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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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The story of cartography, or mapmaking, in the North Carolina region may have begun with the Vinland map of 1440. Although its authenticity has been questioned, the map gives ample evidence, as tested by renowned scholars, that the East Coast of the New World from Newfoundland to Cuba was visited by Europeans well before Columbus. This was when North Carolina, as it is defined today, was known as "Nova Albion."

The early maps of the area that was to become North Carolina resulted from the mapping and compilation of information of the coast by ancient mariners and explorers. Mapping and recording observations from the deck of a bouncing ship were not easy tasks. The early maps were generally nothing more than rough sketches of the coastline with latitudinal measurements taken with a backstaff, distances measured with an alidade, and depths taken with a lead line. Surveying by the more modern method of triangulation came into practice with Thomas Harriot on the second of the Raleigh voyages in 1585-86, although triangulation was used to make maps as early as 1535 by Gerhard Mercator. Early maps did not usually have longitude, nor were they very accurate, sometimes intentionally so. Still, some of the maps were quite good (especially John Smith's map of 1612).

Nicholas Comberford’s 1657 map, "The South Part of Virginia." Image from of the exploration and discovery of America in the late fifteenth century and the sixteenth century was undertaken to find a shorter route to the Far East, and many maps were used to market that theme. Indeed, often a map's accuracy was secondary to its elaborate beauty. Such are the maps of the Thames School. In particular, Nicholas Comberford's map of 1657 shows a very generalized North Carolina coastline with scattered trees inland and Pamlico Sound described as a broad bay or inland sea. The Comberford map contains the earliest evidence of permanent European settlement of the region that became North Carolina. This colored manuscript map on vellum in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, is titled "The South Part of Virginia." Another one in the New York Public Library, otherwise virtually identical, has added in a later hand, "now the north part of Carolina." Shown between the Roanoke River and Salmon Creek is "Batts House," the trading post/home of Nathaniell Batts, believed to have been the first permanent settler of the colony.

By the mid-seventeenth century, maps were used to describe the virtues of America and other places of the New World. John Ogilby's atlas of America in 1671 and John Speed's map and description in 1676 are wonderful examples of early marketing. The early settlement of North Carolina, known as "Virginia" in 1675, began in the Albemarle Sound area and continued into the early 1700s. William Hack's map of 1684 shows the Appalachian Mountains, as more was being learned about the interior of America. Exploration of the interior portion of North Carolina was soon followed by settlement inland. John Lawson's map of 1709 and his surveying commentary attest to the acclimation of explorers to the landscape. More and more place names were being mapped and recorded. Place names began to appear on the maps in vastly greater density, and the descriptions on the maps were in much better detail.

Detail from John Ogilby's map "A new discription of Carolina by the order of the Lords Proprietors," 1671. Image from North Carolina Maps.In colonial times, as settlements were located more inland, explorers established trails, most of which were borrowed from the Indians. Surveyors following by foot or on horseback trotted across the frontier to divide up the land established by the king. Edward Moseley's map of 1733 added greatly to the understanding of the interior of North Carolina, as did James Wimble's 1738 map of the coast. John Collet's map of 1770 gives the names of settlers, and details such as shoals, swamps, and roads appear on the 1775 map of Henry Mouzon. Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson's map of the same year shows the name and location of stores, ferries, and roads. The North Carolina area was finally becoming settled.

As the United States became more spatially and politically organized after the American Revolution, the government took on the responsibility of mapmaking. Surveying and mapping by the government began by act of the Continental Congress on 20 May 1785, and the Board of Engineers was created in the early 1800s. The mapping of the coasts, harbors, and rivers became very important to the government. Thus, the need for individual surveyors, mapmakers, and the like became practically obsolete in the private sector, and they moved on to do mapping in the western United States, Canada, South America, Africa, and Pacific Coast.

Mapping programs by government agencies, particularly the U.S. Geological Survey, continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey had a continuous chart-updating program, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers continued its reconnaissance survey work. Major oil companies began to produce state road maps, and the North Carolina Highway Commission started its county road map series. Using these maps, Garland P. Stout researched old maps, deeds, and other records and recorded information on the North Carolina county maps. Each county map shows the location of post offices, schools, churches, gristmills, mine sites, and abandoned settlements.

Efforts to map soils began after World War I and continued throughout the century. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service, the North Carolina Soil Conservation Service, and the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development completed the mapping program by 1978. North Carolina was also covered by U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps with the assistance of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development.

With the advent of satellite imagery and computerized databases, mapping in North Carolina became permanently altered by the technical revolution. Mapping is now accomplished with a computer using a geographic information system (GIS), and place names are found in the geographic names information system (GNIS).

Cartographers or Publishers of Maps of the North Carolina Area

Early Maps

1440? Vinland
1500 Juan de la Cosa (sailed with Columbus)
1507 Martin Waldseemuller
1526 Juan Vespucci (nephew of Amerigo Vespucci)
1529 Diego Ribero (or Diogo Ribeiro)
1529 Giovanni da Verrazano (from voyage in 1524)
1538 Gerhard Mercator
1542 John Rotz
1550 Pierre Desceliers
1558 Diogo Homem
1560 Baptista Agnese (Portolan Atlas)
1562 Diego Gutierez
1567 Alonso de Santa Cruz
1569 Gerhard Mercator
1580 John Dee
1582 Michael Lok
1584 Ortelius-Chives

Elizabethan-Era Maps

1585 John White (watercolor drawing)
1587 John White (probably drawn by Thomas Harriot and published in 1590 by Theodor de Bry)
1590 Ortelius
1590 John White (published by de Bry, probably compiled from earlier maps)
1591 Theodor de Bry (probably drawn by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues)
1597 Cornely Van Wytfliet (used White as a partial source)
1605 Willem Janszoon Blaeu
1606 Gerhard Mercator–Jodocus Hondius
1608 John Smith
1611 Velasco
1612 Grauen B. Wm. Hole (probably from Smith)
1615 Cornely Van Wytfliet
1624 John Smith
1630 Gerhard Mercator
1640 Blaeu (based on Mercator-Hondius map of 1606)
1646 Robert Dudley
1647 Johannes Jansonius
1651 John (or Nicholas?) Farrer (or Ferrar?)
1651 John Goddard (or Gaddard) (possibly used Farrer’s map as source)
1653 Juan Jansonio (or Jansonius)
1656 Sanson (or Janson)
1657 Nicholas Comberford (Thames School)
1660 Jan Jannsson
1662 John Locke

Proprietary Period Maps

1666 Horne (compilation of explorations published by Hilton)
1667 John Farrer
1670 Augustine Herman (very near North Carolina area)
1671 John Locke (from Spanish sources)
1671 John Ogilby (used Locke’s map and Lederer’s information)
1672 Blome and John Ogilby
1672 John Lederer (shows first town “Sapon” on Roanoke River)
1672 John Ogilby–James Moxon (Lords Proprietors order)
1673 Robert Morden and William Berry
1676 Lamb (probably from John Speed)
1676 John Speed (similar to Ogilby’s map of 1671)
1676 Capt. John Wood (used Morden and Berry as source)
1677 Joel Lancaster (Thames style)
1679 Joel or James Lancaster
1682 Joel Gascoyne (Gascoigne)
1682 Joseph (or James?) Moxon
1684 William (or John) Hack
1684 Maurice Mathews
1685? John Thornton, Morden and Lea
1686? John Thornton and Fisher
1687 John Thornton
1695 John Thornton and Morden
1695 Willdey
1696 Guillaume De Lisle
1696 John Sanson (Pierre Mortier was probably publisher using Thorton and Morden under Sanson’s name)
1709 John Lawson
1715 Moll
1718 Guillaume De Lisle
1720 Moll
1720 Van Kenlen

Royal Colony Period, Revolutionary, and Postrevolutionary Maps

1729 Pierre or Peter Vander Aa
1732 Hinder
1733 Edward Moseley
1733 James Wimble
1736? Moll
1737 Brickell
1738 Edward Moseley
1738 James Wimble
1751 Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (two maps)
1755 Dalrymple (revised from Fry and Jefferson)
1768 Thomas Jefferies (or Jefferys)
1770 John Collet
1775 Henry Mouzon
1777 John Gascoigne
1792 Dubibin (from a map dated 1756)
1794 Henry Mouzon and others
1795 Henry Mouzon

Nineteenth-Century Maps

1808 Jonathan Price–John Strother
1820 Hamilton Fulton
1833 John MacRae (or Mac Rae)–Robert H. B. Brazier
1843 John Calvin Smith
1856 Adam and Charles Black
1861 Bachmann
1861 J. H. Colton
1882 Kerr-Cain


Educator Resources:

Grades K-8:

Grades K-8:


William P. Cumming, The Southeast in Early Maps (1962).

David B. Quinn and Alison M. Quinn, The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America, 1584-1590 (1982).

Richard A. Stephenson, "Comparative Cartography and Coastal Processes: Four Hundred Years of Change on the Outer Banks of North Carolina," Terrae Incognitae 22 (1990).

Additional Resources:

North Carolina Maps. North Carolina State Archives, North Carolina Collection of UNC-CH, and the Outer Banks History Center. (accessed October 10, 2012).

Cumming, William Paterson. “Naming Carolina” North Carolina Historical Review 22. 1945. p. 34-42. (accessed October 10, 2012).

William P. Cumming, “Wimble's Maps and the Colonial Cartography of the North Carolina Coast” North Carolina Historical Review 46. 1969. p.157-170. (accessed October 10, 2012).

H. Roy Merrens and Herbert R. Paschal, “A Map-Maker's View of Anson County in 1769” North Carolina Historical Review 59. 1982. p.271-278. (accessed October 10, 2012).

William S. Powell, Carolana and the Incomparable Roanoke: Explorations and Attempted Settlements, 1620-1663. North Carolina Historical Review 51. 1974. p.1-21. (accessed October 10, 2012).

Image Credits:

Comberford, Nicholas. "The South Part of Virginia." 1657. Image from (accessed October 10, 2012).

Ogilby, John. "A new discription of Carolina by the order of the Lords Proprietors," 1671. Image from North Carolina Maps. (accessed October 10, 2012).