few bad ones, like the time the airboat broke down in the Everglades after dark. You're reading this. I survived.

I study my map of the Big Cypress, the best place on Earth except during mosquito season. Tracing the Loop Road with my finger, I pause at Gator Hook Strand and remember the thunder of joyous frogs at sunset. An Ocala National Forest map reveals the campground where my dad first pitched our tent and where I first swam in a gin-clear Florida spring.

A good map shows us how to get from Point A to Point B, of course. But it also has stories to tell.


"Charting the Land of Flowers: 500 Years of Florida Maps" is the spectacular new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center. On display are 150 maps from 1493 to the present, some originals, some old prints, some never shown in public.

It's easy to get lost among those maps. Hartmann Schedel's mysterious 1493 map shows nothing of the New World waiting to be discovered. Martin Waldseemuller's map two decades later includes the South Atlantic and even the island called Isabella — we call it Cuba. A little north is a craggy peninsula that could be Florida or what the mapmaker might have concluded was India. Ponce de León be damned.

Francisco Maria Celi visited Tampa Bay with his mapping tools on April 13, 1757. He dubbed the barrier island at the bay entrance La Isla de San Blas y Barreda — what I know as Egmont Key.

Boarding a skiff, he sailed into the bay with his notebooks and his curiosity. Cartographers still praise his accuracy. But I love his embellishments, charming images of alligators, a bear, even a howling wolf. The only sign of civilization is an Indian village on the Hillsborough side of Bahia de Tampa. Wouldn't you like to go back, and see a wolf? Talk with a Tocobaga medicine man about how to cure your headache?

Of course, maps can lie.

Richard Hackley was a New York attorney and U.S. consul to Spain who was certain he owned a third of Florida. Early in the 19th century, he bought 11 million acres, price unknown, from a duke who had acquired the giant chunk from Spain's King Ferdinand VII.

Hackley's property stretched from Naples north to Crystal River and east past what is now Orlando. Put yourself in Hackley's shoes. Looking at your map, you surely imagine all those future "For Sale" signs and lots of dollar bills falling into your lap.

Alas, in 1821 Florida became a U.S. territory — and the government had no intention of honoring Hackley's land claims, no matter how much his high-priced lawyers argued. In 1838, a federal court finally ruled that Hackley didn't own the land he'd been selling to unsuspecting pilgrims. At least Hackley owned the map.

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The AAA map of Florida from 1917 on display is especially fascinating. Pity the poor motorist. There was no easy way to get anywhere.

Let's say you lived in Tampa and wanted to visit the bright lights of Miami. The Tamiami Trail across the Everglades wouldn't open until 1928. So you drove to Sarasota and made a left on a two-lane heading east. You would have hung a right in West Palm Beach and hoped to avoid flooding, fires, con men and alligators along the route. Looking at the "bad road" notations on the AAA map, I'm guessing today's four-hour drive must have taken days in 1917.

I love my paper maps, but for actually getting around, I rely on GPS like everybody else. I've got a fancy one in my truck and a GPS on my bike. When I hike, I no longer carry a Topo-Map or compass. Instead, a GPS hangs from a belt loop.

Really, who uses a paper map in the 21st century?

Karolyn Hornsby, that's who. I met the 70-year-old at the AAA office in St. Petersburg. She wanted the best route from her home in Pinellas County to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

"I also have a GPS,'' Hornsby explained. "But sometimes they screw you up and get you lost. I'm more confident about maps.''

Gail Walker, a club counselor for AAA, typed the details of Hornsby's trip into a computer. A printer near her desk began to hum. A moment later she assembled a small collection of paper maps into something old-fashioned five centuries after the arrival of Ponce de León: a TripTik booklet.

AAA began offering TripTik booklets in 1938. Walker created her first in 1990. She has done thousands since.

"There used to be 10 of us,'' she told me. Decades ago at the AAA office, customers waited on couches for their names to be called by travel counselors who stayed busy until closing time. Now it's Walker and two other women. Nobody waits in line. Most customers, in fact, contact them by phone or computer. They pick up their TripTiks later. Or print them out at home.

"It's different now,'' Walker said. "Times change.''

I asked her for a map for my collection. Alaska. I've never been there.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at