Engaging Students with Primary Source Maps

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Most students are familiar with using maps to plan a route, but fewer think of maps as both reflecting and influencing events. Engage students with the wealth of maps available from the Library of Congress, closely examining them to learn about the circumstances in which they were created.

Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860

Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860

After the census of 1860, this map was produced, compiling information gathered about the number of enslaved people in the southern states of the United States. The map was released September 9, 1861, approximately five months after the start of the Civil War. Use the primary source analysis tool and selected questions from the Teacher’ Guide: Analyzing Maps to help students observe details, reflect on the map’s purpose and impact, and ask questions about the importance of the information provided by the map.

Deepen discussion by asking:

  • Who was the audience for this map?
  • Why might a mapmaker have produced a map illustrating this particular data set from the 1860 census? Think about events from that time and how those might have influenced the mapmaker.
  • Consider the possibility that maps influence events, not just reflect them.  How might this map have influenced events during the Civil War?
Distribution of Negro population by county 1950 : showing each county with 500 or more Negro population.

Distribution of Negro population by county 1950 : showing each county with 500 or more Negro population.

Another strategy to engage students with maps is to pair complementary maps that illustrate change over time. Consider this map showing the distribution of African American populations in the United States in 1950.

Ask:

  • Who was the audience for this map?
  • What was the purpose of the map?
  • How does the map differ from the “Distribution of the Slave Population” map? Consider format and content.
  • Again, consider the possibility that maps influence events, not just reflect them. How might this map have influenced events?

Please take a moment to comment below: How do you use historic maps with your students? What maps might influence events today?

2 Comments

  1. Tom Bober
    October 7, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Excellent pairing of maps and great questions to encourage thinking about how maps influence events!

  2. Heidi Bamford
    October 7, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    This is another great one for the activity described above – hard to find though!
    Heidi

    link: //lccn.loc.gov/2002624023

    (Historical Geography map showing “the roots of slavery”)

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