History of the topographic branch (division)

Circular 1341




From a very early period of the world's existence, man has endeavored to represent the earth's surface in a graphic form for the information of his fellow men, realizing that no oral or written description is capable of setting forth topographic facts so vividly and so clearly as a map. Mapping of the areas of the United States began with the charting of portions of its coast line by early explorers; the need for topographic maps was first recognized during the war of the Colonies for independence from Great Britain. On July 22, 1777, Congress authorized General Washington to appoint: 'Mr. Robert Erskine, or any other person that he may think proper, geographer and surveyor of the roads, to take sketches of the country and the seat of war.' By several acts during the Revolutionary War, Congress provided 'geographers' for the armies of the United States, some of them with the pay of a colonel, amounting to $60 a month and allowances. At the end of the War, a resolution of May 27, 1785, continued in service the 'geographer of the United States' for a period of 3 years. The War Department recognized the necessity of 'geographical engineers' and requested Congress to authorize their appointment, but it was not until the next war that Congress authorized on March 3, 1813, the appointment of eight topographic engineers and eight assistant topographic engineers under the direction of the General Staff of the Army. These officers formed the nucleus of the first Corps of Topographic Engineers in the Army, and that Corps continued to function as an independent unit until it was absorbed by the Corps of Engineers in 1863, during the Civil War between the States. Between the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the outbreak of the Civil War, more than a hundred exploring and mapping expeditions were sent into the vast territory lying west of the Mississippi River to investigate the natural resources of this newly acquired country and to find possible locations for wagon roads to the Pacific Coast. These expeditions were sent out by the War Department and were in charge of Army officers. It is interesting to note that such generals as George G. Meade, J.C. Fremont, Joseph E. Johnston, W.F. Smith, John Pope, A.W. Whipple, J.G. Parke, G.K. Warren, and H.L. Abbott, all officers of the Corps of Topographic Engineers, had charge of expeditions and were among our earliest map makers. Unfortunately, the data obtained by these editions were not of sufficient accuracy to serve as a basis for topographic maps of value other than in illustrating their voluminous reports. During this early period, numerous surveys were undertaken within the original Thirteen States, by the Federal government and by the States. The most important were those carried on by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which made an accurate survey of the Atlantic Coastline and established a triangulation system that was of so high a standard as to constitute the first and only accurate data for topographic mapping obtained before the Civil War. The Coast and Geodetic Survey, while charting the coast and rivers, also mapped a strip of country extending a few miles inland, the relief being shown by means of hachures, together with contour lines, until 1846 when the first government topographic map on which the relief was shown by contours alone was made, covering an area in the vicinity of Boston Harbor. In 1835, however, the Geological and Topographical Survey of Maryland had issued a map on which the relief was shown by contours, and this is believed to be the first contoured map issued in this country. The outbreak of the Civil War stopped all mapping activities other than those needed by the U.S. Army. During the war, topographic surveys were carried on throughout the war zone under the supervision of the Corps of Engineers, the topographers being civilian employees. After the war, the country west of the Mississippi again became the center of the mapping activities

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USGS Numbered Series
History of the topographic branch (division)
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U.S. Geological Survey
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National Geospatial Program Geography Discipline
xvi, 196 p.