“Eastern Branch of the Potomac River” or “Anacostia River”? A Cartographic Curiosity…

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”.

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States : projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress, passed on the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. In addition to naming the Potomac River and the smaller Eastern Branch, this map is notable in that it contains pencil annotations by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson eliminated the letter "w" from the "Potowmack"; and changed the name of the "Congress House" to "Capitol". These annotations were unknown to scholars until the map was digitally enhanced in 1989 for the publication of a full color facsimile.

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States : projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress, passed on the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. In addition to naming the Potomac River and the smaller Eastern Branch, this map is notable in that it contains pencil annotations by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson eliminated the letter “w” from the word “Potowmack” and changed the name of the “Congress House” to “Capitol”. These annotations were unknown to scholars until the map was digitally enhanced in 1989 for the publication of a full color facsimile.

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.

Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year. [London: Augustine Herrman and Thomas Withinbrook, 1673]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

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!

Mapping A World Of Cities

Sponsored by the Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library and the MacLean Collection Map Library in Chicago, IL, the Library of Congress is pleased to announce its participation entitled Mapping A World of Cities in a joint project with the American Geographical Society (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the David Rumsey Map Center (Stanford Libraries, California), […]

18th Century Maps of North America: Perception vs. Reality

Between 1755 and 1775, over the course of just twenty years, three seminal maps of North America were published in London, even though those responsible for the maps never left England! These three maps, discussed in more detail below, were prepared for a British audience in an attempt to reinforce opinions regarding British control of North America. A fourth map, also published in London, depicts the extent of the United States in 1802.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Arguably the most important of the first three pre-1800 maps addressed in this blog is John Mitchell’s iconic 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America pictured above. At the request of the English Board of Trade and Plantations, the equivalent of the State Department, Mitchell was tasked with preparing a large map of North America based upon maps provided by each of the thirteen colonial governors. The intriguing story behind the map lies with its illustrated claim of English sovereignty extending from the Atlantic Ocean westward past the Mississippi and, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean. These claims are evidenced by the horizontal colonial boundaries extending into French territory.

Our second map, pictured below, was originally published in London by Emanuel Bowen in 1763. Unlike Mitchell’s map, which incorporated the territorial aspirations of the British colonies, the 1763 map by Bowen illustrated the political realities dictated by the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year’s War in North America.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The third revolutionary map in our saga was published in London by Carington Bowles in 1771. Like the Bowen map illustrated above, it, too, includes colonial territory lost in 1763, but also emphasizes unsettled colonial boundaries.  Of those, the most notable are the western boundary of Pennsylvania, the northeastern boundary of Virginia, and the western boundary of New York, as establishment of each defined those colonies’ access to Lake Erie.

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 1774 ?, 1774]

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 177?, 1771]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The final map of North America in our brief exploration of revolutionary maps was published in London in 1802. Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) produced the most current and accurate cartographic representation of the American West up to that date. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carefully studied the map in 1803 and even carried a copy on the first leg of their landmark expedition. Arrowsmith’s map immediately pre-dates the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and subsequent 1804-06 expedition by Lewis & Clark.  Rather than fill in the American West with conjectural or inaccurate data, he has deliberately left large areas blank, allowing viewers to envision for themselves the nature of the vast territory recently acquired before the landscape could be recorded by scientific surveys.

Arrowsmith, Aaron, and J Puke. A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America. [London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

So why are these maps significant? And how do they illustrate cartographic perception and geographic reality?  First, British control of North America is implied in Mitchell’s 1755 map which depicts British colonies extending from “sea to sea”.  Secondly, the geographic reality of British control of North America are all shown on the commercially produced 1763 Bowen map, the 1774 Bowles’ map, and Arrowsmith’s 1802 map which all relied on factual data. It all comes down to the intentions of each cartographer and those who employed the cartographers!

Learn more:

Creating the United States. A Library of Congress exhibit drawing heavily on items related to American Revolution from various parts of the Library. (April 2008 – May 2012).

Rivers, Edens, and Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. A Library of Congress exhibit showcasing items from various collections the related to Lewis and Clark expedition. (July 2003 – November 2003).

Read more »

Announcing GIS Day at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, November 14th!

The Library of Congress is proud to celebrate GIS Day on Wednesday, November 14th, with a morning of engaging talks and discussions on the theme of “GIS in K-12 Education: from Data to STEM.” We are pleased to feature Representative Bruce Westerman (AR-4), who will speak about the Geospatial Data Act and the role of […]

New Story Maps Published!

We are excited to announce the launch of two new Library of Congress Story Maps! At the beginning of May, the Library of Congress launched Story Maps, interactive and immersive web applications that tell the incredible stories of the Library’s collections. Created within a Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based software platform created by Esri, Story Maps […]

A “Heretical” Atlas

Within the Geography and Map Division’s collections are 42 versions of Ptolemy’s Geography, which is a landmark atlas and treatise on geographic knowledge from the 2nd century, and an influential work in the study of geography and cartography thereafter. These versions are atlases published in the 15th and 16th centuries based off of Ptolemy’s original […]