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[Detail] An accurate map of North America.

Historical Research Capabilities: Interrogating Historical Maps

While certain general questions can be useful in studying virtually every primary source (see, for example, the questions used in the lesson The Historian's Sources), analyzing historical maps can be made easier by keeping in mind the standard features of maps. Routinely examining these standard parts of a map can be a useful first step in analyzing a historical map:

  • A title. According to the title, what is the map's purpose? Does the title tell you anything about for whom the map was drawn? Why might that be important?
  • A date. When was the map drawn? What was happening at the time that might influence what is shown on the map?
  • A compass rose or arrow. How is the map oriented?
  • A key. What symbols are used on the map? What do they stand for? What do the symbols tell us about the value the map-maker placed on the information shown?
  • A scale. How much distance in reality is represented by a particular segment on the map? Why was this scale chosen? (Think about the amount of area the map-maker wished to show versus the amount of detail.)

Choose any three maps from The Revolutionary War and Its Era. Use the questions above to begin your analysis of each map. Is it helpful to use your general knowledge of maps to structure your analysis of a specific map? Why or why not?