Maps as Resources for Landscape and Land Use History


How can historical maps help us understand changes in landscape and land use patterns on PEI?

Historical maps are becoming increasingly more available for a range of historical research, from academic classroom contexts to individuals tracing family and community histories. The IslandImagined project at the University of Prince Edward Island Robertson Library is systematically digitizing a body of historical maps.

Although historical maps have been a primary point of reference in genealogy (Coles), historians have only recently begun to use the documents extensively. Their reluctance to do so was probably based on limited access to fragile and oversize collections, but the increasing accessibility of digitized map collections and even the manipulation of historical maps in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are opening the world of maps to a wide range of learners. Some excellent historical geography in the form of the Historical Atlas of Canada and other volumes has recently demonstrated the power of using maps both to read and to teach history, and the Island Imagined and many other web based collections are adding a digital dimension to this research. The result is what some have called the “spatial turn” in historical, genealogical, and social science research (Knowles, 2002, 2008). Comparing these documents across time adds a spatial component to temporal questions. Researchers in fields as diverse as history, ecology, genealogy, and land use planning who ask the questions “when, and why then” can now more easily use historical maps and ask “where, and why there?”

The moment a researcher begins to look for an ancestor on PEI or to identify land use patterns in the British period, he or she is confronted with the unique structure of the Island’s property system. The system was established after the expulsion of the Acadians and in many ways it has shaped the Island’s physical and social landscape. In order to facilitate the orderly British settlement of what became Prince Edward Island the colony was surveyed by Samuel Holland in the winter of 1764-1765. Lots of approximately 20,000 acres each were delimited as the main units of settlement in PEI, much like the seignurie in Quebec and the township in other parts of British North America. The main difference for PEI was that these lots were to be granted to absentee landlords and other large proprietors with the expectation that the owners would encourage immigration and sedentary occupation of the land. The relationship between the new residents and their landlords has simply been called the “land question,” and it has left an indelible impression on Island history (Coles; Hatvany).

However, focusing on the relationship between Islanders and their landlords has often clouded our understanding of the relationship between Islanders and the land. Historical maps are one way that researchers can move beyond the land question and begin to ask different questions about environmental history, subsistence, and exchange. We can ask questions like how was the Island landscape imagined in maps and map illustrations, and how did these perceptions change over time? What was the pattern of human activity in the environment, and how did the Island?s natural resources sustain human and non-human life in the Province? Did any of this human activity become unsustainable, and, if so, when? The history of landscape and land use change should also inform planners and policy makers, and as one scientific journal has put it: “Historical maps and literature represent a rich data source and a valuable tool in overcoming the short-term nature of many ecological studies” (Bromberg and Bertness, 829).

Many historical maps systematically recorded the kind of topographical and land use features that are critical for an understanding of human activity and environmental change. These features can be compared with more recent maps, inventories, and qualitative descriptions in order to identify patterns of continuity and change in the Island landscape and the communities that helped shape it.

Definitions and Important Sources

PEI’s historical maps came literally in all shapes and sizes; some were printed in standard texts and many have to be stored in oversize collections. There was no standard format for their creation, and the variety of information available from these documents is both impressive and confusing for new researchers. It is also difficult to categorize the various kinds of historical maps. A simplified division is between general reference maps which were concerned with the question of “what is where,” and thematic maps which were created to address questions of the quantity and value of features in relation to space. Both forms are useful for determining changes in the land, but thematic maps are usually the best way to get at land use. Thematic maps might include maps of routes and navigation lines, population density, military engagements, natural resources, or maps of property boundaries known as cadastral maps.

In the PEI context, what determines an important source will depend on the questions being asked. Some excellent examples of highly detailed maps are listed below; all original documents can be accessed at the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation: 

Other types of historical maps available for PEI include electoral and census boundary maps, bird’s eye view maps, fire insurance maps, geological surveys and maps of other natural resources created from aerial photography and other forms of remote sensing. The documents Islanders used to record their spatial understanding of landscapes ranged from personal descriptions to maps generated from systematic surveys such as bird’s eye view maps. Since the 1930s, governments and other parties have used remote sensing, or data gathering from images such as aerial and satellite photographs, to create detailed inventories of the Island’s resources and topographic features. In urban areas, the bird’s eye view maps and fire insurance maps are particularly useful for exploring the natural and built landscape, although like most historical maps they are best used in conjunction with other sources (Boylan).


From Exploration to Occupation: PEI in the World of Maps

Maps combine topography, history, and art. They are documents where people can express their cosmos and attempt to understand their worlds. By the time most PEI maps were drawn, cartographic conventions were firmly in place. Creative expression was still important in the creation of PEI historical maps, but in many ways it took a back seat to order and cartographic standards.

The Lake Map, Meacham’s, and other late nineteenth century historical atlases were designed in a time when recording names and property lines on a spatial grid were displays of both state power and scientific progress. Maps can be tools of persuasion and instruments of control, and in his book, Seeing Like a State, James Scott argued that the cadastral map represented a new stage in the state’s attempt to “measure, codify, and simplify” local knowledge (Scott, 36). The process of representing the Earth’s sphere on paper in two dimensions means that all maps favour a particular perspective or a view of the world as selected by the cartographer. In addition, there is no logical centre and no standard orientation on the globe that establishes the way a map should be drawn. These are human decisions, and although a certain levity is associated with calling a place like Stanley Bridge “the hub of the universe,” a person’s home or community is perhaps as valid as any other geographic starting place.

Cadastral maps were once limited to private land inventories, but in the sixteenth century they were increasingly used by national governments. By the nineteenth century, the United States, Britain, and the British colonies led a proliferation of statistical, land use, and property maps. For instance, the British Ordnance Survey created full cadastral maps of parishes in England and Wales in the 1830s and 1840s. And, in North America, cadastral maps went hand in hand with agricultural expansion, settlement, and the state distribution of land to individual and corporate owners (Hodgkiss).

Early land use maps were created in many European countries, and especially in the Netherlands, but the British were masters of the land use map beginning in the nineteenth century. In 1800, Thomas Milne created maps featuring seventeen different types of land use around London, and the first nation-wide land use survey since the Domesday Book was mapped in the 1930s for the Land Utilization Survey of Great Britain. By the second half of the nineteenth century, almost every feature of British population, society, economic development, and land use was being mapped by groups from the British Ordnance Survey to the Salvation Army. Efforts to map Britain’s colonies and plans for their orderly occupation were taken around the globe, and it was in this context that extensive surveys and large-scale PEI maps such as the Lake Map and Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas were created.

Topographical Maps in Prince Edward Island

In the early eighteenth century cartographers of Acadia and the Atlantic region focussed on fishing banks and coastal features in order to guide explorers, military expeditions, and fishing boats. Early descriptions of inland areas were at best uninformative and at worst misleading. Leaving empty spaces on maps was unpopular, and therefore inland topographical features such as mountain chains were mostly imagined (MacNutt).

However, maps dating from the eighteenth century have still been useful for studies of landscape change, mainly because such great attention was paid to coastal features. Environmental scientists Keryn Bromberg and Mark Bertness used historical maps of New England to establish the area of marshland in 1777 and to track losses due to sea level rise, watercourse alteration, agricultural expansion, urban growth and other changes in land use (Bromberg and Bertness). Historians of PEI have also begun to study changes in the Island’s ecosystems and physical landscape. Matthew Hatvany examined the relationship between agricultural communities and salt marshes in PEI and the Atlantic region. Doug Sobey used historical maps and qualitative sources in his Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island (2002), and he and William Glen have collaborated on several projects that address forest and agricultural land use in Island history (2004).

In the early days of the English period a different cosmology was expressed in the cartouche and other images on maps of the Maritime region. From Thomas Kitchin’s engraving of colonists engaged in sailing, fishing, and clearing the coastal zone in his 1749 map

[ Figure 1 – placeholder ]

to the stylized sketches of progressive farms and businesses in Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas of PEI, the images that accompanied maps depicted human transformations of the landscape. This was an Island that could sustain life and settlement as well as accommodate the notions of progress that people associated with the British Empire and its Industrial Revolution. Maps in the English period focussed on useful features such as towns, mines and agricultural settlements along the coast. The coastal features of early Island maps were often functional, such as sounding measurements and nautical descriptions of bays and rivers; by the late eighteenth century the function of maps was less about cosmology, art, and imperial exploration and conquest, and more about individual manipulation of resources. To Europeans, this process would require the orderly occupation of lands, a detailed knowledge of natural resources, and the displacement of any indigenous populations that were seen as a threat.

[ Figure 1: Inset from Thomas Kitchin’s 1749 Map of Nova Scotia ]

The forests and other interior lands that were once displayed as blank spaces or imagined topographies became just as important as the ocean for cartographers. The coast lines of Prince Edward Island, like most of the subarctic world, were measured and mapped extensively in the nineteenth century, and the cartographer’s focus shifted from coastal and off-shore resources to the lines of the land.1

1 Even the orientation of PEI maps became the familiar NNW angle that maximized the land that could be displayed on a rectangular grid.


Cadastral Maps in Prince Edward Island

In their basic forms cadastral maps show outlines of land parcels as determined by surveys, and the parcels are usually named or numbered to match legal property and taxation records. These maps often ignore topographical features except where they are important for identifying property lines. They also show restrictions and easements on rights to land, and more elaborate cadastral maps may include buildings and property, information on taxes and property values, and sometimes the names of owners. Most cadastral maps only hint at land use, and getting at this information requires comparing cadastral lists with material such as census manuscripts, farm diaries and account books, and other more qualitative sources. In some respects, land use features were of little interest to the state except in aggregate form through censuses, and the documentation of cadastral maps was a mechanism for tracking property values and location. James Scott argued that cadastral maps were “designed to make the local situation legible to an outsider” (Scott, 45). The Island Imagined project connects researchers to an extensive collection of nineteenth century cadastral maps and plans. These descriptive records were meant to connect leases, deeds, purchase payments, and tax payments to individual properties and their occupants. In many cases the maps delineated property boundaries, although the earliest comprehensive cadastral boundary map is Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas, of 1880.

Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas is a key resource on Island Imagined, and it represents a range of possibilities for landscape and land use research with cadastral maps. Highly detailed atlases produced by J. H. Meacham and other publishers were designed to appeal to a mass market and were popular in other parts of Canada in this period. These atlases usually contained cadastral boundaries and directory listings for the occupants of many or all properties in rural areas and small towns. For other examples and for a digitized collection of historical atlases in Ontario see The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project.

In this image of Lot Thirty One (Figure 2), we can follow the contours of the landscape from Clyde River up the Bannockburn Road and observe a natural and built environment significantly different from the one we see there today. Some landmarks are visible in the map that persist today such as the Atwell sandstone house on what was Zac Mayhew’s property (A) (Figure 3). Other dwellings such as the house on Archibald McFadyen’s 105 acre property (B) are now gone and marked only by an undulation in the landscape and a lone tree standing in what was once a farm yard (Figure 4).

Figure 2: Inset from Lot Thirty One, Meacham's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Prince Edward Island

Figure 2: Inset from Lot Thirty One, Meacham's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Prince Edward Island

 Figure 3: Atwell Sandstone House, Provincial Designated Heritage Place

Figure 3: Atwell Sandstone House, Provincial Designated Heritage Place


 Figure 4: Current day landscape at the location of Archibald McFadyen's house on Bannockburn Rd in Meacham's Atlas

Figure 4: Current day landscape at the location of Archibald McFadyen's house on Bannockburn Rd in Meacham's Atlas

This virtual walk up the Bannockburn reveals that a short span of the upper Clyde River was dammed in 1880 in at least four places to provide water power to half a dozen local mills. The final dam appeared near the Kingston crossroads where a busy concentration of store, mill, and church buildings once serviced the agricultural community in the surrounding areas (Figure 2: C). However, all the mills and dams are gone today. The Clyde River flows silted but otherwise unfettered into the brackish West River; the intersection in Kingston hosts only a small church, a community hall, and some homes retrofitted from stores and church buildings.

In another setting, comparing topographic features over time by using the Meacham’s and Cummins atlases can gives us a glimpse of human responses (and lack thereof) to coastal erosion. Given that its colloquial name is “the Acadian peninsula” it is not surprising that a large section of Lot Fifteen is exposed to erosion. One precarious spit at the mouth of the Haldimand River was recorded as land owned by the Angus McMillan Shipyard in 1880, but oddly enough, the 1927 atlas suggests that this parcel was not fit to be considered a property (Figure 5 and Figure 6).

Figure 5: Lot 15 Insert, 1880

Figure 6: Lot 15 Insert, 1927

Aerial Photographs and Maps

When the 1935/1936 air photographs are consulted for the same point we see that the 1927 atlas (a close copy of Meacham’s) was not entirely accurate (Figure 7).2 The air photo shows a more prominent land mass in mouth of the river (A), and a concentration of vehicles or small buildings on the point. The Cummins map was correct in that the point was probably no longer a shipyard, but clearly the space was being used for some activity, most likely the fishing industry. Furtherer research in land records and business directories would help explain the fate of the shipyard, and early landscape photographs might be a source for understanding land use in this community. The air photo also shows that a large section of the properties on this point were undesirable locations for any kind of agriculture or dwellings in the 1930s.

Tracing the story of the Haldimand peninsula even further to the year 2000 shows that the landscape changed dramatically over the twentieth century due to coastal erosion, currents, and changing water courses. The landscape in Figure 8 consisted of a much smaller spit, with no signs of industry on the point. Land use activity increased along the wharf area (D), and farmland was returned to forest in other areas. The lack of human response to what appears to be a steadily retreating coast line is evidenced in the increased development along the shore and the remarkably short distance between some of the new residences and the Northumberland Strait (C). Several structures which had been built along the shore before 1935 (B) were missing entirely in 2000 (E).

Figure 7: 1935/1936 Air Photo, Lot 15

Figure 7: 1935/1936 Air Photo, Lot 15

Figure 8: 2000 Air Photo, Lot 15

Figure 8: 2000 Air Photo, Lot 15

Comparing historical interpretations of the landscape with contemporary photography helps to put flesh on the skeletal structure that is our knowledge of human relationships with the land. This is simply another example of the importance of integrating multiple perspectives in historical research. However, there is a wealth of data in these historical maps even without the information added by the air photos. There is a gender story inherent in many historical maps, but notably even the two Meacham’s examples used here (Figure 2 and Figure 5). Women are often recorded as occupiers of land in historical atlases. For example, in Clyde River, Sarah Fisher owned five acres and at least two buildings next to the river on what is now the MacPhee Meats business. Without mill power or any farm land to speak of, it is possible that she ran a tavern, boarding house or some other business that would benefit from this high traffic rural area. By comparing Meacham’s with other cadastral maps of Lot Thirty One and sources such as business directories, it might be possible to identify Fisher and her business at other points in time.

In Lot Fifteen, one of the very few 150 acre lots was divided between Mrs. Maxim Arsenault and her daughters, although the 100 acre lot designated to the daughters had no residence. This was a common method of bequeathing property, and not surprisingly, by 1927 the large farm was sold and subdivided again. More generally, the apparent differences in the average size of properties in Lot Fifteen and Lot Thirty One, reflected not only inheritance patterns but also the economic and cultural circumstances experienced by Acadians in PEI and other minority groups throughout Canada (Clark; Bouchard). These industrial, environmental, gender, and cultural issues are just some of the many questions that can be asked of maps in conjunction with a variety of other historical materials.

2 Prince Edward Island, Aerial Photographs website, accessed 4 May, 2010.

Accessing and Using the Maps

Researchers are able to search Island Imagined to find maps according to the information they contain. This includes searches by place names, date, subject, creator, and medium (e.g. manuscript or published map). Information such as the title, location, and date of the map can usually be found in the description tab, but other information can be gleaned from the titles, legends, scale bars, and north arrow or compass rose which are often visible on the document itself. Information on the provenance of most of the cadastral maps is scarce, and most of the metadata has been recreated from the documents themselves.

Once found, the map image and map description may be explored using the Island Imagined navigation tools. The possibilities for using each map in the collection to examine landscape and land use patterns will vary by the creative approaches of each reader.

It perhaps goes without saying that the features of the natural and built environment in historical maps should be tested against other sources to determine accuracy. For instance, it would be useful to compare areas in Meacham’s Illustrated Atlas with other contemporary cadastral maps to identify changes in ownership and property dimensions. As in all historical work, readers should consider the authorship, purpose, and intended audience of the map as a primary source. They should also set the information in context by considering what the author knew at the time and how he or she understood the contemporary world represented by the map.



Bloomfield, Linda Foster, and L. W. Laliberte, Waterloo Township Cadastre in 1861 : "a System of the most Regular Irregularity," (Guelph: Dept. of Geography, University of Guelph, 1994).

Gérard Bouchard, “Transmission of Family Property and the Cycle of Quebec Rural Society from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century,” in Canadian Family History: Selected Readings, Bettina Bradbury, ed. (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1992), 112-34.

John Boylan, “The Best Laid Plans: Fire Insurance Mapping on Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine 58 (2005): 23-27.

Karyn D. Bromberg and Mark D. Bertness, “Reconstructing New England Salt Marsh Losses Using Historical Maps,” Estuaries 28 (6) (December 2005): 823-832.

Andrew Hill Clark, Three Centuries and the Island (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959).

Ann Coles, “A Beginner’s Guide to Island Land Records,” Island Magazine 25 (1989): 35-41.

Richard Mark Enman, “The Meacham Companion,” (Charlottetown: s.n., 1986) UPEI Robertson Library, Special Collections, G1135.A44 1880 PEI.

Matthew G. Hatvany, “Tenant, Landlord and Historian: A Thematic Review of the ‘Polarization’ Process in the writing of 19th-century Prince Edward Island History,” Acadiensis XXVII (1) (Autumn 1997): 109-132.

A. G. Hodgkiss, Understanding Maps: A Systematic History of their Use and Development (Folkestone: William Dawson & Son, 1981).

Roger J. P. Kain and Elizabeth Baigent, The cadastral map in the service of the state: a history of property mapping (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

James W. MacNutt, The Historical Atlas of Prince Edward Island: The Ways we Saw Ourselves (Halifax: Formac Publishing, 2009).

Geoffrey J. Matthews, R. Cole Harris, D. G. G. Kerr, Deryck Holdsworth, R. Louis Gentilcore, and Ronald Harvey Walder. Historical Atlas of Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987; 1993). (

Mark Monmonier, Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1998).

D. G. Sobey, Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island: A Source Book, (Charlottetown: Prince Edward Island Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry, Sobey, 2002).

D. G. Sobey and W. M. Glen, “A Mapping of the Present and Past Forest-types of Prince Edward Island,” The Canadian Field-Naturalist 118 (4) (2004): 504-520.


North American sites

Atlas of Canada website

Atlas et cartes historiques a compilation of links to digitized, online historical atlases and maps

National Atlas of the United States historical material focuses mainly on election results, territorial expansion, and the Civil War

The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project

Western Canadian historical maps

Manitoba Historical Maps on Flickr

Hurricanes: online tool that maps historical hurricane tracks for storms as early as the mid nineteenth century

Vancouver Island History hosts maps and census data for Vancouver Island

W.H. Pugsley Collection of Early Canadian Maps

British sites