Historical Maps

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Finding old maps to help with accurate city placement and terrain layout.

by Blackclove (November 1998)


Introduction: Historical Maps

If you are designing a Civ2 scenario, you'll want to have historical maps on hand to aid in picking the civilizations, setting up borders and especially laying out where cities are. But, where do you go to get these maps? Here, I suggest several sources, ranging from the obvious to the not-so-obvious. The final section includes suggestions for finding historical maps and information on the web, including some really good sites to visit.

Historical Maps at the Bookstore

Your favorite bookstore is unlikely to have extremely accurate historical maps, but there are other resources there that may help. Many bookstores are very nice about letting you paw through their collections, particularly larger ones like Barnes and Nobles'. Take advantage of this: Buy yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy it while you read. I tend to start at the bookstore because they make better coffee than I do, and have more comfortable chairs than the university.

A promising first source for picking interesting time periods is often a Historical Atlas, such as The Times Historical Atlas (published by The Times of London, the famous newspaper). What do you get for your $95? A very good overview of interesting expansions including colorful maps of national borders, including approximate "spheres of influence" for early powers that were not states per se and, for very old maps, cultural clusters. Encyclopedias are quite similar in terms of their coverage. While such sources are excellent for selecting a time period to work with, and are good for naming civilizations, they are less good for the kind of detail-oriented map making required by scenario designers. The World Atlas is also a good starting point for maps, historical information, and so on.

As a second pass, one might try to find books on the specific time period of interest. If y ou visit your local bookstore, try the history and military history sections first. You may be surprised to find useful information in other areas too, however, in particular the World Travel section. Most guidebooks, especially those published by European companies, include short histories of the country in question. They also often contain information about monuments and cities that can help with placement of towns and with selecting Wonders of the World.

When designing my Toussaint L'Overture scenario, about Haiti at the end of the 18th century, the Travel section was less than helpful (you can't really go to Haiti anymore, at least from the USA). However, the African American Interest section turned up some good books on black history in North America that had relevant sections.

With all of these sources, unless you're building maps of quite current times, detailed maps are often absent. Jan Rogozinski's book "A Brief History of the Caribbean" was incredibly useful, but the maps tended to be outline maps that showed little in the way of geography or city placement.

Using Your Local Library

Libraries often contain academic books with less circulation than those sold at major bookstores. Academic books, including theses and dissertations, are your best bet for detailed historical maps. They also may include other bonus data such as information about individuals who may enrich your scenario, populations, and cultural data.

If you live in a large metropolitan area, try the main branch of your public library. They'll usually let you check things out for free and may have comfy chairs and photocopiers.

The best source, though, is university and college libraries. Most college libraries will allow you to walk in and look for books, even if they are not going to let you check them out.

If you live in the USA, you almost certainly have a community college nearby even if you don't have a university or college library. Community colleges are often surprisingly good about helping you find what you're looking for, and may even have good collections. You can also often order books you're looking for through Inter-Library Loan. This is usually a FREE service and is well worth it. If the library has a computerized index you may be able to use it to find books that are at other libraries through "gateways". Ask the reference staff for help, in any case -- that's what they're there for.

Web Sources for Historical Maps

OK, you've been waiting for this part, haven't you? How can you get good historical maps without getting up from the computer? For recent history, a good start is to go to your favorite search engine and look for sites specifically dedicated to the region or time period in question. There are many such sites available, a few with moderately good maps. This usually will net you a lot of interesting historical information, including some books to look for at the library. But what if this still doesn't get you a good map?

Surprisingly, there are a number of good web sites that are dedicated to housing historical maps of all sorts. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Raremaps.com: Although this company is really here to sell old maps (which may be fun if you're a collector), they have digitized many of their maps! The content changes frequently and they have a large collection of hard-to-find maps. Clicking on the thumbnail often brings up a detailed JPEG image that you can then save and use with your favorite paint program. Many of the maps show great detail including individual cities. They are organized by region and by date, and are the actual original maps as drawn by people at that time.
  • The Perry-CasteƱada Library Map Collection: The University of Texas maintains a list of other sites that have old maps. It's a good list. They also have some of their own available for viewing.
  • Seibold's Maps Project: Jim Seibold has compiled an impressive collection of historical maps. Many of the older maps are currently being hosted by a generous donor, but the maps from 1500-1800 (over 500!) are NOT available! Be generous and host these maps, as they would be a great service to the civ2 community. Plus, it's a worthy project for other reasons. (Link dead - February 2011)
  • Westland's Historical Map Collection: A Dutch site with many historical maps available for viewing. (Link dead - February 2011)
  • The U.S. Library of Congress Historical Map Collection: Several good historical maps of the USA, including maps showing battles.
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