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Exploring the National Parks in the Geography and Map Division

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As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this month, there is no better time to highlight the Geography and Map Division’s special Digital Collection “Mapping the National Parks.” This curated collection includes nearly 200 maps, dating from the 17th century to the present, covering national parks and areas that in the future would become national parks. The particular focus of the collection is on four of our nation’s most popular and historically significant parks: Yellowstone National Park, Acadia National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The maps are diverse in their intended purposes, covering geological studies, military activities, transportation, and other uses.

In addition to showcasing the exquisite maps themselves, the “Mapping the National Parks” Digital Collection also includes several essays that provide rich historical background and insights into the National Park System, the four national parks that serve as the focus of the collection, and the developments in exploration, geography, and cartography that have shaped our understandings of these celebrated natural treasures. A resource for educators, map aficionados and national park enthusiasts alike, our essays by Patricia Molen van Ee and Elizabeth U. Mangan include:

Brief History of the National Parks: There is perhaps no better way to understand a national park at its complete scale than with a map. With a large historical collection of maps, we can see how national parks, a distinctly “American innovation” borne out of the conservation movement of the nineteenth century, have changed over time and how we as a society perceive their environmental, recreational, and educational value. This essay briefly describes the history of the National Park System and its intrinsic links to geography and mapping.

Maps of Acadia National Park: Acadia National Park had many firsts as a national park: it was the first park east of the Mississippi River, the first along a coastline, and the first to be donated to the federal government from private landowners who purchased the land expressly for preservation for the public’s good. Former Geography and Map Division scholar and Specialist in American Cartography Patricia Molen van Ee details the history of the park as traced through maps of the United States Geological Survey and the National Park Service.

Acadia National Park
“Topographic Map, Acadia National Park, Hancock County, Maine” by U.S. Geological Survey. 1931. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Maps of Grand Canyon National Park: Patricia Molen van Ee recounts the long history of the Grand Canyon through maps. Early explorers of the western reaches of the North American continent largely avoided the Grand Canyon area due to its remoteness and rugged terrain. However, through the 1800s, surveying and mapping expeditions investigating new U.S. territorial expansions and the navigability of the Colorado River led to greater understandings of the Grand Canyon’s geography as well as its natural beauty. After a surprisingly lengthy process of political wrangling, the Grand Canyon became fully preserved as a national park in 1919.

Grand Canyon
“Map of Grand Canyon National Park” by National Park Service (U.S.). 1926. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Maps of Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country, encompasses an area of the broader Appalachian Mountains that was first inhabited by Cherokee Indians around 1000 AD. As Patricia Molen van Ee describes, much of what we know today about the history of the Great Smoky Mountains has been derived from historical maps of the region, authored by early European explorers, westward-moving American settlers, geological expeditioners, U.S. government surveyors, and others.

Great Smoky Mountains
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee, trail map” by National Park Service (U.S.). 1990. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Yellowstone, the First National Park: Former Head of the Technical Services Section of the Geography and Map Division Elizabeth U. Mangan recounts the founding of Yellowstone National Park, our country’s first national park and, still to this day, one of its most celebrated. In particular, Mangan describes the important contributions of Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a late-19th century explorer who led an expedition to the Yellowstone area to study the region’s geology and geography and relay the expedition’s findings to the U.S. congress. Hayden’s expedition and his subsequent lobbying for the area’s preservation would ultimately secure Yellowstone as the Nation’s first national park in 1872.

“Yellowstone” by National Park Service (U.S.). 1972. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Related Resources: This list of resources include links to other Library of Congress collections outside of the Geography and Map Division related to National Parks, as well as a bibliography of academic resources useful to the study of National Parks.


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