Of Civil Works, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, and the Randomness of Records in the Cartographic Branch

When you work with cartographic records at the National Archives, it is fair to say that you never know what you are going to randomly come across when you open a folder. Sometimes, it is a newer, published map. Sometimes (on a really great day) it is a 200-year-old manuscript map, and somedays, it’s random woodpeckers. Those are the days that I like the best!

The scope and content note in the National Archives online catalog for RG 77: Civil Works Map File reads like this:

“The records in this series comprised the main map collection for the Corps of Engineers during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They include manuscript maps forwarded to headquarters by Corps of Topographic Engineers and Army Engineer surveyors and cartographers in the field, and published editions of selected maps. The maps pertain to numerous subjects, including surveys of the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and other bodies of water; construction or improvement of harbors, canals, roads, railroads and other internal improvements; exploration of the West and surveying of western terrain; location of posts and fortifications, Indian tribes, and settlements in western territories; military roads and routes between Army posts; campaigns and battlefields of the Revolutionary War, the Seminole War in Florida, Indian Wars in the West, the Mexican War, and the Civil War (including both Union Army maps and Confederate Army maps acquired by Union forces); surveys of boundaries between States and Territories; and numerous foreign areas. Architectural and engineering drawings in this series relate to canals, bridges, dams, piers, and jetties as built along the coasts and inland waterways. Also included are plans of dredge boats used in improving rivers and harbors.”

Given all of that, if I were to say to you, “Civil Works Map File,” I bet the first thing that would spring to mind wouldn’t be Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Don’t worry – it wasn’t the first thing that entered my mind either when I began scanning this series of records for inclusion in the catalog. Nevertheless, here they are!

RG 77: Civil Works Maps File. Untitled Drawing of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers – Proof Plate 36 of Volume X of “Surveys and Exploration for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean”. Z-491-1. (NAID 200268148) Front.
RG 77: Civil Works Maps File. Untitled Drawing of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers – Proof Plate 36 of Volume X of “Surveys and Exploration for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean”. (NAID 200268148) Reverse.

One of my favorite parts of my job is finding little surprises like this one in the records where you never expected them to be. Having no idea how or why they were included in the records only makes them all the more intriguing. And though there is text on the back of the image, the notation ends, saying, “…no information as to source” and so all we are left with is two mystery woodpeckers staring back at us across the decades.

If you would like to read more about the Civil Works Map File Z Series, be sure to check out “Civil War Maps from the Army Corps of Engineers Now Digitized” by Amanda Pritchard for more information.

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