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American Women: Resources from the Geography and Map Collections

Landownership Maps

Landownership maps and atlases are a particularly rich source of information about women's property, businesses, and relative wealth, also providing insight into family structure. County boundaries define the areas most frequently found among the materials that show landownership. The Library's collections include both maps and atlases that were produced primarily for the purpose of showing landownership, although they also may show how land was used and sometimes indicate changes in land use over time. A variety of other kinds of maps, such as battlefield maps and urban plans, provide landownership and land use information in addition to the primary purpose for which the map was drawn. These maps are not included in the Library of Congress finding aids for county landownership maps and atlases but may be listed and described in other bibliographies and finding aids.

Single Maps and Atlases

Single sheet maps, often very large in size, are described in Land Ownership Maps: A Checklist of Nineteenth Century United States County Maps in the Library of Congress. The checklist includes bibliographic descriptions of nearly fifteen hundred maps that were created to show landownership. Landownership material is also available in atlas format, particularly at the county level. The major bibliographic resource for these materials is United States Atlases: A List of National, State, County, City, and Regional Atlases in the Library of Congress by Clara Egli LeGear.

Most of the maps and atlases produced primarily to show landownership and business locations were published during the nineteenth century and were financed by selling subscriptions. Where there was not a sufficient financial base to produce a profit for the publisher, who recovered costs by selling subscriptions and advertising space, few of these kinds of maps were produced. Less affluent areas of the United States are therefore not well represented on subscription maps.

The maps often show the size of the real estate holdings of named individuals, an indication of social and economic status in the community. Occupational information concerning women may also be ascertained from indications of land use such as lists of buildings or listed business patrons who provided funds toward the production of the map in exchange for advertising space. Personal names associated with boardinghouses, hotels, general stores, bakeries, and other kinds of businesses requiring the use of a commercial building provide clues to women's occupations. The marital status of the landowner is sometimes indicated by such forms of address as “Mrs.,” “Miss,” or “Widow.” Even in the absence of gender identification, surnames on landownership maps often provide information as to the family name of a woman and show proximity between family residences in the community, helping to trace family and kinship networks.

Scott's map of Lancaster County, state of Pennsylvania : from actual measurements
Joshua Scott. Scott's map of Lancaster County, state of Pennsylvania1858. Geography and Map Division

Sometimes the size of the family can be determined using the frequently appended “Jr.,” which appears for males and occasionally for females to indicate parent-child relationships. Illustrations show prominent individuals, family portraits, and the homes of affluent residents. Some maps also show how towns were laid out, naming the larger structures in the town, including women's schools and colleges. Both in terms of landownership and secondary information about land use, these maps show spatial relationships in the area and in the process also provide information about gender-defined spaces at a particular point in time.

It can also be possible to trace migration patterns in landownership maps, particularly when immigrants settled in ethnic communities. Germans, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, and Asians can be found living in close proximity to one another on some of these maps. For example, there are several Pennsylvania county maps showing enclaves of residents with German surnames, including Scott's Map of Lancaster County by Joshua Scott. In addition to ethnic groupings of the landholders, the map also shows how some of the county's land was used, such as indicating the location of a boardinghouse in Columbia township run by Mrs. Elizabeth Wolfe and the “Ladies' Seminary” and grounds.

A few of the county landownership maps and atlases also contain material on racial minorities. The Standard Atlas of Graham County, Kansas  includes the African American town of Nicodemus established in 1877. The town was settled by African Americans who migrated there from Kentucky, and the atlas gives the names of the inhabitants and shows their property. Likewise in the atlas Cherokee Nation, the map "Township 2 North, Range 24 East” includes the names of many Cherokee landowners including women such as Nancy Parchcorn, Lydia Leaf, Myrtle Morris, Elizabeth Carnes, and Mary Tehee.

Military Maps

Charles Spangenberg. Map of the siege of Vicksburg, Miss. 1863. Civil War Collection. Geography and Map Division.

Although the military was primarily a masculine institution—both in terms of the participants involved in wartime activity and those who produced its cartographic documentation—military maps often convey information about social and economic activities of a place and time. An example is maps in the digitized Civil War collection, especially the relatively large-scale battle plans that contain landownership information, including the names of plantation owners in the South and farmers and entrepreneurs in the North. Often there is information about buildings in the vicinity with some identified as being related to female use, such as women's and girls' seminaries and schools.

As an example, a researcher located the birthplace of the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist, Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919).14 Walker was born on a plantation directly across the river from the site of the Civil War battle of Vicksburg. The search strategy began with knowledge of the plantation owner's name and its general location and a time period around the era of the Civil War. Documentation was found on several maps of the siege of Vicksburg that shows the plantation on which Walker was born, such as this 1863 map by Charles Spangenberg.

Urban Plans

Urban plans can provide landownership and land use information in addition to the primary purpose for which the map was drawn. A manuscript map of Los Angeles, based on a map from the 1850s, was drawn in 1873 to show the central area of the Mexican pueblo. That same year, the town was resurveyed by the Americans who had seized California during the Mexican War. The Library purchased the map in part because it holds no other early original maps of Los Angeles that show the central part of the city in detail at the time when the area was becoming Anglicized. It is an artifact documenting the meeting of two cultures in an area of the country that at the time was a borderland, just as a new, hybridized culture was developing there (see illustration).

A.G. Ruxton. Map of the old portion of the city surrounding the plaza...Los Angeles City. 1873 March 12. Geography and Map Division. Although many maps in the division indicate property owners of different ethnic origins and give considerable information about them, this map of Los Angeles is unusual in showing a comparatively large number of women owners in a relatively small geographical area. The map is an important resource for studying Hispanic and mestizo women in an urban borderland.

In addition, the map records early titles to lots and buildings in the central city which helped Hispanic landowners prove property claims to the satisfaction of the American government, thus enabling them to retain their land and homes after the American conquest. Among those named as owners of city lots were several individuals with female given names, such as “Pilar,” “Maria,” “Ramona,” and “Serafina.” These names illustrate an aspect of Spanish law, which allowed married women to retain family property in their own names and to buy and sell land (see Law Library of Congress).

Using the Los Angeles map that was based on information from the 1850s and 1860s and The First Los Angeles City and County Directory, originally published in 1872, a researcher can begin to understand the roles played by women during the pueblo era and into the early period of American occupation and settlement.15 The Sisters of Charity convent, which is in close proximity to the orphanage on the map, shows the origin of what later became the Sisters of Charity school for girls and young women listed in the city directory.

The directory lists a number of women, including many widows, and contains a full-page advertisement for a female nursery-owner who claimed to have the best citrus trees—oranges, lemons, and limes—all grown from seeds that she brought from Nicaragua. Although trees are shown on the map, only one area resembles an orchard, showing trees planted in rows, but its label indicates that the area was used as a cemetery.

Set Maps

Taxation Maps Bureau Territory of Hawaii. Tax map (first division, zone 4, section 3, plat 28, sheet 228 [Honolulu]). 193-. Geography and Map Division.

Some of the large-scale set maps contain significant amounts of material about women and family life. An example is a series of Hawaiian tax maps, produced by the Taxation Maps Bureau of the Territory of Hawaii in the decade of the 1930s, with a correction sheet done in the 1940s, providing detailed information about Hawaiian landowners. Not only are the first and last names given for each of the property holders, male and female, but relationships between husband and wife and lots held by other joint tenants are identified and documented in far greater detail than is available for most other American cities and states. Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, and the usual mix of surnames found in other parts of the United States reflect the great diversity of the population of Hawaii. Many women's names appear on this map, some with their maiden names. Emily Costa, Jane (Chung) Chung, Grace Louis Emery, Lucy K. Chillingworth, and Mildred E. (Heath) Easton are named, as well as Lucille Miyamoto, who appears to have inherited property equally with her male siblings who are listed as minor children.

Secondary Sources

In addition to the primary sources described, all of which are contemporary historical maps and atlases, a significant amount of secondary source material is available based on a variety of landownership data that have been compiled from original records and presented in map format. An excellent example is Beth Mitchell's landownership map of Fairfax County, Beginning at a White Oak...: Patents and Northern Neck Grants of Fairfax County, Virginia. The map is based on early land patents showing the names of owners, some of whom are female, for the period from 1651 to 1679.

Mitchell's meticulously researched text explains the information on the map. The site of the modern city of Alexandria was originally part of the patent taken out by Margaret Brent (ca. 1601-1671) in 1651. She was the first woman in the North American colonies to obtain and hold a large land grant in her own name, and she managed her own estate, one of the largest in the county. Brent has the additional distinction of being the first American woman to ask for the right to vote because of her status as a property owner. Similar reconstructed landownership maps are available for other locations and time periods, generally under the subject heading of “land titles,” followed by the place-name. The subject headings for Mitchell's work are “Land titles—Virginia—Fairfax Co.” and “Fairfax County (Va.)—Genealogy.”


  1. A'Lelia Perry Bundles, Madam C. J. Walker (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991; HD9970.5.C672 W353 1990). Back to text
  2. Reproduced in facsimile with an introduction by Ward Ritchie and early commentaries by J. M. Guinn (Ward Ritchie Press, 1963). Back to text