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About this collection

Early Washington Maps Timeline WSU Special Collections
USGS Topos Index UW Digital Collections
San Juan Islands T-Sheet Index

Are maps "drawings to represent everything truly", or are they mere figments of imagination—a larger, fictitious reality we accept as place—a " conspiracy of cartographers"? What can a map, or series of maps sorted in time, show us? What, beyond the locations of landforms, places and peoples, do maps tell us about the past? Maps, be they inaccurate musings or mathematical / astrological renderings, answer many questions. They explain our past and how people viewed their world, or new worlds; what people saw their world becoming and even what unknown lands may potentially possess. In a sense, maps are more about humans than of places. By studying these past maps we find—hidden within colorful cartouches, precise boundaries and skillful gradations by an artists' hand—the assumptions placed on the land as observed by their authors. These attempts document the hopes behind the lands first explored, fervently irrigated and farmed, scarred in battle, mined, evangelized…coveted.

A bird's eye of the 1909 Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific-Exposition


Since the discovery of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the sea explorations by both Spain and Great Britain, the region has been sought for countless, sometimes elusive, dreams: Spain's lust for lost cities of gold, Britain's hunger for new fur trade markets and hunting grounds, America's love affair with the Jeffersonian ideal of the quintessential, gentleman farmer. All of these countries, including France, shared the apocryphal delusion that somewhere, perhaps within the mighty waters of the Columbia River system, lay the route of the fabled Northwest Passage—sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to East Asia for trade desired since the days before Columbus.

However, no matter what the catalyst, the goal remained ever the same—the ownership of the Pacific Northwest. Early Washington Maps: A Digital Collection, a collaboration between Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections and the University of Washington Libraries, contains the vision which numerous such authors held for the Pacific Northwest. Spanning three hundred years, Early Washington Maps: A Digital Collection includes maps of both sea and land faring explorers—from David Thompson, the successful navigator of the Columbia River, to the exploits of William Clark and Merriwether Lewis. It documents the struggle between Britain and America for the ownership of the region, and the further development of one of the last frontiers on the continent. Some of the digital collection's maps delineate the boundaries under dispute within the years 1818 and 1846, culminating in a peaceful compromise and the decision of the 49th parallel as the northern border of the United States. The digital collection also shows the efforts of the U.S. government to survey the land, for both federal and private use, under the watchful, trained eye of the General Land Office and the Corps of Topographical Engineers.


Finally, this database showcases the hopes placed on the land of not only the country, but of individual citizens as well, with maps platting out new towns, railroad tracks, postal roads, and Indian Reservations. This digital collection, therefore, not only documents the physical boundaries of the Pacific Northwest, but also the people themselves—and their tenacious efforts to control it, tame it, and claim it for their own. For this reason maps and the mapmakers behind these renderings—publishers like Samuel Augustus Mitchell and Alvin J. Johnson, or publishing houses such as Rand McNally—carried the dreams to a greater audience, enticed them to join in the vision, and, most importantly, showed them the way.


For more information on events leading to the formation of Washington State, see the Early Washington Maps Timeline

Searching the Database:

Entering search terms in the box located at the top of the page will search across all of the database fields, or you can select "Browse This Collection" from the gray bar to browse an alphabetical list.  Search results are displayed as a series of thumbnail images that may be browsed, both forward and backward. To view the larger image and its corresponding description, double click on the thumbnail.  When viewing that larger image, using the sliding bar above and to the left of it to zoom in and out to very fine levels (for most maps). Due to the sheer size of the full-quality maps, only a lower-quality map is available online for download; for higher-quality copies, please contact the institution which owns the map. Any highlighted text in the description below each full-size image is searchable; just click. An option to return to the front page of the collection is located in the gray navigation bar at the top, and once there you can find links to a variety of related pages.

Creating the Database:

In partnership with the University of Washington Libraries Map Collection, Kathryn Womble and Jennifer Stone Muilenburg supervised UW's contribution to the collection, while Trevor Bond oversaw Washington State University's portion of the project. Al Cornish provided extensive technical support for the project. At the University of Washington Libraries, Joshua D. Walker added metadata, edited the database, and scrutinized UW's digital images. Michael Walpole scanned and photographed the initial maps from Washington State University and added them to the CONTENT database. Mari Hillestad researched the initial maps and wrote the introduction. Mark O'English selected and scanned maps, researched maps and constructed metadata, edited the database, and refined the timeline. Al Cornish provided technical support for CONTENT and aided Joseph Groh and Trevor Bond, and Kathryn Womble, in the site's design.  In 2014, additional maps were scanned and described by Evelyn Moos and Kerry Clark.

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