Most of the writers in my critique group do contemporary fiction. We have joked how Google Earth makes it possible to “travel” to immerse oneself in the geography of a place. For those writing about earlier times, maps can fill in. During the 1800s pictorial maps were popular as a way of advertising places for tourism, development, or pride of place. So I hoped to find one to spark my imagination about my ancestors’ experiences.
Half my ancestors immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio right after the Civil War. Court documents showed they bought large swaths of land, and the Census of 1870 provided some addresses. But apart from reading brief descriptions in city histories, I had difficulty placing myself into their landscape.
This Birds Eye map from 1877 hints at Cleveland at the cusp of turning into a major industrial city. Boats on Lake Erie and into a canal hint at port traffic. A railroad connects directly to the port as well. Smoke stacks abound on a peninsula of the Cuyahoga River. The city center has the only tall buildings, not more than four or five stories. A large park adjoins Lake Erie, and other open spaces dot the landscape. On streets run horse-and-carriage. Typical of such maps, it idealizes through viewing as a bird from above Lake Erie. Imagine the drawing from above the factories..
Housing variation reveals status differences. Broad avenues toward the left lead to large homes with immense yards. From studying the Rockefellers, I know this is where the elite lived. Closer to the industrial region houses pack together to form immigrant neighborhoods. Toward the lake, some houses have yards, and likely represent the small middle-class.
The majority of the numbered code underneath identifies some locations as religious institutions, which also identify by ethnicity. Catholic churches, for example, also include a descriptive such as “Polish” or “German.” These comments point to the strong social class system, the separation of immigrants from one another and from “original” Clevelanders, who’d call themselves “Anglo-Saxons.” The powerful role of community health is also portrayed, along with keys to schools, hospitals, and government buildings. Apart from downtown, church spires shape the tallest buildings.
Considering this map portrays almost a dozen years since my ancestors’ arrival, I can wash out some industry, which I know boomed in the 1870s, and cut back some housing. They would have found a city about to grow with considerable arable land in its boundaries. There they could duplicate much of their life as rural Bohemians, people enamored of the outdoors.
I was even able to locate the spot of a family home. An obituary placed it where Cleveland High School was later built. It appears on the far left, a prominent building surrounded by fields, part of the Shaker Colony my ancestors purchased to farm. This saved them from most immigrants’ fate, the steel mills and refineries.
To study this map I used the Zoom function on my computer, and even added a magnifying glass. Mounting it on Photoshop enabled me to manipulate the clarity of some sections.
I was fortunate to find this in digital form at the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Another wonderful source is the David Rumsey Collection at Stanford University, which includes world locations and excellent techniques for studying the results. For example, it allows overlaying of maps or placing them in a time sequence. For Europe and World, free high resolution vector maps are at Euratlas. These are straight geography maps over time, which are useful given the constant changing political boundaries over the centuries.
Yes, I am a map fanatic, but I will be addressing other document types soon. If you know of other good digitized map sources, please comment and add them. Because pictorial maps are popular with collectors, the supply online is far from complete.