Gallery Projects , , , , , , , , ,

A Fine and Fertile Country: How America Mapped its Meals

Lena Denis
Harvard Map Collection

Danielle Brown
Harvard Map Collection

A Fine and Fertile Country

Gallery Project Statement

In every endeavor from lawmaking to warfare, the wellbeing of farms and farmers has been critically important to the United States. Although many migrated to and within North America with the hope of “fine and fertile country,” the truth of food was more complicated. Historic maps show the sobering displacement of Native Americans and the use of chattel slavery to scale up pre-industrial agriculture, both explicitly and through glaring omissions. Cartographic representations of American agriculture held at the Harvard University Map Collection, ranging from the colonial period to current GIS data, demonstrate how food production determined borders and other markers of national identity. The history of finding and farming food in the United States is a story of culture and convenience, capitalism and cattle drives. From November 2018 to March 2019, the Map Collection held an exhibition entitled A Fine and Fertile Country: How America Mapped its Meals, to show and discuss this history. Simultaneously, we built ESRI StoryMaps to give a digital version of the exhibition, as well as to highlight details and link additional information in creative ways allowed by a digital format. While the technological methods have changed over time, we use the example of food to show how deeply entrenched the practice is of manipulating geographic data nostalgically not only to justify an imperialist past, but also to attempt to redress it. We continue this process ourselves, not to solidify the narrative told by these cartographic resources, but to break it apart for critical examination. We invite you to challenge your conceptions of America’s “amber waves of grain.”