The quiet history of Coast Survey

As NOAA strives to meet the present and future navigational needs of the maritime transportation system, it is sometimes helpful ‒ not to mention inspirational ‒ to look back at history. Coast Survey has an amazing history that isn’t well known. It is a quiet history of men and women who led the country’s mapping and charting advancements in the centuries since Thomas Jefferson authorized the Survey of the Coast in 1807.
Coast Survey maintains a publicly accessible Historical Maps and Charts Collection, with about 35,000 images that anyone can download and print. For history buffs, searching through the images is a great way to find images related to your area of interest. Exploring the charts, one can almost develop personal relationships with the individual Coast Survey assistants and cartographers who produced some truly beautiful work. (Check out the Civil War Special Collection to find some especially intriguing maps, including the pivotal 1861 map showing the density of slave population in the Southern states.) Or you can spend some quality time browsing through little-known sketches and maps in the historical collection maintained by the NOAA Central Library.

This close-up of the Kohklux map shows how Davidson used English spelling to “sound out” the Native names of features. (See the full map in Coast Survey’s Historical Map and Chart Collection.)

The U.S. Coast Survey (which became the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1878, and was eventually one of the founding agencies within NOAA) has a unique heritage of scientific exploration and innovation. The exploits of George Davidson and others in 1860s Alaska is especially fascinating as we now look north to a new century of work in the Arctic. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology recently published an article by John Cloud in its magazine, Expeditions. The Tlingit Map of 1869: A Masterwork of Indigenous Cartography, linked here with the permission of Penn Museum, explains how Davidson set the tone for Coast Survey’s early sensitivity to the importance of preserving Indian names on maps ‒ especially, in this case, of a map drawn by Tlingit clan leader Kohklux and his wives.
Cloud further expounds on the discovery of Davidson’s maps in a recent radio interview with KCAW Radio, linked at Alaskan cartography influenced by Native mapmakers.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the United States, James Tilghman has written about Coast Survey superintendent Alexander Bache and assistant Ferdinand Gerdes, and the efforts to survey the Florida Reef in the 1850s. “If the enormity of the undertaking is the overarching story of the survey,” Tilghman writes, “it was equally remarkable for the budding science, hydrographic breakthroughs and creative solutions that enabled it.” Hydro International July/August 2012 has published the absorbing article, Surveying the Florida Reef.
Tilghman points out that “not all credit goes to the hydrography, but by the turn of the century wrecks on the reef were down 90 percent and wrecking was fast becoming a distant memory.” That quiet history, and the newly discovered connections to Alaskan cartography, speaks volumes about the heritage, and continuing promise, of NOAA’s navigation program contributions to preserving life and property along U.S. coastal waters.

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