The Witte Museum team inspects the Austin map. Photo courtesy of the Witte.

The Witte Museum will open an exhibit of more than 40 rare maps on Friday that detail the evolution of Texas, San Antonio and its Spanish colonial missions.

“These maps are pieces of art,” said Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott during a preview of Mapping Texas: From Frontier in the Lone Star State on Thursday.

McDermott said it was a fitting honor for the Witte to host such an exhibit given San Antonio’s historical role the early settlement of Texas. “San Antonio is in the middle of that frontier.”

The preservation and exhibition of these and thousands of other historical maps is important for both technical and cultural reasons. The Texas General Land Office has more than 45,000 maps from around the state on file, but only about 2,000 of them have been formally preserved so far.

Mapping Texas, located in the Witte’s Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, is included in regular museum admission and will close on Monday, September 5. For more information, visit the Witte website here.

The idea to put together a public collection of historical, rare Texas maps took hold more than one year ago at a conference where researcher Katherine Nelson Hall introduced Shackelford to James Harkins, GLO manager of public services, and Mark Lambert, GLO deputy director of archives and records. The project also involved Jose Adrian Barragan, a Spanish translator for the GLO, who researched and wrote all the labels for the maps and documents on display.

Thus began a collaboration between the Witte and GLO.

The exhibit features maps from collections at the Witte, the GLO, and Frank and Carol Holcomb of Houston, some of which date back to the 16th century, along with later ones that provide fine detail of the physical and political boundaries that developed in South Texas. Many of the maps are available for public viewing for the first time through the Mapping Texas exhibit.

Bruce Shackelford, Witte Museum's curator of South Texas heritage (left), talks with Jose Barragan, Texas General Land Office's Spanish translator, and Mylynka Cardona, GLO map curator, about the "Mapping Texas" exhibit  on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Bruce Shackelford, Witte Museum’s curator of South Texas heritage (left), talks with Jose Barragan, Texas General Land Office’s Spanish translator, and Mylynka Cardona, GLO map curator, about the “Mapping Texas” exhibit on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Along with artistic value, McDermott said, the collection will serve as a unique learning opportunity for thousands of area seventh- and eighth-grade students who will get to supplement their Texas history lessons with the exhibit.

For one, the chosen maps denote significant parts of the state’s growth – discovery by European settlers, western expansion of the United States, settlement of the frontier via empresario contacts with the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas, limits of the Republic of Texas, and the changing boundaries of San Antonio and Bexar County.

“(The maps and documents) vividly map the distinct changes that occurred in this state, and what happened in this state affected the whole United States,” said Bruce Shackelford, curator of South Texas heritage for the Witte. “For me, these are some of the great treasures of the great state of Texas.”

But the maps are also about “locating ourselves,” he added. When one looks at a map of today’s land versus one depicting the same land from 300 years ago, the contemporary map is more accurate and reflects the time and influences from which the community evolved.

“Like all of us, (maps) change with time, they change the way they look, they show technology and they show depictions of the land around us.”

According to Harkins, the exhibit marks the first public assembly of three of Stephen F. Austin’s most important maps. The Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, 1833-1837 depicts original land grants issued within Austin’s colony before, and later became a model for subsequent land ownership maps housed at the General Land Office. Its time in the exhibit will be the longest that Austin’s Connected Map will be physically out of the state’s hands since 1842, Harkins said.

Witte Museum staff carefully installs the Stephen F. Austin's Connected Map of Austin's Colony, 1833-1837. Photo courtesy of the Witte.
Witte Museum staff carefully installs the Stephen F. Austin’s Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, 1833-1837. Photo courtesy of the Witte.

“This may be the last time they’ll be shown together because some of them are so rare and in bad shape, and that’s after years of being rolled up in the archives just prior to over a hundred years ago,” he said.

Manuscript drafts of surveys of the Texas-U.S. Joint Boundary Commission will also be publicly shown for the first time in Mapping Texas. The three sheets, each measuring more than 14 feet wide, trace the Sabine River from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico to Logan’s Ferry in the north, near Logansport, Louisiana. Visitors can also view a second set of maps that follows the same commission’s survey from west of Logan’s Ferry to the Red River. The boundaries established in the surveys were formally recognized when Texas became a state in 1845.

Another map of plot properties across an early Bexar County contains one of the first official printed images of the state’s lone star flag.

It’s only fitting for the Witte to host this exhibit, Harkins said, considering the museum’s exploration of Texas and area heritage. The GLO is already working with the City to redevelop the Alamo Plaza area, and hopes for further collaboration with the Witte and the City, he said.

The Witte Museum's new "Mapping Texas" exhibit includes more than 40 rare maps, many revealed publicly for the first time. The exhibit runs April 29-Sept. 5. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
The Witte Museum’s new “Mapping Texas” exhibit includes more than 40 rare maps, many revealed publicly for the first time. The exhibit runs April 29-Sept. 5. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

“The Witte is a truly world-class institution and a jewel for the City of San Antonio, and for them to recognize the material archived in the General Land Office as worthy of prominent exhibit is truly humbling,” Harkins said. “We have always thought that the Texas history represented in our collection is fantastic and worth saving.”

These and other maps archived by the GLO, he added, “belong to the people of Texas and they shouldn’t be locked away and never seen again. They should be enjoyed by as many Texans as possible, and the Witte Museum allows that opportunity.”

The maps also provide perspective on the San Antonio’s growth as a city. Two particular maps displayed side-by-side, showing outward expansion from the center of town in the mid-1800s, demonstrate the city’s long-standing importance in Texas history, Shackelford said.

“San Antonio was the key to South Texas and, at one point, was the key to Texas,” he said. “It’s quite incredible to see what these people produced” and see their connection to the land where we are now.

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Considering the recent opening of the Mays Family Center, and ongoing renovations and expansion in part of the museum grounds, it’s impressive that the Witte is hosting such a prominent exhibit at this point in time, Harkins said.

“That they actually wanted something like Texas maps to be part of a great coming out part for the Witte, for the 21st century, is truly amazing,” he said.

The exhibit was impressive to others at Thursday’s press conference, including Witte employee Kathy Tamayo, who spent more than 30 years teaching history before joining the Witte staff.

“It really fascinates me, these maps showing how the different missions are laid out,” Tamayo said. “I love maps.”

Top image: The Witte Museum team inspects the Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, 1833-1837. Photo courtesy of the Witte.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.