The following post is adapted from an essay written by Richard W. Stephenson, former Specialist in American Cartographic History at the Library of Congress, in “Land Ownership Maps: A Checklist of Nineteenth Century Unites States County Maps in the Library of Congress.” The essay has been edited and updated by Ed Redmond, a cartographic reference specialist in the Geography & Map Division.
Nineteenth century land ownership maps of United States counties are among the more significant groups of Americana in the map collections of the Library of Congress. These maps are invaluable to the genealogist in tracing family backgrounds, to the geographer studying rural landscapes of over a century ago, and to local historians seeking to reconstruct nineteenth century cultural life.
Some of the earliest American maps were small land plats based on cadastral surveys. Land surveying was an honorable and reasonably profitable occupation in the colonies in the 18th century. However, few 18th century county maps showed land ownership, which makes the map below fairly distinctive. Dating from about 1705, the map shows the three counties of Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks in Pennsylvania and contains rural landholders’ names, lot lines, and proprietary manors.
Published county land ownership maps were not introduced in America until the first decade of the 19th century when Charles Varle, a geographer and engineer, produced two printed maps of counties in Maryland and Virginia. Varle’s A Map of Frederick and Washington Counties, State of Maryland was published in 1808, and his Map of Frederick, Berkley, & Jefferson Counties in the State of Virginia, seen below, appeared the following year. A few other county landownership maps were published in the early decades of the 19th century but most stayed in manuscript form in county archives or courthouses.
The growth of county map publishing grew rapidly starting in the 1850s. The entire purpose behind county landownership maps and atlases was to create maps with sufficient detail to indicate locations of individual dwellings and names of occupants. Before beginning a new county map, the typical publisher sought the support of county officials, lawyers, bankers, real estate dealers, and other prominent men of the community. Generally, their endorsement of the mapping effort appeared in the local newspapers, along with an appeal for financial assistance from every citizen. Canvassers were then sent to every farmstead to solicit subscriptions for the proposed map. Actual work on the map did not begin until the canvassers had obtained enough signatures to assure the financial success of the enterprise.
The typical map format invariably showed political boundaries, roads, railroads, villages, mills, factories, churches, schools, houses and names of residents, as well as rivers, streams, hills, and mountains. Each map usually had several enlarged inset plans of the principal villages, views of important public buildings, factories and farms, and occasionally, a portrait of a leading citizen. An elaborate title embellished the map, and the entire product was enclosed within an ornate border. The first landownership maps were so large (between 5 and 6 feet square) that they were lithographed in parts and then mounted on one piece on cloth, such as the map of Middlesex County, Massachusetts below. Some were hand colored, with the map surface protected by a coat of varnish.
The inclusion of such a variety and quantity of information on wall maps made them unwieldy to use and store. Because of their large size and the publisher’s desire to present even more information, the multi-sheet atlas was developed. The first county atlases were published in 1864, and within a few years this cartographic form outstripped the wall map as the principal means of depicting cadastral information. Publishers quickly discovered that the addition of lithographic images, which had been a popular feature from the very beginning of the published county map, could be developed into a major source of revenue when included in atlases. Thus, through skillful canvassing, the mapmakers increased their profits by charging the owner additional fees to prepare a view of their business, residence, or even favorite farm animal.
The Library’s holdings of these early land ownership maps and atlases include nearly two thousand items, published between 1700 and 1923. Most of these maps have been digitized and high resolution digital files may be viewed and downloaded in the Library’s online catalog here. Happy exploring!