The “Bonanza” Map: A Fictitious Place With Very Real Staying Power

For about a week, a map has been hanging in the Imagination Gallery at the Autry that is famous around the world. And yet, it marks a place that doesn’t exist.

An iconic map of an iconic place — The Ponderosa Ranch (Autry Collections Photo)

The map is of the Ponderosa, the rambling Nevada ranch that was the setting for Bonanza, one of the most successful television Western series ever. NBC audiences from September 1959 to February 1973 saw this map every week in the opening credits of the Paramount Television show. It would appear briefly before it burst into flames, dissolving into a shot of all four members of the Cartwright family, astride their horses, as the memorable theme played.

“We’re talking 14 seasons, 431 episodes,” said Jeffrey Richardson, associate curator of western history and popular culture at the Autry. “Just those numbers alone are staggering. But at the beginning of every single episode, and the theme song that so many people can hum, it all began with a shot of this particular map.”

The show starred Lorne Greene (1915–1987) as widowed father Ben Cartwright; Pernell Roberts (1928–2010) as urbane Adam Cartwright, the oldest son; Dan Blocker (1928–1972) as soft-​hearted Eric “Hoss”

A book based on the landmark “Bonanza” television series (Autry Collections Photo)

Cartwright, the middle son; and Michael Landon (1936–1991) as the hot-​headed youngest son. The series, mostly shot in a studio, was known more for its family dramas and for addressing contemporary themes than for western vistas and traditional cowboy action story lines.

“That was the number one show for several years on television,” Richardson said. “A lot of families would gather around the television …. Seeing the map was the start of one of their favorite hours of the week.”

The Ponderosa map, correctly oriented. In the gallery, it looks as it did on the show (Autry Illustration)

The map is a beauty, hand-​drawn in intense colors for Bonanza creator David Dortort by Robert Temple Ayres, a company employee. But it has a flaw.

When Ayres drew the map, he evidently thought that a fictional ranch didn’t need a terribly accurate map. So he drew Reno to the west of Carson City. Dortort noticed.

“They put it together; they brought it to David Dortort; he looked at it,” Richardson said. “He said, ‘I love it, but your directions are wrong.’”

Looking at it as it was designed, the map shows Reno to the west of Carson City. In reality, Reno sits to the north. To fix it, Ayres drew a compass. But instead of the north arrow pointing straight up as on most maps, it goes off in a vaguely west-​northwest direction. To look at the map in its correct orientation, one would have to flip it on its side, with the “horn” of the property pointing upward.

“To justify the inaccurate locations the way they had them drawn, they had to slant the compass a different way,” Richardson

The Better Selling Point: A promotional image for Bonanza showcasing the bright colors of the Ponderosa. David Dortort Collection, Autry Library, Autry National Center; T2006-88–1 (Autry Collections)

said. “It was too late at that particular time in 1959 for them to redo the map, because again, it was hand-​drawn, and they were going to start shooting the opening sequence.”

So is the Ponderosa a real place? Certainly Reno, Virginia City, Carson City and Lake Tahoe are. There was the Ponderosa Ranch, a shoot location where some of the filming was done. And Richardson said there was, for some years, a theme park where the Ponderosa would have been. But mainly, it lives in the American imagination.

Richardson said Dortort donated his papers to the Autry about two years ago.

“The archive had been housed at the Autry for several years prior to that,” Richardson said. “The family made the decision to donate the archive to the Autry while Dortort was still alive. A few key pieces, David Dortort held onto, the map being one of those key pieces. The map was in his condo here in Los Angeles and he held on to this.”

When Dortort died in September 2010, the family decided to complete the gift by donating the objects Dortort had kept at his home, including the map.

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.