One of the joys involved in answering reference questions submitted to the Geography and Map Division is that some questions (the fun ones!) frequently involve extensive research in the Library’s cartographic holdings. Staff of the Geography and Map Division are also fortunate to be able to consult photocopies of maps from other institutions, early photographs from the Prints and Photographs Division, manuscript letters held by the Library’s Manuscript Division, and a vast array of published reference works relating to the history of cartography.
As an example, we recently received a question about Native American tribes living in the vicinity of Washington, DC, prior to the same area becoming the new capital of the United States. Specifically, the reader wanted to know what is the difference between the “Eastern Branch of the Potomac River” and why did its name eventually change to the “Anacostia River”? And are there maps to show the name changes?
Where to begin? Since we are investigating the earliest maps of the District of Columbia it is helpful to provide some historical context, and, even though the following maps are somewhat out of chronological order, we hope that they prove illustrative.
The very first Congress met in Philadelphia in 1790 and among its first formal resolutions was the passage of the 1790 Residence Act. This act empowered the President of the United States, George Washington (1732-1799), to select a suitable site on the Potomac River anywhere between the junction of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers (present day Harpers Ferry, WV) and the junction of the Potomac River and the Eastern Branch of Potomac River (present day Washington, DC). President Washington chose the southernmost possible point and appointed Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to prepare a design for the new city. We began our investigation by looking at the earliest maps of the District of Columbia, specifically, Pierre L’Enfant’s manuscript design of the new city which expressly stated both “Potowmack River” and “Eastern Branch”.With regard to the first use of the word “Anacostia,” it appears that the word was first used on a map attributed to Augustine Herrman which was compiled in 1670 and published in London in 1673. The word “Anacostean” appears in the upper right corner of the map but a close examination indicates that the river may be flowing west rather than east. Are there other maps to add to the story? Thanks to the digitization efforts of the Library, the easiest method of searching for maps with either the term “Anacostia” or “Eastern Branch” is to access our Map Collections web site. Enter the word “anacostia” or just follow this link. A similar search can be done for “eastern branch” or just follow this link. Please note that in some cases the river titles may be “supplied” in the catalog record to assist researchers rather than indicating what is actually shown on the map. In such cases you may wish to view all the results to see what place names are actually depicted.
According to the United States Board on Geographic Names, the entity which ensures that a standardized set of place names are used on maps published by the United States government, the formal decision to use “Anacostia River” as the feature name occurred in 1890, even though the name had been in common usage long before.
Finally, it is important to remember that geographic names sometimes appear in manuscript correspondence between prominent individuals such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others. Consequently, an excellent source that may assist such research is Founders Online from the National Archives. This unique web site brings together the extensive writings of the Founding Fathers and is an excellent tool when searching for unique geographic names. For example, a search for “Anacostia” returns several results but it appears that the earliest use of the term may be in an 1803 letter from Nicholas King, the official surveyor or the City of Washington to Thomas Jefferson which refers to the Eastern Branch as the “Anacostia”.
Are there other maps out there? Inquiring minds want to know!