Category Archives: Maps

History as voodoo

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation has started a potentially interesting new project examining some of the historical markers in Central New York. They have a Google map of markers started, and a list of good questions to ask about any markers you might encounter.

The study of history is supposed to enlarge one’s consciousness of reality, linking the past (and future) with the present. With the acquisition of more solid local knowledge, the mind’s eye can glance from 1981 to 1846 to 2072 in an instant. But in practice, creating historical memorials seems to often be more about limiting and controlling thoughts about this historical “space” we all live in.

Last week I was once again over by Cayuga Lake. Although the sour tang of the historical air there isn’t new to me, I got a fresh whiff of it when I started to notice how numerous and how well-kept the historical markers are over there. Especially as you get down near Aurora, there seems to be one on every other corner. I’ve never seen any other part of the state (except maybe in the Capital district) where they are so lovingly repainted and mowed around. People in Cayuga County want you to see their markers.

The other thing you notice is that not only are the “No Sovereign Nation – No Reservation” lawn signs as ubiquitous as ever, but they’re shiny and new. Even the well-to-do lakeside summer camp owners have them, something that always strikes me as particularly weird. The Cayugas are the only New York native nation who don’t have a reservation of their own, and they’re hardly rolling in serious dough (not like the Oneidas with Turning Stone), but I’ve always felt the palpable difference in the air when you’re in Cayuga country vs. Oneida country in terms of how disturbed the citizenry is about tax-free cigarettes and native land purchases.

The historical markers, I’m convinced, are there for the conservation of the present, not of the past. I call them “voodoo markers.” With protective magic, they glorify European and white American achievements, and help dispel the smoky miasma of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign which hit Cayuga country especially hard. (My favorite one is the marker on Route 90 that says “INDIAN MOUNDS” but then goes on only to speak of the Jesuits.) The campaign was both a tactical military expedition and a deliberate land grab — and “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” The land is still being fought over in some vague, half-forgotten way. Therefore, the markers have to be kept legible and numerous.

But honestly I can’t be too critical of Cayuga residents, because these markers can be pretty convenient after all. For example, Fairmount doesn’t have very many old buildings left. The oldest building, the former Whelan’s Funeral Home at Fairmount Corners, was once only narrowly saved from demolition (for a gas station) in the late ’60s. (It’s up for sale again.) The property sports an older historical marker which implies that the building was the home of James Geddes. This is probably incorrect, as his house was actually across the street.

So why don’t I care a whole lot? Because in a world where old buildings get knocked down, even a misleading historical marker grants a certain enhanced value to a property. It becomes its own sort of “voodoo marker,” offering a magical, deceptive protection. And it’s a deception that I’m inclined to give tacit approval of. I suppose the same magical protections can be extended by other kinds of historical markers, such as books about historical subjects. I guess we’re all a little guilty.

Welcome to Erie State

This unconventional Senate reapportionment map, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, would divide the U.S. into regions with more or less equal representation by population. As usual, upstate NY gets cut into pieces, but that’s not surprising.


CNY is handcuffed to WNY in this scenario, but I suppose worse things could happen. The name seems well chosen (resonating with Lake Erie as well as the Erie Canal), although the northern boundaries ignore CNY’s current media market, which does so much to foster a sense of regional identity. I’m not sure if the North Country belongs with “Northern New England,” but maybe it does.

Known unknowns

Bored? Feeling a little too proud of yourself? Want to feel stupid? Take this series of hardcore geography quizzes. I think in America we assume that a lot of people around the world have an inkling of where our 50 states are located. I’ll bet more foreigners know where U.S. states are located, than any of us know anything about theirs.

Incredibly sad that I got a higher score on the India quiz than on the Mexico quiz. (For those concerned about the war in Georgia, I recommend the Russia quiz.) To know what you don’t know; is that not knowledge?

Geography bee

The New York State Fair has a lot of competitions for kids, from dance to animal husbandry to even a spelling bee, but I wonder why they don’t hold a New York geography bee for kids at the fair. (Couldn’t be any more boring than some of the other stuff going on!) I was looking over a state map the other day planning another trip, and wow, there are a lot of places that have “twins” in other parts of the state – lots of opportunity for trick questions and competitive geekery. For example: Rensselaer, Rensselaerville, and Rensselaer Falls all being nowhere near each other. There’s a Cohocton, and a Cochecton – again, nowhere near each other. There’s Cortland, and Cortlandt Manor. And West Fulton, which is east of Fulton.

There’s also the curious case of Michigan, which when it comes to placenames, is sort of like a Bizarro Upstate New York. In Michigan, Lansing is a large city, while Ithaca is a small town. Aurelius is directly south of Lansing, as is Onondaga. Central New York is made of largely of placenames cribbed from the classics; central Michigan largely has placenames cribbed from Central and Western New York.