Crossing the Line

Visualization of the map of the Military Tract of Central New York by Simeon DeWitt, circa 1792



A single line on paper can project power and bring about devastation. American Spolia is a platform for the multiple sides of history to be made visible, acknowledged, and discussed.

In 1792 the future of Central New York was drawn with a quill pen on parchment paper at the scale of 1 inch to 1 mile. The Military Tract of Central New York map (part of Kroch Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, facsimile shown on the back), which is approximately 30 x 40 inches in size, established 28 townships and subdivided nearly two million acres of land into roughly square, 600-acre lots for settlement by the veterans of the American Revolution as payment for their service in the War for Independence. From the standpoint of settlers, this resulting collection of perpendicular lines imposed perceived order onto then unknown geological and cultural formation (Simeon DeWitt used this same strategy in Manhattan 20 years later in the famous 1811 Commissioners Plan). These lines also precipitated the violent dispossession of the indigenous peoples of what is now Central New York.

This structure spans one of the lines on DeWitt's map—the western boundary of subdivision No. 92 in the Township of Ulysses (#22). At 140 feet, American Spolia's span is the width of the ink line at full scale. The top of the structure references the flat sheet of paper onto which the original map was drawn, the bottom negotiates the natural topography of the slope. The grassy meadow on the slope below will become a full-scale projection of a segment of the north-south ink line running directly through Libe Slope towards Falls and Cascadilla creeks.

All of us living, working, and studying in the Finger Lakes region are affected by the 1792 DeWitt map, a drawing that was undoubtedly instrumental in laying out the path of development of Central New York as we now know it, but that also played a major part in the assault on the sovereignty of this area’s indigenous population—the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations of Iroquois). Dewitt's stroke of a pen placed national power on the side of the settlers and the last two centuries of the area’s history was written from their perspective. The ancient Greek and Roman names given to these new townships (i.e. Ulysses, now Ithaca) erased many of the indigenous names in public records/maps in the process. A military force, led by General John Sullivan, was sent by George Washington to both survey the area and destroy the livelihood of the indigenous population. The quotes on either side of this structure refer to that event. Despite subsequent (and still disputed) treaties, two large reservations on the original DeWitt map shrunk dramatically in the following decades (and by the time of the 1830 New York State Atlas, one of them, Cayuga Reservation, was not shown at all). The struggle of the native populations of this land continues to this day.

The ancient Romans, whose names these lands still bear today, marked their conquests by erecting temporary arches composed of the spoils, or spolia. This installation, constructed out of two centuries of debris from the colonial settlement of Central New York, is a representation of a past that many now take for granted and that still brings pain and suffering to many more. 

1] In 1792 New York State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt created the iconic map of the Military Tract of Central NY and subsequently dispatched surveyors on the ground to implement it. The grid of 28 largely square townships, drawn with a thick quill pen over crude previous maps of NYS, established what is now known as Central NY.  Each township was in turn divided into and 600-acre parcels, which were given to soldiers and officers in the Continental Army for their services in the War of Independence of the United States.  Thus, the act of gridding the terrain relates directly to the birth of this nation. Yet as nation was born, others were uprooted. Before and during the survey, military expedition of general Sullivan destroyed most of the Iroquois (Six nations) settlements in the area, and following subsequent (and often disputed) treaties two large Native American reservations on the original DeWitt map shrunk dramatically by 1830’s (Cayuga Reservation disappeared completely). The struggle of the native populations of this land against erasure started by the Military tract continues to this day. 

The original project description of American Spolia: Crossing the Line, contained language that was offensive to Native American communities. The description has been modified to what is above, and what follows is a statement of apology from the artist.

Statement of apology:

American Spolia: Crossing the Line, was conceived as a vehicle for understanding drawing (mapping) as an act of projection of power, and as a platform for the Cornell community to recognize the consequences of one particular drawing—the ca. 1792 Central New York Military Tract by Simeon DeWitt—in the history of Central New York.

In the process, the artist and Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) were reminded that language, like drawing, has power, and that the written description of the project must be as thoughtfully constructed as the work itself, even more so in a digital age when text is easily detached from the visual context. The artist and CCA are grateful to those who took the time to make them aware of the problematic nature of the original published text, and acknowledge that the unintended use of language in the initial versions of the project description—in particular the words "disappearance of a nation"—was deeply offensive and painful to indigenous communities for which the artist and CCA sincerely apologize.

The artist would like to acknowledge that the intention of the work was to honor the biennial theme of empathy. The execution of the project description, however, inadvertently did not honor that intention. Recognizing this and the fact that lines drawn by Simeon DeWitt some 200 years ago continue to cause trauma to indigenous people to this day, the artist welcomes collaboration with the Native American Student Association of Cornell (NASAC) on a project description that includes the voices and narrative of the Haudenosaunee people.


Aleksandr Mergold, AIA, LEED AP
Assistant Professor
AAP Department of Architecture
Cornell University

* revised 10/3/16



PROJECT BY: Aleksandr Mergold

COLLABORATORS: Aaron Goldstein, Andrew Fu, Sasson Rafailov, and Andrew T. Wong.

CREDITS: Maria Goula (associate professor, Landscape Architecture) and landscape architecture students Theresa Ruswick, Wenjun Xu, Alice Sturm, and Nicolas Grefenstette. Special thanks to Ahmed Khan and student of Design Plan 3.0 option studio.

SPONSORS: Research supported by New York State Council for the Arts. Installation supported by Unistrut International Corporation and Hub's Antiques of Ithaca.

Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) | Website
Austin+Mergold LLC | Website
Department of Architecture | Website
New York State Council on the Arts | Website
New York State Library | Website
The Architectural League of New York | Website
UNISTRUT | Website