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Circular 1341

History of the Topographic Branch (Division)

By Richard T. Evans and Helen M. Frye

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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 of the government, which had in view the development of the national resources of this vast area.

Although between 1867 and 1878 numerous surveys were carried on in all parts of the United States, of great value for the specific purposes for which they were planned, especially in the survey of proposed railroad, canal, and wagon routes, there were only four large, well-equipped organizations carrying on systematic topographic surveys under government supervision and support. These were the U.S. Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel (Clarence King, 1867–79), under the War Department; the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (Professor F.V. Hayden, 1867–79), under the Interior Department; the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (Maj. J.W. Powell, 1869–79), under the Smithsonian Institution; and the Geographical Surveys west of the 100th meridian (Capt. George E. Wheeler, C.E., 1868–79), under the War Department.

First posted November 17, 2009

For additional information contact:
Director, National Geospatial Program
Geography Discipline
U.S. Geological Survey
USGS National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192–0002
(703) 648–5569
Or visit the National Geospatial Program Web site at:

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Suggested citation:

Evans, R.T., and Frye, H.M., 2009, History of the topographic branch (division): U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1341, 196 p.




Predecessor Surveys

Early Mapping Methods

Inception and Early Years of the Geological Survey

Sale of Topographic Maps

Investigation by Congress

Area Surveyed

The General Systems of Maps Needed

The Best Method of Constructing Topographic Maps

Washington Clubs and Societies

Powell Irrigation Survey

Tenth Anniversary

State Cooperation

Mapping in Idaho

Mapping Accomplished (1889–90)

Mapping in North and South Dakota

Appropriations and Reorganization

The Cuvier Prize

Primary Traverse

First Map Revision

Manual of Topographic Methods

Walcott Becomes Director

George Otis Smith, Director

Mapping Costs

Potomac River Survey

Washington and Vicinity Map

Survey Order No. 5

Survey Order No. 11

Winter Work in the White Mountains

Motorcycles and Motorcars

New Building Authorized

Shaded Relief Maps

The Panama–Pacific International Exposition and The Panama–California Exposition

Temporary Field Employment

Ohio–Michigan Boundary Line

Survey Order No. 67

Survey Order No. 69

Survey Order No. 70

Survey Order No. 77

World War I

Allotments (1907–18)

Survey Order No. 94

Survey Order No. 97

Division of West Indian Surveys

American Society of Military Engineers

Board of Surveys and Maps

Schoolcraft Quadrangle

Survey Order No. 100

Vocational Training under the Veterans Bureau

Arkansas–Mississippi Boundary Line

Minnesota–Wisconsin Boundary Line

Survey Order No. 106

Survey Order No. 99 Amendment

The Brazilian Centennial Exposition (1922)

Colorado River Surveys

Survey Order No. 114

Temple Act

Training Films

Topographic Instructions

Maine–New Hampshire Boundary Line

Oklahoma–Texas Boundary Line

Fiftieth Anniversary

Fifty Years of Service

New Mexico–Texas Boundary Line

Survey Order No. 128

Appropriations and Personnel (1929)

Map of Roseau River Valley, Minnesota—Staack and Sadler (1929–30)

Aerial Photography

Public Works Administration Projects

Louisiana–Mississippi Boundary Line

Personnel Notes

Vermont–New Hampshire Boundary Line

Mapping of the Tennessee River Basin

Science Advisory Board

American Society of Photogrammetry

Topographic Mapping Policy Committee

Special Committee

American Congress on Surveying and Mapping

World War II

World War II Record

Pan American Institute of Geography and History

Technical Memorandum No. 51

Noteworthy Events (1945)

Memorandum for Field Offices

Survey Order No. 148

Memorandum for Division and Section Chiefs

Dallas H. Watson, Atlantic Division Engineer

Survey Order No. 150

Survey Order No. 151

Survey Order No. 152

Survey Order No. 157

Survey Order No. 160

Survey Order No. 162

Aid for Downed AAF Plane

Regional Conferences

Map Exhibits

Foreign Visitors

Survey Order No. 173

Survey Order No. 186

Tours of Duty at Division Headquarters

Letter from Chief, Topographic Division

Survey Order No. 192

Survey Order No. 193

Memorandum to Trimetrogon Section

Topographic Division Bulletin

Training Course in Topographic Mapping Methods

Survey Order No. 213

Topography—The Lay of the Land

Topography Streamlined and Modernized

With New Instruments a More Exact Science

Map Information Office

Systematic Appraisal of Mapping Needs

An Assist to the Air Force

Foreign Activities of the Topographic Division

Summary of Progress


Suggestions Awards

Award of Excellence

Superior Accomplishment or Merit Promotion Awards

Honor Awards

Contract Mapping

American Society of Civil Engineers

Survey Order No. 219

Survey Order No. 220

Memorandum from Director to Division Chiefs

Topographic Division Personnel Serving on Committees

State Mapping Advisory Committees

State Cooperation

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary

U.S. Geological Survey 75th Anniversary Observance

Topographic Mapping (1879–1954)

Summary of Current (1952) Trends In Topographic Mapping Procedures

Tribute to Survey Wives

Selected Biographies


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