Map Comparison

Lesson Plan #1


This lesson provides students, grade 6 to 10, with experience in working with historical maps as aides to interpreting history.  Students begin by examining three maps-- a 17th century chart of the Chesapeake Bay, and an 18th and 19th century map of Maryland. Students will study these maps in order to discover how people of those earlier times understood the region in which they lived and how they interacted with it.  Finally students will use a current road map of Maryland to investigate how maps of today are different from those of the past.


1. To examine historical maps of the Choptank River during different historical times;

2. To trace the evolving knowledge of the Choptank River region as recorded in maps over time;

3. To investigate how cultural assumptions influenced the process of mapping this region;

4. To discover what present day maps can tell us about the region and how they differ from maps of the past.


1. Provide each student with a copy of the maps to be used in this lesson as well as a Map Analysis Worksheet. Discuss with students how they can use the worksheet to discover various kinds of information on a historical map, including facts about the map itself (date, creator, purpose, etc.) and facts about the past.  Explain that in this lesson, students will use the Worksheet to examine a variety of historical maps, first comparing the earliest map of the Chesapeake Bay up to the present -- with maps about a hundred years apart.

(Note: Segments of the study maps are shown below.  Full-size printed copies of the maps may be obtained through the Maryland Historical Society by contacting the Old Harford Town Maritime Center staff at 410-241-8661.

2. Divide the class into three study groups and have each group use the Map Analysis Worksheet to prepare a class report on the significance of one of the following historical maps:

  • John Smith (1608) map of the Chesapeake Bay.  John Smith was among the colonists who landed at Jamestown in 1607.  He conducted a survey of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, the results forming the first known map of the Chesapeake Bay.  This map contains the first detailed delineation of the area that was to become known as “Maryland.”  The original map is very rare; but nine major derivatives of this map were made.  The map shown here is the Willem Blaeu 1630 derivative of the Smith map.

  • Dennis Griffith (1795) “Map of the State of Maryland, 1794." Griffith’s map is considered the finest eighteenth-century map of Maryland.  It contains many topographical details as well as describes the situation of cities, towns, villages, houses of worship and other public buildings as well as furnaces, forges and mills. It was an achievement for its time and is considered the first official state map.

  • O.W. Gray & Son (1876) “Gray’s New Map of Maryland.” This atlas map was one of the most widely published maps of Maryland during the second half of the 19th century.

  • (Additional information on these maps can be obtained from the Maryland State Archives map collection web site, but the depiction of the maps themselves is not currently available.)

3. Have each group display and report on its map, summarizing the findings recorded on their “Map Analysis Worksheet.” As students present their reports, call attention to the following points:


Orientation: The Smith map is oriented toward the West, which appears at the top; those from the 18th and 19th century are oriented toward the North. How does this reflect a difference in the way people oriented maps? Why are maps today oriented toward the north? Are all maps today oriented toward the north? [Hint - Some maps are oriented to best fit a space; others such as maps of the Antarctic have no uniform north orientation.  Can you find the Choptank River on the Smith map? [Hint - Due to the islands on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Smith never noticed that a great river lay further to the east].

Landmarks: The Smith map highlight rivers, hilly topography and location of Native-American villages. The 18th century map highlights political county boundaries, city and town locations as well as road locations. The 19th century map shows the same highlights as the 18th century but also shows county political voting districts, railroad lines, and other details. Discuss this transition from a simple map showing the outline of land and water to a more accurate and complicated map reflecting political boundaries and permanent establishments such as cities and towns.

Organization: The Smith map shows no political boundaries, as the colony of Virginia was the only political entity at the time.  At the time of Smith’s map there was no universal concept of keeping north at the top of a map.  The maps from the 18th and 19th century reflect the universal concept of north at the top of the map.  Over time these maps have become more detailed with information on city and town location, as well as information about roads, bridges, and railroad lines.

Conclude the lesson by having students individually collect different kinds of present-day maps of Maryland and the Eastern Shore.  (Maryland roads maps are a good example, but other examples include state and county road maps, satellite-image maps, political maps, and topographic maps).  Let the class choose several examples from this collection for study using the Map Analysis Worksheet to find out what their maps might reveal about their region and how it has changed since the 17th century Smith map, and 18th and 19th century maps.  Summarize these changes.  Speculate on how a map in the 21st century might appear.  What might it show that does not appear on present-day maps?


Historical maps can open an exciting chapter in the history of an area.  The concepts taught here are interconnected with those of the lesson plan on comparing photographs of steamboats on the Choptank.


© 1999-2005
Choptank River Heritage Center
10215 River Landing Road
Denton, Md.  21629
410.479.4950 --