‘Minnesota on the Map’

Sesquicentennial / book

Geographer explores state’s history

By Tom Weber

David Lanegran went on a treasure hunt and ended up writing a book.


"I found some maps I didn’t know existed," said Lanegran, a professor of geography at Macalester College, and co-author of "Minnesota on the Map," a sesquicentennial look at how Minnesota has appeared and been portrayed on maps. "It was great fun."

For any geographer, the chance to dig up old maps and write about them would be like a holiday. After all, said Lanegran, "I’m a geographer and a geographer can’t be without maps."

For much of Minnesota’s history, maps have been essential to practically everyone living in the state, not just geographers. From the days of frontier wilderness to the modern urban landscape, a map has been important for people trying to find their way around Minnesota.

Dozens of those maps are shown and analyzed in "Minnesota on the Map," The maps include early city plans of Rochester, Red Wing, Preston, Wasioja and the lost town of Beaver in the Whitewater valley. There are state highway maps, early plat book maps, maps showing the growth of cities, picture maps designed to attract tourists, and maps of projects that never came to be.

"A lot of our maps in Minnesota are about conquering the landscape, taking control," Lanegran said. "They say, ‘Let’s see how we can make this place ours.’"

That, after all, reflects how the state’s residents viewed their world. "Maps give you a good idea of what people thought," Lanegran said.

Maps are also subject to editing in ways that can slant or even hide information.

"The map makers tell you what they think is important," Lanegran said. "Maps do need interpretation. They’re not scientific works. They’re created by people who have an end in sight. We can tell a lot of lies with maps."


One thing Minnesota — or most of the rest of the U.S. — doesn’t have is the sort of high quality maps produced in Europe and Asia. "It’s frustrating to be an American geographer and see what they produce in Korea or Japan or Switzerland," Lanegran said.

"In Europe, people get out of the car and walk around a lot, with maps," he said. "We shifted to a car-oriented society, and the highway maps we have are made to a certain scale for driving."

Still, even rudimentary maps, with their colors and cartography, can be viewed as portable art.

"Maps invite you to touch them, and you can’t do that with other works of art," Lanegran said.

Book notes

"Minnesota on the Map" by James Lanegran, with the assistance of Carol Urness, is published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press at $34.95 (hardcover).

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