Cartographic Records Relating to African American History

February is African American History Month. All of our Special Media branches hold a variety of records relating to African American history. Today, we are featuring some related records from the Cartographic Branch.

Freedmans Village near Arlington, Hights [Heights] Virginia, July 10, 1865. RG 92, Post and Reservation Maps, Map 110-A-5. NAID 305826.
The above plan shows the layout for the Freeman’s Village that was established on the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, about half a mile from Arlington House, at what is now Arlington National Cemetery. The village was established during the Civil War as a temporary camp for newly freed slaves.  It was intended to provide a temporary home for freedpersons while they obtained the basic education and vocational skills necessary to obtain work and become self -sufficient. However, many residents became attached to the community and stayed on. The community eventually grew to support several thousand residents.

6050547 -- contraband quarters mason's island
Contraband Quarters, Mason’s Island, Washington, D.C. (now Roosevelt Island). RG 92, Post and Reservation Maps, Map 1-A-24. NAID 6050547.

This plan shows the layout and buildings for Contraband Quarters on Mason’s Island (today Roosevelt Island). Mason’s Island was used as a training camp for African American soldiers in 1863 and became the site of a camp to house formerly enslaves persons in 1864. Nothing remains of the camp today and it is unknown exactly where the camp was located at on Roosevelt Island.

305749_013_001 -- fort wagner
Plans and Section of Fort Wagner. RG 77, Fortification File, Drawer 64, Sheet 55 1/2. NAID 148942209.

This is a plan for Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina. In July, 1863, Union forces attack this fort in an attempt to capture it from the Confederates. The attack was led by the 54th Massachusetts, an infantry regiment made up of African American soldiers. The regiment and the attack against Fort Wagner are depicted in the popular movie Glory. Although the attack was ultimately unsuccessful in capturing the fort, the 54th Massachusetts’s role in the attack helped to prove the bravery of African American soldiers and led to increased recruitment of African Americans by the U.S. Military.

Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, US 269. NAID: 86455714. 

This map represents one of the first American attempts to translate census data into a visual representation on a map. It was created in 1861 by the U.S. Coastal Survey using statistical data from the 1860 census. The map shows the percentage of slaves by county, with different colors reflecting the percentage. It provides a visual picture of how enslaved persons were distributed across the Southern States. It was reported to have been a favorite map for President Abraham Lincoln to consult during the Civil War and is depicted in Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s famous painting “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln.” This map is one of many copies in existence.

Map of Virginia Showing the Distribution of its Slave Population from the Census of 1860. RG 77, Fortification File, Drawer 150, Sheet 7. NAID: 6860733. 

The 1861 map of Virginia is similar to the map showing the distribution of slaves across the South. It was also based on the 1860 census. This map was important to illustrate the unequal distribution of enslaved persons in the eastern and western counties of Virginia. This particular version of the map was modified to include Kanawha, the western part of the state of Virginia, which is shown in light green. The map shows the smaller percentages of enslaved persons living in the western portion of the state versus the eastern portion. This issue, in part, led the western counties of Virginia to breaking off and form the new state of West Virginia in 1863.

These maps and plans provide only a glimpse into the records of the Cartographic Branch that relate to African American history. We encourage you to visit the Cartographic Research Room in College Park, Maryland in person or browse the National Archives Catalog online to find others!


American Battlefield Trust. Fort Wagner.

Amos, Alcione M. “‘Contrabands’ Camps and Lives.” Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 2013.

Boston Public Library. Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. Item Description for Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States.

National Park Service. “Freedman’s Village.” Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.

National Park Service. “Theodore Roosevelt Island. Historic Documentation Programs.”

Schulten, Susan. “Mapping the Nation: A Companion Site.” Chapter 4: Slavery and the Origin of Statistical Cartography.

Schulten, Susan. Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Chicago Press, 2012.


2 thoughts on “Cartographic Records Relating to African American History

  1. The Mason’s Island contraband camp, which had originally been army barracks, appears to have been at the upstream end of the island near the end of a causeway connecting it with the Virginia shore.

Comments are closed.