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[Detail] Mediolanensis dvcatvs from the atlas [1570].

Collection Overview

Composed of selected Americana and cartographic treasures of the Library of Congress, Map Collections has seven major categories: cities and towns, conservation and environment, discovery and exploration, Cultural Landscape, military battles and campaigns, transportation and communication, and general maps. Within these categories, there are smaller collections: Panoramic Maps, Mapping the National Parks, Maps of Liberia, and Railroad Maps.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Colonial Settlement, 1492-1763
  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

Maps are assigned to one of seven major categories. Searching Map Collections describes the categories and how to find maps within each category.

Note that entire collections may be subsets of a category. For example, the Transportation and Communication category contains individual maps and the entire Railroad Maps collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Subject Index, Creator Index, and Geographic Location.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

Map Collections brings Americana and cartographic treasures of the Library of Congress online, covering approximately four hundred years of map making. Students can study maps from seven theme categories to learn about the changing face of America and the evolution of map-making techniques throughout history: Cities and Towns, Conservation and Environment, Discovery and Exploration, Cultural Landscape, Military Battles and Campaigns, Transportation and Communication, and General Maps. Within these categories there are links to other collections: Panoramic Maps, 1847-1929, Mapping the National Parks, Maps of Liberia, and Railroad Maps.

1) Cities and Towns

This category includes maps that cover everything from individual buildings to panoramic views of large urban areas. These maps record the development of American cities and include individual maps as well as a collection of Panoramic Maps, 1847-1929.

Search on L'Enfant or use the Cities and Towns Maps Title List to locate L'Enfant's 1791 Manuscript Plan of the city of Washington.

Students can study the development of the nation's capital using Pierre Charles L'Enfant's historic 1791 plan for Washington, D.C. Using the National Park Service site on the National Mall, students can compare today's mall with L'Enfant's original plan.

2) Conservation and Environment

These historic and recent maps document changes in recreational and wilderness areas as well as the growth and development of U.S. National Parks.

The maps of Yellowstone found within the Mapping the National Parks collection show how individual explorers and map makers influenced that national park. For example, between 1870 and 1878, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden conducted a United States Geological Survey of Yellowstone. With him were William Henry Jackson as official photographer and Thomas Moran as accompanying artist. Their work from the expedition was publicized in the East and helped spur designation of Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.

Search on Hayden to find maps of the Yellowstone region made under his direction.


3) Discovery and Exploration

This category documents the European discovery and exploration of the Americas. Many of the maps reflect the Age of Discoveries (fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) when Europeans focused on drawing outlines of the continents they explored and on mapping coastal areas and major waterways. This category also includes eighteenth and nineteenth century maps that document exploration of the interior of continents and the work of government explorers and surveyors.

Search on Clark or use the Discovery and Exploration Maps Title List to find the map shown above documenting Lewis and Clark's track. This map can serve as a springboard for research about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Using the bibliographic record, students can find information about when the expedition occurred, what the expedition route was, who made the map, and when the map was created.

4) Cultural Landscape

This section includes census maps and land-ownership records that reveal the ethnic origins of settlement areas as well as maps that record the establishment of farmsteads and villages. This category also contains the "American Colonization Society Collection of Maps of Liberia".

Search on George Washington or review the Cultural Landscape Maps Title List to find this map of George Washington's property adjacent to his Mt. Vernon residence.

Students can use this map to launch research on the nation's first president. Students might locate the Potomac river (spelled Potomack on this map). Students might then use the bibliographic record of the map to discover that Washington himself was the map maker and to determine Washington's age when he made the map.


5) Military Battles and Campaigns

This category includes maps of major military conflicts. The maps show troop movements, defensive structures and groundworks, roads to and from battle sites, campsites, local surroundings, and information about Native American settlements. Some maps were drawn on the battlefield, while others were engraved after conflicts ended. Notes on the maps often tell the history of battles or campaigns.

Students can use this category to study maps of the Revolutionary War. From the Military Battles and Campaigns Maps Title List, select maps with dates ranging from 1776 through 1783 (when the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War). For example, students might discover a 1775 map of Boston and its environs.

6) Transportation and Communication

The maps in this category document the development of national, state, and local transportation and communication systems. Transportation maps show canal and river systems, cycling routes, railways, roads, and traffic patterns. Communication maps illustrate telegraph routes, telephone systems, and radio coverage. This category contains individual maps and the Railroad Maps Collection.

Search on telegraph or review the Transportation/Communication Maps Title List to find Telegraph Stations in the United States.

This map, made just nine years after the first successful telegraph message was sent, can help students study the growth of telecommunications in the United States. Students might examine the map to locate states with the greatest number of telegraph stations and then answer questions such as:

  • Why do these states have more telegraph stations than others?
  • Why is only the east coast shown?

Students might compare the rate chart at the left of the map to current long distance telephone and Internet access charges.

7) General Maps

General maps portray geographic areas larger than cities or towns. A wide variety of historic and current regional, state, country, and world maps is included. These maps show change within a region throughout time as well as the development of the map-making process.

Students can look carefully at historical atlases in the collection and compare them with an atlas of today. Search on atlas or explore the Special Presentation on "Atlases" to find maps drawn and hand colored in the sixteenth century. Students might then discuss questions such as:

  • Are there recognizable countries in these atlases? How do they differ from those in the current atlas?
  • Are there any countries missing?
  • What features are in the historical atlases that you do not see in the current images?


Critical Thinking

Using Map Collections, students can build historical-thinking skills through the study of maps and their features.

1) Chronological Thinking

The city of Chicago, ca. 1892 (detail)

The city of Chicago, ca. 1892 (detail)

Using the Cities and Towns category, students can launch local history projects that develop chronological thinking skills. Search for maps of a city or state from different periods, then compile a list of changes over time as shown by the maps. For example, students might search on Chicago and find these three panoramic maps:

Using the mouth of the Chicago River as a reference point, students might answer questions such as:

  • Between 1868 and 1916, how did harbor buildings and shipping traffic change at the mouth of the Chicago River?
  • How do you think the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 might have affected the harbor?

2) Historical Comprehension

Students can begin to comprehend how settlement of and sovereignty over places affect the content of maps throughout history. For example, students might study the map The United States of America Laid Down from the Best Authorities, Agreeable to the Peace of 1783 which was drawn the year the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War.

Ask students to find evidence of British rule in place names (such as Williamsburg, Baltimore, Lancaster). Ask students to find evidence of Native American settlements in place names (such as Chingoteak Island, Pocomoak Bay, Potoromack River) and to research how these names have changed over time. Students might also discover the absence of Washington, D.C., on the map, and discuss how American self-government would change features of the map in the future.


3) Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Students can analyze A Map of Lewis & Clark's Track. . . to find a record of the explorers' encounters with Native Americans. For example, students might study the map to find notations made on the map regarding Native-American customs and activities. Examples of handwritten notes found on this map are: "Between these Rivers the different Bands of SIOUX meet every Spring to trade with each other and the white Traders who visit them," and "Here the different tribes meet in Friendship and collect Stone for Pipes."

Students might consider why Lewis and Clark recorded this information and then research the history of the tribes as other peoples moved west. Students could discuss how Lewis and Clark's expedition influenced the lives of Native Americans they encountered. Search on Indian for later maps that reflect resettlement of native peoples by the U.S. Government.

4) Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision Making

Students can launch a number of research projects using the bibliographic records and content of maps they uncover in this rich collection. For example, students might search on United States Territory West to find this 1858 map of the Western territory.

Students can study the thorough bibliographic record for the map to investigate questions such as:

  • For what president was Jefferson Davis Secretary of War in the 1850s?
  • Why would Davis order such a map?
  • What did railroads have to do with defense at the time?

5) Historical Research Capabilities

Set the following scene for students: "You are a railroad magnate who must plan for railroad expansion in the state of your choice. Using the Subject Index for the Transportation and Communication map category, select a state railroad map and find the capital city. Next, research the state and city at the time the map was made."

Students should find the answers to the following questions:

  • What were the key industries?
  • What were the important surrounding states and cities?
  • What competing modes of transportation existed?
  • Where were the railroads at the time?

Or, a student might take on the role of mayor of a town that does not have a train station and the task of persuading the railroad company to bring the trains to the town.


Arts & Humanities

Map Collections can form the basis for lively reading, discussion, and creative writing activities. Using the collection, students can hone their understanding of places and times in history while they develop their language arts skills.

1) Literature

Read aloud or have students read about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Use this Lewis and Clark map to locate places described in the literature. Using the books and map, have students write an essay about or discuss the question: "What was the most important contribution of the Lewis and Clark expedition?" (Examples of important contributions might include: mapping the West and opening it for new settlement, documenting Western flora and fauna, and making contact with Native Americans.)

2) Journal Writing

Using this map of California roads for cyclers, have students plan a trip. Students will need to research place names in other resources to write journal entries for key stops along the way. For example, students might describe the natural and man-made surroundings, the people they met, or the transportation they used.

3) Descriptive Writing

Ask students to select a person from the "American Colonization Society" section of the Special Presentation found in America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotypes, 1839-1864. This person will become their research subject. Next, have students review the Special Presentation "History Of Liberia: A Time Line," and compare the dates of their subject to the time line. Finally, have students search on Liberia in the Map Collections to find a relevant map that matches the dates of their subject.

Using the materials they have selected, have students write a postcard from their subject's point of view. The postcard might answer questions such as:

  • What was it like to settle in Liberia?
  • How was life in Liberia different from life in the United States?
  • What were daily life and duty like for their subject?

Students can also search on colonization or Liberia in African American Perspectives, 1818-1907, for viewpoints on the colonization movement.