‘Easter eggs’ in maps create scrambled destinations

Graham Southorn
Bristol 51° 27' 13.644" N, -2° 35' 30.048" E

It’s just possible that visitors to the US state of Colorado in the early 1970s might have been confused by a map. The official map of Boulder County depicted a peak in the Rocky Mountains, which straddled the Continental Divide and was named Mount Richard. But any sightseers would have struggled in vain to see it, because Mount Richard simply didn’t exist.

According to Mark Monmonier, Distinguished Professor of Geography in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, the mystery mountain was the work of a local draftsman, Richard Ciacci. “Mount Richard was on these maps for two years. I guess it’s one of these situations where somebody is unable to resist the temptation to name something after himself, or after a friend,” he speculates.


It’s just one example of the kind of map-related manipulation described in Monmonier’s book How To Lie With Maps. First published in 1991, it brought themes he’d explored in his academic work to a general audience. Its title was inspired by a short book by Darrell Huff, now acknowledged as a classic, on how data can deceive. “I recall using How To Lie With Statistics, which illustrates with some intriguing examples how data can be misinterpreted or exaggerated, and how this kind of blunder can be inadvertent and in some cases it can be deliberate,” says Monmonier.

Team towns

Another example of deliberately fabricated features in How To Lie With Maps is found in a 1979 road map for the US state of Michigan. In this case, the motive most likely wasn’t ego but what Monmonier refers to as harmless mischief. “I’m talking about two fictitious towns. The employee of the company making these roadmaps was a fan of the University of Michigan football team, and the colour of the team is blue. Their principal rival was Ohio State University (OSU) and so there were these two little labels on the map in lower case letters – one was ‘goblu’ and the other was ‘beatosu’,” explains Monmonier.


Putting features on maps when they’re absent in the real world is hardly a modern phenomenon. Centuries ago, when it was difficult and time-consuming to travel to far-flung locations, cartographers copied details from existing maps or gleaned information from returning ship captains. Sometimes, the information was unreliable. Such was the case with California, which was famously depicted on 17th century maps as an island. “Even after a Jesuit explorer had walked around the coastline and documented that it wasn’t an island, the myth went on for a long, long time,” says Monmonier. Indeed, Europeans were still drawing the island of California on maps until the 1770s.


A trap for pirates

Much later, there was a good reason for cartographers to add fictitious features: the law. Small ‘trap streets’ were deliberately inserted in areas where they were unlikely to confuse anyone, explains Monmonier. “They were not included in the index. The idea was that if another map publisher picked them up and put them on his product, it was evidence of copyright infringement.” But the practice of including trap streets is probably a thing of the past, at least in the US. “The interpretation of the copyright law changed in the 1990s. Facts could not be copyrighted and since fictitious streets were false facts, they also could not be copyrighted. Basically, the incentive for doing this disappeared,” he says.


Another group of people with a good reason to mislead with maps is the military. It’s much more common for military mapmakers to obscure or simply leave off anything that could be considered a target, rather than attempt any fakery. But there were exceptions. “An interesting example occurred in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, when there was a deliberate attempt to put things on the maps in the wrong place – for example, towns would be moved by maybe five miles. One interpretation of this was that it was an attempt to make the West believe that Soviet maps were not accurate.”

Ironically, it wasn’t just the fact that satellites were replacing spies on the ground and missions flown by spy planes that put paid to this practice. Economics played a part too. Having a second set of accurate maps was costly and time-consuming, both to produce and maintain. Merely restricting access to particular officials who needed to access the real maps was expensive.

Maps as invasion

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t alone in manipulating maps. In fact, there’s a long tradition of nations testing each others’ resolve by redrawing the borders between them. In his memoir, Adventures in Academic Cartography, Monmonier describes an 18th century spat over disputed territory in the New World. First, cartographer Guillaume Delisle drew boundaries that extended areas under French control at the expensive of England. He even included a mountain range, which turned out not to exist, on the basis of reports from a French explorer. England retaliated with a map by Emanuel Bowen, which extended the boundaries of English colonies westward as far as the Mississipi. “In the days before the revolution there was a lot of posturing - that’s one example of the fictitious claims you can find,” says Monmonier.


superior Lake Superior boasts a couple of new islands in this C18th map.


Where once it would have taken additional, often painstaking work to include fake features, now digital maps can incorporate hidden ‘Easter eggs’ just by changing a few lines of code. Recent examples have included fantastical modes of transport, such as a jetski for crossing the Pacific Ocean and a dragon to fly between Welsh mountain peaks. Today’s computer programmers are merely having a bit of fun, but Monmonier points out that such creative inclusions at least make you think about maps and the people that make them. “From a philosophical point of view, this has a use. It reminds people that maps are maybe not always as exact and precise and accurate and truthful as we like to believe.”

image credits: Stanford University, Michigan State University, Wikipedia

Topics: Cartography, Features