Teaching Digital History

...using documents, images, maps and online tools

1507 Martin Waldseemüller map Online at the Library of Congress here

C-Span Book Talk with Toby Lester on his book  The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name (Free Press, November 3, 2009). Available online at  http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/Partof

The North Carolina Historical Map Overlay Project at the Carolina Digital Library and Archive. Available online at http://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/ncmaps/interactive/overlay.html

Also, see 3D Tour of the Tar Heel State from the Carolina Digital Library and Archive. Available online athttp://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/ncmaps/interactive/tour.html

This forum features historical maps that have some personal meaning.  The maps are described in narrative terms as illustrated texts with the map as the central illustration, perhaps even using Google maps, Google Earth, or map overlays. Another option is to record your narration either using a screen capture or some movie making software. 

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John Smith’s Map of the Chespeake was created in the summer of 1608, while Jamestown was still a new settlement. There were many different motivations for John Smith to spend three months navigating and mapping the Chespeake Bay. One reason was exploration: John Smith was an explorer and wanted to see what else was near the new colony. Trapped inside the compound of Jamestown with sickness and rules was not exactly in John Smith’s personality. He would seize any opportunity toe escape this to go out into unchartered territories. In attention to just wanting to get out of Jamestown, there was also a need to know what was around Jamestown, espeically the boundries of the Native American tribes, which Smith documented on his map. This information would be important so as to know who is surrounding the colony, wheter they are “friends” or “enemies.” (In quotations because of the views of the settlers towards the Native Americans) Knowing of their existence and their habits helps in coming up with ways to live (or not live) with these tribes. It is also important to know about the resources that the Chespeake Bay provides. At the time, there were many different fish and an abundence of oysters. These could provide much needed food for the settlers. In mapping the Bay, there is also a map for future settlers and explorers to use.

Flash forward to the 200th Anniversary of the landing of Jamestown and John Smith’s explorations are celebrated in a year long celebration, complete with a visit from the Queen of England. The Chesapeake Bay looks very different than it did when John Smith explored it. While oysters still provide an important livilihood, over harvesting and pollution have greatly damagede the population. Instead of Native American territories, there are two different states and cities that surround the bay, settled by people that look more like John Smith than the Native Americans. While John Smith was forging new territory; today, his trail is a National Historical Trail, with landmarkers and mass produced maps. This is very different from John Smith, the originial colonizers, and Native Americans experienced 400 years ago.

On a personal level, anybody growing up in Virginia (which is me) or Maryland has a connection to the Chespeake Bay. I was born in Virginia Beach and lived there until I was ten. The Bay was across the street from my house and we went to the beach there instead of the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the rivers in Virginia and Maryland lead directly into the Chespeake Bay, so it is important for everybody to be careful about what they dump because it can and will end up in the Bay. From an educational standpoint, students could be required to study John Smith’s map and a modern map to see how it has changed and why it has changed. They can then discuss/think about how their actions impact the Bay.
The map was first published in 1612, and was actively used for decades by Virginia colonist. For more on the map see http://www.smithtrail.net/captain-john-smith/smiths-maps/

The famous expedition of Lewis and Clark was the first such overland journey by the United States. In the journey, soldiers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, took the adventurers from St. Louis towards the Northwest, across the Rocky Mountains, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back. With the recent Louisiana Purchase being completed, these individuals were tasked with gaining a better understanding of the land and resources that had been purchased. It would be a major impetus for the future westward expansion of the United States, and the path of the Oregon trail would run remarkably close to the original path of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery as a scientific and military expedition. In a letter to Lewis, Jefferson states that the goal of the expedition is “to explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river that may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce”.

The map created by William Clark was particularly accurate, especially for the time period. It fundamentally altered previous mapping of northwest American by providing accurate depictions of the locations, size, and scope of the Rocky Mountains, as well as the sources of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. This map, along with others created during the expedition “filled in the main outlines of the previously blank map of the northwestern United States”, as stated by author Stephen Ambrose. It also revealed that the Rocky Mountains were not able to be crossed in one day, but actually took upwards of eleven days of hazard that often took life and limb of the early settlers of the West.

The expedition further revealed large amounts of natural history and geography, including landscapes, rivers, native cultures of the indigenous peoples, as well as zoology and botany. This included the documentation of 122 species of animals and 178 plants. Much of this would not have been achieved without the help of Native Americans, notably the Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, who served as a guide to the expedition.

The map itself accurately places the location of the Rocky Mountains along with many of its component ranges. It also clearly labels the major rivers of the area including the Mississippi, Platte, Columbia, and Missouri Rivers. It additionally labels many of the tributaries that contribute to each of these major rivers. The size and scope of the map is clear based upon the additions of the Pacific coast in the upper left hand corner as well as the location of Lake Superior in the upper right hand corner.

This map is notable to me because I took my own expedition to the West three years ago. I had never been west of Chicago before, and as a lover of history and natural beauty, I was quite excited to travel in a new place with such a rich history. After flying into Denver and making a quick connecting flight to Riverton, Wyoming, I found myself on the Lewis and Clark trail. Driving through Shoshone and seeing the burial place of Sacagawea made this much more real. Continuing the drive along the Wind River through Western Wyoming (which in itself was a lesson in distance, open spaces, and the “rugged individualism” of the West), we eventually made our way to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and the Snake River area. These amazing places and sights were so awe inspiring and impressive that one can only imagine the reactions of those exploring the area for the first time who had no idea of the sights they were to see. Yet these individuals recorded their sights and observations, sharing them with the rest of the country.

Historical Map of Richmond, VA

This is the military map of Richmond and Petersburg, VA, created by W.C. Major Hughes in 1864. Richmond, Virginia was a city central to both the rise and fall of the American Civil War, and is located along the James River which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. After his inauguration as President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis chose to re-locate the Confederacy's capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond. At the heart of this decision was the largest iron manufacturer in the South at the onset of the Civil War, Tredegar Iron Works. Tredegar made the iron plating for the CSS Virginia which was the first ironclad in the world to be used in warfare. Tredegar also is credited with the production of over 1,100 pieces of artillery which were used during the Civil War, roughly half of the South's entire domestic production of artillery during this time period.

The significance and rise of the city led General George C. McClellan to attempt to take Richmond during the summer of 1862 in the Seven Days Battle, yet his efforts would prove to be unsuccessful. Richmond would ultimately be captured by General Grant and the Union Army on April 2nd, 1865, however, Confederate forces refused to go quietly into the night. In response to the city's capture and the unyielding desire amongst Confederate soldiers to diminish the resources within the city the Union would occupy, many set the city of Richmond on fire as they began their retreat. Ultimately, 25% of the city's buildings were destroyed.

There were very large Reconstruction efforts in Richmond immediately following the close of the Civil War and beyond. General Grant re-located the capital from Richmond to Danville, after initially capturing the city on April 2nd, however on May 25th, Richmond would re-emerge as the capital of the state of Virginia as part of the efforts to "restore" the state to the Union and facilitate the Reconstruction process. Monument Avenue was later created in 1887, and is home to various monuments of many of the city's Civil War heroes such as J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. The tombstones of Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson can also now be found in Hollywood Cemetery. This cemetery in the heart of Richmond was opened in 1849, and is home to 25 Confederate generals in all, more than any other cemetery in the country. Richmond, Virginia is also home to the first successful electrically-powered trolley system in the United States. It was opened in 1888, and the system pioneered by Frank J. Sprague would later serve as a model for many similar trolley systems in cities throughout the country.

Personally, this map is significant because much of my family is from the Richmond-area. My grandparents grew up on the outskirts of town, and many of my relatives still reside in the area today. Having visited frequently over the years, I have grown fond of the city, as well as the James River, and have come to appreciate their historical significance as well as re-development efforts. My namesake and both of my grandparents are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, and after visiting recently, I discovered the presence of so many figures central to the Civil War within the cemetery grounds. I believe students could gain an interesting perspective from studying Richmond, as well as the James River and its significance as port both during the Civil War and today.
Historical Map of West Africa and Benin in 1857. The map was created by Colton G. Woolsworth in 1857 for Colton's General Atlas.

Link to this Voicethread narrating the map.

I chose this map of Washington State because of my personal life experience. I was born in Washington in Cowlitz County. Cowlitz County is on the boarder of Washington and Oregon. I only lived there for two years after I was born, but about two years ago I spent two months in Seattle working as an intern for a non-profit. I learned a lot about the demographics and landscape of this beautiful state, but I wanted to learn more about the history of the state.

Created in July of 1865, this map outlines the supposed assets of the territory before it became a state in November of 1889. There are lines to identify sources of gold, lead, silver, coal, and projected railroad routes. It is clear, according to the map, that railroads, trails, and mines had begun to develop the territory several years prior to official statehood. But why and how? If we did not have legal control over the territory, why were we outlining its assets? And how did we justify doing so?

As it is widely known, Washington has a large (in comparison to the rest of the country) Native American population. This map outlines some U.S. reservations in the territory, but makes no mention of the Native Americans who lived in the areas. Political meaning and purpose can sometimes be identified by the omission of details, especially, as we have seen and studied, with maps. The U.S. reservations outlined in red on the map are seemingly small compared to the rest of the territory, but we know that over twenty years after this map was created, Washington became part of the Union.

This transition from small U.S. reservations to statehood, could have happened for many reasons, but one seems to be most likely. This reason could have been an attempt to procure the riches and natural resources that seemed to be available in Washington at the expense of Native American lives and culture. This reason is politic and it almost seems as if the absence of the social demographics on the map could be an attempt to remove moral implications from the addition of Washington into the Union. As the Civil War was winding down at the time of this map's creation, an attempt to remove moral implications would have made both political and economic sense.

For a more detailed view of the map, see the Library of Congress webstie here.
This voicethread provides a narrative of the 1860 Plan of Baltimore map published by Samuel Augustus Mitchell in the Mitchell's New General Atlas. The narrative includes the history of Mitchell and the map, the history of certain areas of the map, particularly Canton, Fells Point, Inner Harbor and Federal Hill, as well as my own personal narratives of these areas.


I actually chose a globe instead of a map! My grandmother kept it in her house for a long time and then gave it to me. It was made in the late 70's or early 80's, and I always liked it because the countries' borders were so different than they are today. The major difference that strikes me and most observors is that the globe included the USSR while today's maps do not. Instead, there are dozens of new countries to learn!

I suppose that there is potential for bias and the globecrafter's views in his making of the globe - I imagine it would be in the coloring of Russia in brown/tan versus the United States in a light blue. Those colors demonstrate an almost dirtiness of the Soviet Union while the blue of the United States is calming and possibly patriotic. At the turn of the 1980's the United States was in the depths of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union and Communism were on the minds of most Americans. By making a globe at this time, the maker had a real opportunity to present the conflict in physical terms. On a globe, the Soviet Union is presented in its enormity looming above numerous countries for which the USSR and the United States were competing for influence. Americans concerned about the Cold War who looked at the globe might be inspired to support the government even more.

From a historical perspective, understanding the empire that existed before today helps us understand some of the issues that exist today. For example, the USSR's situation above Kazakhstan (and the other Stans) suggests probable attempts to influence those countries. That was certainly the case, and the Soviet Union put huge resources into the area attempting to absorb it. In addition to creating school systems that didn't exist before, the USSR succeeded in creating a resistance movement against themselves which eventually helped to spawn the Taliban and many warlords in the area today.

By comparing the globe to modern maps we also see how empires don't tend to break down into convenient blocks. Instead, they tend to fracture on ethnic and nationalistic grounds which often leads to many new countries with seemingly disorganized borders. Naturally, this can lead to ethnic conflict in many cases such as in the Balkans in the 90's. Without overarching government structures, conflict between groups happens more easily.

I found it difficult to locate a map that would draw from my personal or life experience. So I decided to simply perform a Google search for historic maps, and see what results came upon. There were many maps to choose from, but out of the thousands of maps, one grabbed my attention. The map is entitled “America Septentrionalis.” It was created in 1636 by the Dutch author Jan Jansson. The map is an overview of North America; and what struck my interest is the numerous misconceptions illustrated on the map.

The most interesting misconception is the presentation of California as an island. Jansson’s map is not the first to depict California as an island. The first depiction of California as an island appeared in 1622 on the title page of Antonio de Herrera's “Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales.” The first folio maps to show this myth were Abraham Goos' in 1624 and Henry Briggs' in 1625. However, this concept of California as an island gained world wide acceptance after the respected Dutch publisher presented his map in 1636. It is interesting to note that this concept was maintained well into the 18th century. Ferdinand VII is given credit for ending the California island concept; and now the map is an interesting footnote in the history of map publishing.

Another geographic misconception on Jansson’s map is the depiction of the Great Lakes as one enormous lake. Again, this was a previously held notion; and is thought to have been borrowed from Champlain’s map of 1613. Soon after Jansson’s map was published, the correct depiction of the 5 Great Lakes was published.

The final misconception of interest has to do with the representation of the Mississippi River. Today we know the river runs from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. However, Jansson presents the river as a network of several rivers that abruptly ends in the mountains of West Virginia.

Today we would laugh at Jan Jansson’s work and pass it off merely as an incorrect map. However, we need not forget that these early map publishers were working with accepted truths from their time. We should not fault them for their misconceptions; instead we should applaud them for expanding our knowledge. We need to look at these early maps as a foundation for the process of map making. Each new map provided us with new information that turned fact into fiction; and provided us with exciting breakthroughs.

What one will see when they look at this map created in the 18th century by John Mitchell and is commonly called “Mitchell’s Map” or “the Red-lined Map”. According to the Library of Congress, this map has been referred to as "the most famous map in the history of American diplomacy." When Mitchell published his map in 1755, he used the red lines to, as accurately to his knowledge create boundaries for British and French territories. Mitchell had only his knowledge from explorers of the time and other maps that were available to create a very accurate map of the claimed parts of North America. This map creates usefulness still today in solving disputes among borders between the United States and Canada as well as the individual states.

The biggest use of this map in world history was at the end of the American Revolution. During negotiations of the Treaty of Paris in 1782, the map created by Mitchell was still one of the most detailed maps of the North American continent at the time. The men involved in the concession of lands by both the British and the French used the map to help them establish the boundaries of the New United States of America. This is why many consider it the most famous map in the storied past of American diplomacy.

While looking at the map, there are still inaccuracies that exist between boundaries of states, and between the United States and Canada. Over time, these boundaries have become solidified due to help with technology and further agreements between the different parties involved. In my life, this is important to the future of the United States because it has helped us develop individual states that create a union. The idea of states’ rights at the time of the creation of the United States has developed into a huge part of how the United States works today. I feel that this map would be a good primary source to use while teaching American geography during the 18th century because of its accuracy and comprehensiveness in boundaries between states and the territories claimed by Britain and France during the colonial era of early times in the United States.


This historic map is a map created by Edwin Hergesheimer from September 1861. The map depicts the slave representation in the southern states of the United States. The map shows the slave representation not only by state, but also by county. The slave map was of great interest to President Abraham Lincoln. It has been stated that he was known to study it for hours at a time. He used the map to trace the recent progress of Union troops through Virginia.

The map depicts states as well as well as counties by their slave population. The darker shading represents the greater presence of slaves in that area. It can be said with much clarity that the southern United States had a great deal of slavery during the 19th century. During this time, many White Americana tried to give cause for the rebellion being everything except for slavery. In fact in some states, according to the Census of 1860, the slave population outweighed the free population. South Carolina for example in 1860 had 402, 541 slaves and 301, 271, for a total of over 57% enslaved persons. With that being said, the majority of the people living in this state tended to the fields, ensured crop stability and took care of the household, yet the majority of this stated were not allowed their own freedom, allowed to learn how to read or write, or vote.

This was not the case in North Carolina. North Carolina maintained that its free population approximately doubled that of the slave population. In North Carolina the free population was 661,586 and its slave population was 331, 081. I wonder how some states got to the point where their slaves outnumbered them and some southern states did not?

This map is so important to me because for the first time I felt like I could actually visualize slavery. Looking at this map and seeing all the people that were taken from their homelands and forced into slavery, makes me wonder what their thought process was. This slave map shows the mindset of the American people back in the 19th century. I am enthralled that we no longer have slave maps or things of this nature used as a tracking device. We have come so far in the 21st century that it is almost hard to believe like something such as a slave map even existed.
The University of Chicago Press has an interesting project presented in support of a book edited by James R. Akerman and Robert W. Karrow Jr. titled Maps Finding Our Place in the World. The website examines the Hergesheimer’s map - http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/akerman/maps_slavery.html


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