History’s Unheralded Geographers

Few geographers die famous. The Greek poet Homer is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Geography,” but he is most remembered for the Iliad and the Odyssey. Retired British surveyor George Everest had the world’s highest mountain named for him nearly 150 years ago, but it’s a safe bet that more people associate Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary (or even Jon Krakauer) than with Everest himself. George Custer is notorious for being routed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; it’s less well known that he also served in the Union Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers, riding in observation balloons and sketching maps of Confederate troop positions during the Civil War. (He was apparently very good at this.) And although Alexander Graham Bell served as the National Geographic Society’s second president—he was largely responsible for setting a course that would eventually bring international recognition to both the Society and many of its collaborators—his place in history is due primarily to other endeavors, most notably the invention of what we now call the telephone.

And then there’s James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the American artist best known for the painting “Whistler’s Mother.” Originally hired by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1854 to draw topographical plans and maps, Whistler was quickly transferred to the Survey’s Engraving Division when it became clear he lacked the discipline necessary to be a productive draftsman. The move did not improve Whistler’s job prospects. In fact, accounts of his brief tenure suggest he was disobedient, frequently tardy or absent, and bored by the mechanical nature of the work—hence his reputation for adding artistic flourishes to otherwise practical government works (not to mention doodling on the office walls).

One of the very few Coast Survey engravings still attributable to Whistler is the “Sketch of Anacapa Island,” a map and profile illustration published in the Survey’s 1854 Annual Report. According to legend, Whistler was chastised for adding seagulls to the island’s profile because they were superfluous and offered no topographic value. He was apparently unswayed by the criticism. “Surely the birds don’t detract from the sketch,” he replied. “Anacapa Island couldn’t look as blank as that map did before I added the birds.”

Whistler left the Survey after two months, and was soon a full-time art student in Paris. He later became famous for his affiliation with the Aesthetic Movement and the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.”

The Coast Survey, meanwhile, published another drawing of Anacapa Island in 1856—without the birds.

Michael Fry
Senior Map Librarian

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