Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Maps in the Archives: A Pop of Color

It’s easy to be engrossed by a detailed map, especially when that map is bursting with color! It’s not unusual to find these colorful documents tucked away in an archival box of the House’s official records. Some were sent to the House by citizens, some were produced by the government, but each one tells a story of America’s growth and development.

Below is a selection of the eye-catching maps maintained in House records.

Navigation of Mississippi River, ca. 1836

Navigation of Mississippi River/tiles/non-collection/2/2-15-Maps-Color-Navigation_NA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
Although the watercolors of this map have faded, they certainly brighten this 19th century request from the residents of Hancock County, Illinois. During the early 1800s, steamboats struggled to navigate a treacherous 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River known as the Des Moines Rapids. The petitioners urged Congress to consider funding to remove obstructions to ease steamboat travel. In addition to their description of the “extremely perilous” waters, they included two hand-drawn maps of the river showing the dangerous shallows and rocks.

On January 18, 1836, Representative William L. May of Illinois presented this petition to the House. The following year, Congress commissioned the Army Corps of Engineers to study the area and draft a plan for improving navigation. From 1838 to 1839, the corps focused on “underwater blasting to create a 200-foot-wide and five-foot-deep channel through [the rapids].” The difficult, time-consuming work continued in fits and starts, concluding in 1877 with a working canal, complete with locks to manage ship traffic.

Proposed Pacific Telegraph, ca. 1862

Proposed Pacific Telegraph/tiles/non-collection/2/2-15-Maps-Color-Telegraph_NA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
After Samuel Morse successfully transmitted the first official telegraphic message from the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore in 1844, interest in this new form of communication grew. A telecommunications enthusiast sent this map to the Committee on Commerce during the 37th Congress. Using an 1855 world map colored with the classic map tones of pink, yellow, and green as his base, he sketched a potential telegraph network that connected North America and Asia.

Congress was enthusiastic, too, and wanted to capitalize on the commercial and military possibilities of this rapid delivery of information. In 1860, the Pacific Telegraph Act authorized the U.S. Treasury to fund the construction of a telegraph line across the continental United States. Completed the following year, the transcontinental telegraph system connected the East and West Coasts.

Although the proposal in this petition was not carried out, a telegraph network spanned the globe within a few decades. A transatlantic cable was completed by 1866, and a transpacific cable was completed by 1903.

Regionalized Types of Farming in the United States, ca. 1939-1944

Regionalized Types of Farming in the United States/tiles/non-collection/2/2-15-Maps-Color-Regionalized_Farming_NA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
Maps were a vital resource to the Select Committee to Investigate the Migration of Destitute Citizens. This map, as well as the following map, were used by the select committee and were archived together.

Created by the Department of Agriculture, this map of the continental United States brings to mind a paint-by-number kit. During the early 1940s, the select committee referenced this map while examining the relationship between agriculture and interstate migration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Bright colors illustrate agricultural regions across the country.

Plummeting market prices and the environmental catastrophes that created the Dust Bowl made it increasingly difficult for many farmers to turn a profit during the 1930s. Unable to support themselves, many Americans became refugees in their own country, leaving their homes to look for opportunities elsewhere. Migrant farm workers moved frequently, competing to harvest the next ripe crop.

Between 1940 and 1941, the select committee held field hearings all around the United States, compiling their findings in a final report printed on April 3, 1941. The committee’s study found that migration was spurred by “declining economic opportunities,” particularly for those “who would not accept a permanently hopeless lot in the spot where they resided.”

Map of Florida Everglades Drainage District, ca. 1941

Map of Florida Everglades Drainage District/tiles/non-collection/2/2-15-Maps-Color-Everglades_NA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
With nutrient-rich soil and a favorable climate, the Florida Everglades proved to be a prime environment for growing fruits and vegetables. By draining, or reclaiming, the area of the Everglades shown in this map, Florida increased its acreage of fertile farmland. To complete this large-scale project, funding was secured through taxes. This map, created in 1935, was later hand-colored to show just how those taxes would be levied on local citizens, with each color representing a different tax rate.

On the Regionalized Types of Farming map showing the entire United States, above, Lake Okeechobee is flanked by two black sections indicating “Southeastern Truck Regions.” Truck gardens are farms dedicated to growing and shipping—or trucking—out-of-season produce to northern markets. Migrant workers flocked to these successful farms during the Great Depression. Many workers had lost their farms and jobs as a result of the economic collapse. The Select Committee to Investigate the Migration of Destitute Citizens also examined this Map of Florida Everglades Drainage District during their investigation. In late 1941, the select committee sent staff members to Florida to better understand the agricultural labor supply problems and migration of laborers to the agricultural centers surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

Colorful maps interspersed throughout House records document the everchanging American landscape and tell the stories of expansion and progress with vibrant hues.

For more about maps in House records, read Maps in the Archives: Dark Graphics.

Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Select Committee to Investigate Migration of Destitute Citizens, National Archives and Records Administration; RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Commerce, National Archives and Records Administration; RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Railways and Canals, National Archives and Records Administration.