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Statistical Atlases

Before 1870

James D. B. DeBow
James D.B. DeBow

The first map produced for the census was drawn using results from 1850. Superintendent J.D.B. DeBow included, in a census report, a map that divided the territory of the United States into four broad regions, based on river drainage basins. At the time, maps were a much more popular way to visualize geographic statistics in Europe than in the United States. In fact, a German geographer, August Petermann, used the same data as DeBow to produce a much wider variety of maps, published for a European audience.

As the results of the 1860 census were processed and tabulated, the nation was slipping toward civil war. There were no official maps published for the 1860 census, but superintendent Joseph Kennedy did oversee the production of maps to be used by the Union Army.

The First Statistical Atlas

As superintendent of the census, Francis Walker oversaw a huge expansion in the volume of information published by the office, including, in 1874, a national atlas. One of Walker's goals was to mark the upcoming centennial by illustrating the progress of the United States over the past century. He was able to do this in his Statistical Atlas of the United States, showing the expansion of settlement by plotting the westward encroachment of population density on maps from each census.

The publication of the Statistical Atlas in 1874 was a watershed moment for statistics in the United States. It provided a quick and easy way to interpret comparative statistics on a national level, and showed that U.S. statisticians were becoming as sophisticated as their European counterparts.

The Rise and Fall of Statistical Atlases

By the time of the 1880 and 1890 censuses, responsibility for the atlases had been turned over to the Office's geographer, Henry Gannett. Gannett is an important figure in the history of cartography in the United States. He took part in the great surveys of the western United States, and also served as chief geographer for the U.S. Geological Survey.

1890 distribution of the black population
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Distribution of the Black Population, 1890.

The 1890 Statistical Atlas showed that it was no longer possible to draw a "frontier line" by marking where counties with higher population density ended. Later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner marked this determination as the symbolic closure of the frontier and the beginning of a new stage in American history.

The 1900 Statistical Atlas saw the size of the book shrink, but by 1910 and 1920, the publication was clearly in decline. Maps were no longer in color, and some series of statistics were not represented at all. There was also no introductory text in the 1920 atlas. At the recommendation of the Joint Census Advisory Committee, the Bureau decided to stop publishing atlases during tabulation for the 1930 demographic census.

The Census Bureau recently published the Census Atlas of the United States. The atlas is the first comprehensive atlas of population and housing produced by the Census Bureau since the 1920s. It contains nearly 800 maps covering topics such as language and ancestry characteristics, housing patterns and the geographic distribution of the population.

The following Statistical Atlases of the United States are available online:

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: March 02, 2023