In late January 1966, a man was found dead on Washington Mall in a mid-season blizzard. He had no family, left no will, and despite being 83, was on his way to work when he died. This man was Francis J. Marschner, one of Minnesota’s greatest known map makers. Never heard of him? Well, don’t feel too bad. F.J. Marschner had never even been to Minnesota.
If you recall, a couple of months ago, our Government Records Specialist blogged about the original land survey notes we have in our collection. These are the notes that the original surveyors wrote as they trudged across Minnesota 150 years ago. The information in these notes is priceless; it paints a picture of what the land looked like on the fringes of European settlement, describing prairies, pine forests, and great bogs. If you want to study land change at a local level, these notes are invaluable. But to get a picture of the whole State, one would need to stitch together thousands of maps and hundreds of thousands of descriptions – a feat for even a computer today. Well, between 1929 and 1931, Marschner took on such a task. From a desk in Washington, he went through the notes, word by word, and constructed a map of pre-settlement vegetation for the whole state of Minnesota.
A full-size copy of this map is now housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. It stands just under 5 feet tall in brilliant color. With a glance at it you can see a wide swath of yellow prairie on the western front. Anyone who has heard of the grasshopper plagues that devastated Minnesota’s croplands in the late 1800s will get a quick sense why. You can also see the great abundance of hard woods that once filled South Central Minnesota, and the areas of bogs that have been now filled in.
While we are quick to see the how European presence and industrialization strongly changed the land, we don’t get a complete picture with this map. We don’t see land prior to changes made by American Indians. We see only what was captured by the surveyors on the day they recorded it. If there had been a windstorm or a recent fire this could have affected their notes, as would the high price of land containing White Pine. It is important to remember that any map represents the moment of its creation and the experience of the mapmaker.
In recent years, The MN Department of Justice, Department of Transportation and Department of Agriculture have made digital copies of the map. With new mapping technologies, Marschner’s old map can now be overlaid atop satellite images. Check out an overlay of the Minneapolis/St Paul airport. You’ll see that the land was once predominately prairie and deciduous hardwood forests. Imagine. Though F.J. Marschner died without ever seeing the beauty of Minnesota he described, his work lives on in this fabulous map, the Marschner Map of Original Vegetation.
Curator of G.I.S. and Digital Maps