Cartographic and Architectural Records


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) safeguards records on which the people of a democracy depend for the continuity, accountability, and credibility of their national institutions. NARA is the official repository of the permanently valuable records made or accumulated by the U.S. Government and is responsible for preserving those records and making them available to the general public, government officials, and scholars. NARA enables people to inspect for themselves the record of what government has done. It enables officials and agencies to review their actions and helps citizens hold them accountable. NARA ensures continuing access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience.

Among the records in the Cartographic and Architectural Section (NWCSC) are over 15 million maps, charts, aerial photographs, architectural drawings, patents, and ships plans, constituting one of the world's largest accumulations of such documents. These holdings are arranged in 190 record groups, which reflect the origins of the records in specific federal departments and agencies. Some of the more significant holdings, grouped under the general functions or subject areas associated with their creation, are described below. In appropriate contexts, record group numbers have been added in parentheses to facilitate reference to the specific NARA holdings under discussion.


Exploration and Scientific Surveys

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the earliest, and in many ways the most significant, of the great government-sponsored expeditions. There were many other expeditions, however, and each made its contribution to filling in the map of the West or providing information about overseas areas considered vital to the interests of the United States. The files of the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Record Group (RG) 77 and the Archives File of the Hydrographic Office (RG 37) contain the most important collections of Federal explorers' maps, many of which made major contributions to geographic knowledge.

Prominent among Federal explorers who continued the work of Lewis and Clark were Zebulon M. Pike, Stephen H. Long, Joseph N. Nicollet, B.L.E. Bonneville, Charles Wilkes, John Rodgers, John C. Fremont, and Gouverneur K. Warren. During the two decades before the Civil War, Fremont and Warren, members of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, led expeditions that resulted in mapping much of the western part of the United States. After the Civil War, increasingly complex surveying and mapping projects were carried out by field parties under the supervision of Ferdinand V. Hayden, Clarence King, George M. Wheeler, and John Wesley Powell. The end of the era of preliminary exploration of the United States was symbolized by the establishment in 1879 of the U.S. Geological Survey as the government's central mapping agency.

Public Land Surveys and Settlement

During the period 1785-87, the Seven Ranges of Ohio became the first tract of public land surveyed under the new rectangular land survey system. This system, which was institutionalized in 1812 by the establishment of the General Land Office, has been of immense importance in shaping the cultural landscape of the public domain lands that lie outside of the Thirteen Original States, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. The surveys produced a large body of township plats and field notes, records that have great geographical, historical, and legal value. Presently there are township plats and field notes for Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin, and parts of several other States. Other records of the General Land Office and its successor, the Bureau of Land Management (RG 49), include general state maps; plats of private land claims, mineral claims, and townsites and maps showing rights-of-way for transportation and communication lines.

Indian Affairs

Maps showing information about the Indians of the United States can be found among the records of many agencies, but the largest concentration is the central map file of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (RG 75). This body of over 16,000 maps, covering the period 1800-1939, includes items pertaining to Indian treaties, removal policy, reservations, settlements, and land use. Because of the vast extent of the Indian lands and the great variety of maps compiled or used by the Bureau, this file also contains much incidental information about other aspects of the physical, cultural, and historical geography of the United States.

Hydrography and Navigation

Among the cartographic records are thousands of nautical charts of the U.S. coastline published by the former Coast and Geodetic Survey (RG 23) (now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and charts of foreign waters published by the former Hydrographic Office (superseded by the Naval Oceanographic Office and the Defense Mapping Agency). These published nautical chart series span the period from the 1840's to the present. The Hydrographic Office records (RG 37) include original nineteenth-century manuscript survey sheets of the coasts of Mexico, Central America, and islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

Topography and Natural Resources

A large body of cartographic records pertains to the topography of the United States and the conservation and development of its natural resources. One of the most frequently used series dates from the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879 and consists of that agency's topographic quadrangle maps covering virtually the entire country (RG 57). Other maps from the U.S. Geological Survey relate to the classification of public lands and to investigations of geological, mineral, and water resources. Several thousand county and regional soil classification and soil erosion maps have been produced since 1900 by the Soil Conservation Service and its predecessors (RG 114). Since its inception in 1881, the Forest Service has produced numerous maps relating to national forests and timber and range management (RG 95). The National Park Service (RG 79) created maps of all of the national parks and monuments, including many in the vicinity of the District of Columbia. Other map files relating to natural resources are among the records of the U.S. Bureau of Mines (RG 70), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (RG 22), the Bureau of Reclamation (RG 115), the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (RG 83), and the National Resources Planning Board (RG 187).

Census Mapping

Although Federal census schedules date from 1790, the preparation of enumeration district maps did not occur until 1880. These records, prepared on a decennial basis, include maps of counties, cities, towns, and unincorporated settlements, showing boundaries of the districts covered by the census-takers (enumerators). Population counts for each district and, in some cases, information about farm dwellings and farm population are contained in accompanying bound volumes of verbal descriptions of the boundaries of each district. Other map files of the Bureau of the Census (RG 29) and the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (RG 83) contain manuscript and published maps relating to population changes, immigration, and, beginning with the 1840 census of agriculture, such agricultural statistics as crop and livestock distributions.

Urban Development

The Federal Government's concern with urban areas, beginning with its interest in the site and development of the nation's capital, is reflected in the holdings of the Section. Particularly noteworthy are plans of U.S. and foreign cities dating from the late eighteenth century to the present; enumeration district maps and boundary descriptions of U.S. cities from 1890 to 1970; and real property surveys of major U.S. cities undertaken during the Depression. Other special-purpose maps relate to urban site and situation, urban growth, and the economic and social interaction between metropolitan areas.

Maps of Foreign Countries

Because the mapping needs in the early years of the federal government were greatest in the domestic sphere, its production of maps of foreign territory was limited to areas of government involvement, such as treaties with foreign governments, foreign wars, and exploration. These maps show topography, settlement, land use, transportation and communication routes, and other physical and cultural phenomena. Some 20,000 maps and aerial photographs pertain to the delineation of the U.S. boundaries with Canada and Mexico, mostly showing areas immediately adjacent to the borders. The records of the American Commission To Negotiate Peace (RG 256), the U.S. delegation at the Versailles Conference of 1919, include 1,100 maps covering areas in Europe and other parts of the world that show social, linguistic, and economic statistics compiled to aid in the postwar geopolitical restructuring of boundaries. Similar social and economic maps for the World War II period exist among the records of several diplomatic and wartime agencies. The largest series of maps covering foreign areas consists of topographic maps of various scales published by the Army Map Service beginning in 1942. These maps cover many areas of the world, and the mapping continues today under the successor, the Defense Mapping Agency (RG 456).

Military Campaigns

Maps and charts have always played an important role in the planning and execution of military operations, and military maps, nautical charts, and fortification plans form a significant part of the holdings in the Section. These documents are found in records of the Offices of the Chief of Engineers (RG 77), the Adjutant General (RG 94), and the Quartermaster General (RG 92); the Office of Strategic Services (RG 226); the Army Map Service (RG 77); and the Hydrographic Office (RG 37). Although they vary in style, composition, and technique, all of the documents reflect the time and purpose for which they were created. Major battles and minor skirmishes are depicted in time frames that range from minutes to daily order of battle to historical summaries of entire campaigns. Subjects are as disparate as German espionage activities in Mexico during World War I to analysis of soil and rock composition on the Normandy beaches during World War II.

The earliest documentation consists of a few period maps for Queen Anne's War and for the French and Indian War and a few hundred maps for the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The 8,000 Civil War maps constitute the largest collection of such maps, and the extensive manuscript mapping of the Indian campaigns, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War form a unique and significant body of records. Twentieth-century records begin with the Boxer Rebellion, extend to U.S. intervention in the Caribbean and Central America, and expand to some 25,000 maps and aerial photographs for World War I. World War II mapping is worldwide for military operations on land, at sea, and in the air, and covers various aspects of the military campaigns from intelligence gathering and planning to execution and historical analysis. Coverage of recent military actions in Korea and Vietnam is limited primarily to topographic mapping published by the Army Map Service and the Defense Mapping Agency.

Architectural and Engineering Drawings

Among the records of the Section are several major series of architectural and engineering drawings created by civilian and military agencies. Some 28,000 plans of public buildings across the United States, such as post offices, courthouses, and customhouses, were accumulated by the Public Buildings Service and its predecessors (RG 121) beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Such federal agencies as the former Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital (RG 42), the National Capital Planning Commission (RG 328), the Commission of Fine Arts (RG 66), and the Department of the Interior have accumulated drawings that document the many government buildings, monuments, and parks in the District of Columbia and the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland. The records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital include original proposals for the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The large and growing plans files of the National Park Service (RG 79) contain hundreds of drawings of the most prominent monuments in the District of Columbia as well as early plans of national parks across the country. The records of the U.S. Coast Guard's former Bureau of Lighthouses include several thousand drawings of lighthouses and life-saving stations in the United States, the earliest of which were designed in the 1830s. Plans of vessels are also among the records of the Coast Guard (RG 26). Over 100,000 original drawings submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office (RG 241) with applications for Federal patents between 1790 and 1870 are another type of holding in the Section.

Among military records the most heavily researched architectural drawings consist of plans of Army forts, hospitals, coastal defense batteries, and other military reservations. Created primarily by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster General's Office, these fortification plans date from the earliest years of the country to the World War II period and constitute the largest such file in existence in the United States. The Corps of Engineers records also include large-scale engineering drawings of structures such as bridges, dams, and locks as well as plans of dredge boats used in river navigation projects. Numerous plans document U.S. Navy and Marine bases and facilities throughout the United States, the Carribean, and the Pacific from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century (RG 71). There are also thousands of U.S. Navy ship plans dating from the early-nineteenth century to the 1950's (RG 19) and U.S. Navy aircraft and airship plans from about 1916 to 1962 (RG 72).

Aerial Photography

Aerial photography became an important part of the mapmaking process in the twentieth century. Aerial photographs provide a straightforward depiction of the physical and cultural landscape of an area at a given time. When skillfully interpreted, these aerial images supply geographers, historians, ecologists, geologists, urban planners, archaeologists, and other professionals with a pictorial basis often critical to their studies. Increasingly, members of the legal profession have used aerial photography in the settlement of cases involving property disputes, riparian rights, and transportation rights-of-way. Recently, genealogists have used aerial photography to identify and locate ancestral sites.

The federal government became significantly involved in the systematic acquisition of aerial photography in the 1930's. Until that time, no comprehensive collection of aerial imagery of the United States existed. The Department of Agriculture, given the responsibility for crop determination and soil erosion, created many of the earliest aerial coverages. The result was an extensive collection of vertical (mapping) aerial imagery covering approximately 90 percent of the contiguous United States. This large-scale aerial photography, which was taken between 1935 and 1954, forms a unique collection within the millions of aerial photographic images held by the Cartographic and Architectural Section. Because one of the best ways to exploit aerial photography in research is through comparison of images from various dates, the Section has accessioned an extensive collection of military-flown imagery of the United States dating from about 1940 to 1960. This collection provides coverages of Alaska and Hawaii as well as most of the contiguous United States.

World War II brought a rapid acceleration in the use of aerial photography of foreign areas for both military operations and mapping purposes. The Section holds World War II aerial images covering parts of the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific Theaters of Operation, taken by units of the U.S. and Allied Air Forces. Included are both vertical mapping photography and oblique reconnaissance photography. The Section also holds approximately 1.2 million prints of aerial photographs taken by the Germany military. Coverages are widespread--Europe (from the British Isles to the Ural Mountains), the Middle East, and North Africa are included in this collection. Many of the prints are annotated to indicate military installations and defenses; other prints are marked to show potential bombing targets. While the scale and quality of the photographs in this collection vary considerably, the imagery provides unique wartime coverages of many of the contested areas. A smaller collection (about 37,000 images), taken by the Japanese military between about 1933 and 1945, consists of aerial photography of parts of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The Section also maintains custody of satellite photographs for 1960-1972 from the CORONA project--the United States first satellite reconnaissance program.

Learn more about our Aerial Photography records at College Park, Maryland

Reference Services

Maps and Plans

It is important to remember that NARA's holdings relate primarily to official functions of the federal government and that records are arranged by the federal offices that created or accumulated them. Maps that predate the federal government and nineteenth-century maps of areas outside the United States are rare among the Cartographic and Architectural Section (NWCSC) holdings.

In order to request a search of the maps and charts, researchers need to provide NWCSC with a subject, geographic area, and time period. In order to request a search of the architectural or engineering drawings, one must provide the Section with the name of the structure or equipment as well as its location and time period of use. Please bear in mind that the Section's architectural and engineering drawings relate almost exclusively to structures and equipment built by or for the federal government.

Aerial Photographs

All requests for aerial photography searches must be accompanied by a detailed map upon which the limits of the site are clearly outlined. The request should also include a brief geographic description of the site such as state, county, geographic coordinates, variant spellings of the site name and/or relative location of the site with nearby, well-known geographic locales. Once NWCSC receives this information, staff will indicate to the researcher either the indexes that should be purchased (if the area is large) or the individual photographs needed (if the area is small).

File Information and Copies

In order to request copies of records in NARA holdings, it is necessary to know the record group, series, and individual file notation for the original record. If this complete record filing citation is not known, the researcher must first request a search of Section holdings as described above under "Maps and Drawings" or "Aerial Photographs."

Information concerning the records is made available to the public through the compilation of lists, catalogs, and other finding aids in manuscript or typescript form maintained in the Section research room. Published finding aids (both free and fee) that are in print may also be available through NARA Customer Service Centers or in local libraries. The Section will provide photocopies of short sections of out-of-print publications. As indicated below some finding aids have been microfilmed and are available for sale as part of Microfilm Publication M 248:

Some maps may be viewed using the National Archives Catalog .

All reproductions are made to order for a fee; we do not maintain a stock of copies.

On-site researchers may examine maps, architectural drawings, and aerial photographs and finding aids in the Cartographic and Architectural Section Research Room. For the most productive research, prior to visiting the Section, assemble the specific information described above, which is necessary to locate individual items among the thousands on file.

Public Transportation

Parking is available to researchers who travel by private car to the National Archives at College Park. Public transportation to the facility involves a combination of subway and bus. A staff shuttle bus, accessible to researchers on a space available basis, operates between the College Park facility and the National Archives in downtown Washington, DC. Current information on transportation options is provided on the NARA web site.

List of Related Finding Aids

Note: Publlications marked as out of print (OOP) are not available from the Customer Service Center, however they may be available for reference in NARA research facilities.

Guides and Inventories

Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. 3 vols. (1995)

A Guide to Civil War Maps in the National Archives (1964, revised 1986) (OOP).

Guide to Cartographic Records in the National Archives (1971) (OOP).

Inventory (INV 4) of the Records of the Hydrographic Office, (1971).

Preliminary Inventories

PI 45 Cartographic Records of the Federal Housing Administration (1952).

PI 73 Cartographic Records of the United States Marine Corps (1954).

PI 81 Cartographic Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (1955).

PI 85 Cartographic Records of the Chief of Naval Operations (1955).

PI 90 Records of the United States Antarctic Service (1955).

PI 91 Cartographic Records of the Panama Canal (1956).

PI 103 Cartographic Records of the Bureau of the Census (1958).

PI 146 Records of the Provisional Government of Cuba (1962).

PI 161 Records of the Bureau of the Census (1964).

PI 165 Cartographic Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-21 (1966) (OOP). Available on roll 19 of M248.

PI 167 Cartographic Records of the Forest Service (1967).

PI 168 Records of the Post Office Department (1967).

PI 170 Records Relating to International Boundaries (1968).

PI 195 Cartographic Records of the Soil Conservation Service (1981).

Special Lists

SL 13 Cartographic Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1954; revised 1977).

SL 19 Cartographic Records of the General Land Office (1964).

SL 23 Cartographic Records Relating to the Territory of Wisconsin, 1836-1848 (1970) (OOP). Available on roll 38 of M248.

SL 25 Aerial Photographs in the National Archives (1971).

SL 26 Pre-Federal Maps in the National Archives: An Annotated List (1971).

SL 27 Cartographic Records Relating to the Territory of Iowa, 1838-1846 (1971) (OOP). Available on roll 38 of M248.

SL 28 Cartographic Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (1971) (OOP). Available on roll 38 of M248.

SL 29 List of Selected Maps of States and Territories (1996).

SL 41 Cartographic Records of the National Resources Planning Board (1977) (OOP). Available on roll 39 of M248.

SL 43 United States Hydrographic Office Manuscript Charts in the National Archives, 1838-1908 (1978).

SL 57 Lighthouse Plans in the National Archives (1990) (00P).

Reference Information Papers

RIP 75 Agricultural Maps in the National Archives of the United States, ca. 1860-1930 (1976).

RIP 79 World War II Records in the Cartographic and Architectural Section of the National Archives (1992).


From time to time the National Archives and Records Administration displays maps and charts in formal exhibits. Several of these exhibits have been accompanied by published catalogs describing the records and relating them to their social and institutional backgrounds. Catalogs for the following exhibits were produced, however all are out of print:

Federal Exploration of the American West Before 1880 (1963)

Geographical Exploration and Topographic Mapping by the United States Government: A Catalog (1952, reprinted 1966)

United States Scientific Geographical Exploration of the Pacific Basin (1971)