Florida Map Collection Lets You Travel Half A Millennium

A new exhibition at the Tampa Bay History Center in downtown Tampa does more than explore 500 years of Florida history through maps.  

It shows the world as European explorers once knew it through the lens of the Secunda Etas Mundi by Hartmann Schedel: a map of the world -- without the New World. It depicts the unknown into which Columbus sailed on his first voyage.

The exhibit, Charting the Land of Flowers: 500 Years of Florida Maps, includes 150 carefully chosen pieces that carry visitors through the five centuries since Florida got its name in 1513.

The whole project is thanks in no small part to Tampa Bay native and self-described cartophile, Tom Touchton, whose drive, passion and extraordinary personal collection of Florida maps, made the exhibit possible. 

The Man Behind The Maps

An investor and philanthropist, Touchton's interest in maps was sparked somewhat serendipitously. While traveling in England in the 1980s, he and his wife, Lee, were at a small antiques show in London and noticed the maps for sale. There, they bought their first map, a map of Canterbury, England.

"When we bought our first map and realized the combination of art and history that went with it, it immediately got both of us interested,'' recalls Touchton.

The very next day, already with the intention to collect maps, they visited a map dealer in London who happened to have a Florida map.  

"We recognized what a natural interest it would be to collect Florida maps since we both grew up here as did our parents. Florida is important historically, it is visually distinctive.''

They were hooked, and so began a 30-year odyssey of collecting Florida maps. As the collection grew over the years, the Touchtons realized that they had transitioned from being collectors to being fiduciaries of an important collection. Today the Touchton collection includes approximately 3,000 maps and other images.

It's "an incredibly impressive collection,'' says Rodney Kite Powell, the Tampa Bay History Center's curator.

If Touchton's name is familiar, it's probably because he also spearheaded the creation of the Tampa Bay History Center as its founding Board Chairman. The $52 million, 60,000-square-foot Center, one of only a handful of Smithsonian affiliates in Florida, opened in January 2009. It has been lauded as an architectural and curatorial triumph.

Putting It All Together

Several years in the making, the Florida map exhibit was put together by a team of 50 dedicated historians, researchers, framers, editors, etc. from around the globe -- each diligently piecing together 500 years of Florida stories, map by map. 

"Maps are very good at communicating visually,'' notes Touchton, who loves leading tours of the collection.

His zeal is contagious and the history embodied in the maps comes alive as he talks about them. He and Powell will be giving gallery talks during the course of the six-month show, the schedule will be listed on the Center's website. There also will be regular docent tours and group tours can be arranged ahead of your visit.

Although the majority of the exhibit draws from the Touchton collection, it is a significant collaborative effort including maps spanning the old and new worlds from American institutions, private collections, and British, Spanish and Italian libraries. 

The exhibit places Florida at the beginning of American history as the product of European exploration, contradicting the traditional textbook depictions of the discovery of America.

"Friends up north think Florida didn't have a history before Disney World,'' Touchton says while chuckling. "But Florida's history predates history in Virginia or New England. The more that is understood about Florida maps and the history that goes with them, the more Florida can be put into context.''

In fact, the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, studied by all American schoolchildren, did not arrive in Plymouth until 1620 -- more than a century after Florida was named and claimed by the Spanish who would rule Florida for 288 years, longer than the United States has been in existence.

Learning History Map By Map

The story begins with Ponce de Leon, who landed in St. Augustine in 1513 in search of territories and gold -- and later for his mythical search of the Fountain of Youth. His arrival coincided with Easter celebrations back home, known as la Pascua Florida in Spanish, which inspired his naming of the newly claimed land, La Florida.

Not long after, Panfilo de Narvaez set sail for Florida, landing on the west coast in 1528, ostensibly to explore and settle land for a permanent Spanish colony. Blinded by his ambition for gold, he set off northward through central Florida blazing a tumultuous and deadly trail that left only three of his original crew alive after a westward journey that ended in Mexico.

Hernando de Soto, made his way to Tampa Bay in 1539, and also went on to explore the interior north to the Carolinas and west to Mississippi. These explorers introduced cattle, oranges and swine to Florida. Moreover, these expeditions marked the first interior explorations by Europeans in what eventually became the continental United States. Note both journeys began in Tampa.

It is vivid and striking that this exhibit of Florida maps clearly tells the story that American history has its beginnings with Florida history.

"These are huge New World stories,'' says Touchton.

More Than A Timeline

The historical prospective the maps portray is fascinating, but there are other facets of the exhibit that are captivating, too.

The exhibit allows visitors to marvel at the vision and imagination of the cartographers. The early mapmakers impressively managed their designs without having a true understanding of longitude (longitude wasn't clarified until the mid-1700s) and often without ever having traveled to the New World. Geographical prospective evolved in the early maps -- that is, north was sometimes on the bottom of the map, south at the top. 

Touchton's favorite map in the show is an 1861 Seat of War map by John Bachmann showing a curved birds-eye view of Florida. Though this cartographer did not have the opportunity to fly overhead, he was able to visualize this perspective.

The maps introduce you to what for many years were West Florida and East Florida -- later the 14th and 15th colonies. West Florida extended all the way to the Mississippi River. A 1703 map shows the locations of the treasure fleets. A 1776 Theatre of War map with captions describes the colonies so that English leaders could make decisions during the Revolutionary War remotely without first hand knowledge of the terrain they were fighting over. Commissioned by Benjamin Franklin, a 1783 map depicts an understanding of the course and power of the Gulf Stream as a navigational and strategic force.

The collection includes the first map of the Florida railways, AAA roadmaps over the years and even the first map of Florida depicted from an airplane. The latter shows the runways that scored Miami Beach's sandy shores. The maps in the exhibit chart these "firsts'' and so much more. 

Visitors to the Tampa Bay History Center even will see the future of maps with a Google Earth display as a grand finale.

"It reflects the same spirit of first-hand knowledge of what's out there, what does it look like?'' Powell says. "We are not through, there is more to know and learn.''

Touchton is also preparing a comprehensive exhibition catalog that will be ready in 2014, a roughly 400-page publication that will include all of the images in the exhibit and chapters on each of Florida's five centuries. Although he admits he does have his eye on a long-term project creating a carto-bibliography of all known Florida maps, he says that once the catalog is off to the printers, he plans to "take some time off to do almost nothing.'' 

Kendra Langlie of Tampa is a freelance writer and cultural enthusiast. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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