The unusual story of the Cowboy Cartographer who loved California~4 min read
The “Renaissance Man of the West” collected history, geography, and personal details into his maps of different parts of California. His name was Jo Mora, and he poured the state’s whole history, including also his own life, into his incredibly detailed, extravagants maps.
Joseph Jacinto Mora knew all the dogs in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. For example, he knew Bess, a friendly brown mutt who hung out at the livery stables, but also Bobby Durham, a pointy-eared rascal who did his own shopping at the butcher’s. He knew Captain Grizzly, an Irish terrier who went to town with his muzzle and having convinced a gentlemen stranger into taking it off. If you see Mora’s map of the town, that was first printed in 1942, it’s possible know also the town dogs of that era. The dogs are all listed in a column on the right side, carefully described and illustrated, and seems so “normal” between those items that would be more inclined to appear on a map like streets, point of interests or the compass rose. But on his particular map, also the “normal” elements weren’t so “normal” either. The streets appears with their tiny houses, and both the land and sea are strewn with busy people. Also the compass rose is unusual: she is rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, and is helmed by a painter, a performer, a writer, and a musician.
Jo Mora was born in Uruguay in 1876. When he was four years old, his father, the sculptor Domingo Mora, moved the whole family to Massachusetts. He went to art school in New York City (according to him, as he later wrote, a place full of precipitous sided canyons and underground burrows), then he worked as an illustrator for the Boston Herald, drawing scenes from the day’s news. He was always interested in the American West, and even as he was getting his degree, he was spending long periods on the other side of the country. So, he worked as a cowboy in Texas, and rode on horseback from Baja, Mexico up to San Jose. He lived in a Hopi and Navajo community for two-and-a-half years taking photographs, and painting watercolors of Kachina dances. By 1907, he had officially moved to California, settling in Mountain View with his wife, Grace Alma Needham. Over the course of his life, he known sculpture, painting, and coin design. His first published map was the Monteray Peninsula, commissioned as part of a local history book.
Some people have called him the “Renaissance Man of the West”, and over the course of his life collected history, geography, and personal details into a series of maps of different parts of California. He was well-known in his time and has produced maps which have told different stories to more persons, in fact are sufficient a few minutes looking one of his maps for understand his era, and his own worldview. Someone definied his maps like magnets, with a number people just get totally absorbed in looking at them. Jo Mora referred to his maps as “cartes”, probably based on the derivation from “cartography”. The maps tells pieces about the history of California, acknowledges the different eras and the groups of people who shaped the state like Native Americans, Spanish missionaries or Anglo prospectors. But they’re also often steeped in one particular moment, full of inside jokes and local color.
In his 1942 map of Los Angeles, pictured below, the top strip is dedicated to detailed illustrations of Franciscan friars, and vaqueros on horses. A lion dances in the Griffith Park Zoo, and the Hollywood Bowl is a giant dining bowl, with two spoons. For the railroad rate wars of the 1880s, two bug-eyed train engines fight with boxing gloves. To illustrate the city’s increasing popularity, he draws different women, each dressed in the style of their era, inflating massive balloons with population numbers on them.
Some maps were commissioned, usually by businessmen who had an interest in drawing people to a particular area, and people were willing to spend 50 cents on them at a time when money was hard for everybody. Jo Mora died in 1947, and he made about a dozen maps.