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Map Quest

Ever wanted to own an old, hand-tinted map of terra incognita, lovingly bordered with colorful savages and sea monsters? Believe it or not, such treasures remain readily available, says Dr. Joseph H. Fitzgerald, collector extraordinaire and founder of the Miami Map Fair.

At a Valentine's Day seminar at the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts in Fort Lauderdale, he'll chart his insights on how maps are made, how to tell if they're real or fake, and what to buy if you're interested in starting a collection. Why do people collect maps? According to Fitzgerald, maps are a "nice combination between a visual image and a record of history."

Fitzgerald's talk accompanies the current exhibition at the Bienes Center, "Florida: The Making of a State, a Cartographic Adventure." In a series of three dozen beautifully drawn maps, the exhibit traces the origins of the state -- although the oldest map of the New World, done in 1500 by Portuguese Juan de la Cosa, who sailed with Columbus on his second voyage of 1493-96, shows Cuba but not Florida.

A 1584 map, "La Florida," is the first known printing of a map of a North American region, though Spanish claims extended far beyond what this map shows; it focuses on that portion of the state penetrated by Hernando de Soto in 1539-43. And it might seem strange that the Dutch would produce their own map of Florida, done in 1631 by Joan Vinckeboons, but the Dutch West India Company had trading posts and agricultural colonies extending from Hudson Bay to the Netherlands Antilles.

It was not until 1786 that a chart of the Gulf Stream was done, even though Ponce de Leon had discovered the current in 1513. Benjamin Franklin, then deputy postmaster general, became concerned that mail from England to New York took considerably longer to arrive than mail on ships sailing a more northerly course to Rhode Island. The "rediscovery" of the Gulf Stream and its subsequent mapping was the result of Franklin's interest. In 1823, the English produced the first map of the "United States Territory of Florida" shortly after it was ceded by Spain. On this map, the future Miami was indicated by the names "Cape Florida Settlement" and "Key Biscayne Bluff."

Perhaps the most interesting map in the collection is the "Map of the seat of war in Florida," done in 1839. By the late 1830s, Florida's coastline and northern tier had been well-surveyed and well-mapped, but the southern interior, home of the Seminole Nation, was still unknown. When the Army of the South, under Gen. Zachary Taylor, was ordered to remove the Seminoles for transfer to the West, the mapmakers of the Corps of Topographical Engineers went along. Forerunners to the Army Corps of Engineers, they were a small, elite Army unit of West Point graduates formed during the War of 1812 to map the American frontier.

Having succumbed to the allure of the maps in the Florida exhibition, now what? Most people collect maps at least 100 years old, says Fitzgerald, and 1800s maps are still "quite affordable." Older than that, you'd better have deep pockets.

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Tomi Curtis

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