Masters of All They Surveyed. Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (review)
Karl H. Offen
Journal of Latin American Geography
Bravo) boundary work that created so many difficulties for both commissions. The premise for mapping what is now the current United States and Mexico border was, of course, the conflict between the two countries and the subsequent loss by Mexico of a great part of national territory. Rebert, although careful not to stretch the importance of this loss, provides a balanced context for understanding how painful the loss of this territory was for Mexico. Despite the low concentration of Mexican
... onals established "north" of the current border, the Southwestern Borderlands had long been occupied by indigenous peoples, Spanish settlers, and the "mestizo" society so prevalent in the core of Mexico. The presence, and absence, of those settlements was of crucial importance in the mapping of the border region. On more than one occasion, errors were made that excluded or trapped Mecxican towns on the US side of the border. The greatest challenge to both commissions was mapping and understanding the changing nature and morphology of the Río Grande (Río Bravo del Norte) in establishing the boundary between the two countries. On more than one occasion surveyors tore their hair out, as shifting watercourses and sand breaks created serious discrepancies in field maps, sometimes on a daily basis. Such difficulties are portrayed by Rebert concisely in the example of El Chamizal, a Mexican community that ended upon the US side of the border because of the Río Grande's shifting water channels. Rare still in this case was that the Mexican map of the area was recognized as the only authentic and original map. Rebert's final chapter analyzes the importance of the US-Mexican boundary, on both legal and physical terms. The author is able to portray the political implications of map interpretations, and how later jurisprudence regarded the physical boundary as paramount, even when mapping errors had occurred. Further notes, an appendix on map authorities, and 45 maps accompany the text as supplement for the interested reader. While the representations of historical maps are greatly appreciated, and are works of art in their own right, the small format of this book is a disadvantage in portraying such huge stretches of territory and terrain. This volume will be of interest mainly to historians of cartography, border scholars, and historians interested in the matter of political boundaries. The devil of cartographic details inherent in such a text will most likely fend off use by undergraduates. This reviewer, however, does plan on using several sections in a field methods class, to illustrate how difficult field mapping was in the past, and what techniques were typical at the time the border was created.