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My Nevada 5: The Maps That Shaped Us

Peter Michel, head of exhibits for Special Collections, on the history of Nevada through historic maps.
Business and Community  |  May 1, 2014  |  By UNLV News Center

A portion of a Nevada county map from 1862. (UNLV Special Collections)

Editor's Note: 

This piece comes from Peter Michel, head of exhibits for the UNLV Libraries and former director of its special collections. An historian, he has helped create a series of digital collections highlighting the wealth of materials in the the Libraries and exploring the historical themes they document, including maps.


Early maps were works of imagination or imperial ambition as nations sought to publish their claims to vast territories, even continents or hemispheres, by royal or papal edict, the planting of a flag, and the drawing of a map. As astronomical knowledge and instruments became more sophisticated, mapping became more accurate and scientific. Maps reflect geography, topography, geology, and how people have changed the landscape. They are also an historical record of settlement, political jurisdictions, and the variety of networks that define and connect people into one place called Nevada.

The historic map collection housed in the UNLV Libraries dates from the 17th century to the present. They document the cartographic history and context of this region, telescoping in scale from the Western Hemisphere to the streets of Las Vegas.

You can explore our state's evolution through the digital collection Southern Nevada and Las Vegas: History in Maps.


1. Map of Public Surveys in the Nevada Territory to Accompany the Report of the Surveyor General, 1862.

This 1862 map shows how little of the land in Nevada had been surveyed because the population of Nevada was still isolated in the Comstock region around Carson and Virginia Cities and north along the Truckee River. Clark County was not surveyed until the 1880s.

Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson to create a nation of "yeoman farmers," the Public Land Survey System began shortly after the American Revolutionary War, when the federal government became responsible for large areas of land West of the original 13 states. The government wished both to distribute land to Revolutionary War soldiers in reward for their services, as well as to sell land as a way of raising money for the nation. Before this could happen, the land needed to be surveyed. In Nevada, the surveys were conducted under the supervision of the federally appointed state Surveyor General.