Maps are one of the most effective windows into our past, both as individuals and as a whole. Whether it’s a road map picked up on vacation or an exquisite specimen of 17th century Dutch cartography, the image on a map provides much more than location information. The words, pictures and lines deeper than the page. Cultural framework, social history, and human emotion can be conveyed through the interpretation of maps, but oftentimes are overlooked by the audience, especially if they have no connection to the place or time in question. For my first blog post, I hope to take you on a short journey through somewhere that I know quite well – my birthplace in Southern Indiana. The time, however, is less familiar, as we’ll be examining the contents of a county atlas that was published in 1903 in my hometown of Vincennes. This article is not meant to be a detailed analysis or scholarly review, but rather a relaxed observation about maps can reflect on the past, present and future.

County Atlases

The end of the Civil War saw tremendous changes across the country. Westward expansion accelerated, aided by technological developments like the railroad and telegraph. As immigrants flooded westward looking for cheap land, the U.S. Government did their best to maintain surveying efforts to meet the demand. Surveying along the eastern seaboard was largely complete by the outbreak of the war, and would continue unchecked west afterwards. Most maps reflecting this survey progress were small scale wall maps, difficult to transport, minimal in detail, and expensive to produce. However, innovations in printing (primarily the perfection of lithography), cheap paper manufacturing, and readily available postwar labor sources provided map publishers with a new means of potential income – the subscription county atlas.

The idea of a subscription atlas was not a new one. Some of the earliest atlases ever created, published in the 16th and 17th centuries, were sold on a subscription basis to offset the exceptionally high upfront costs of production. What sets the 19th and 20th century county atlases apart is their prolific publication, general purpose, and method of compilation.  

In the fifty-year period between 1876 and 1926, several thousand county atlases were published of at least 34 different states, most of which were populous counties located in the Midwest. Included within the covers were detailed cadastral (land ownership) maps that were generally based on completed government surveys. The atlas publisher would supplement the available information with reviews of tax lists and land records, plus local surveys using a carriage mounted odometer. However, atlas production generally required more salesmanship than scholarship, as preparing the maps was often the least expensive part! Nearly every aspect of the atlas was designed to encourage subscriptions – pages were printed on both sides to increase the area (and corresponding revenue), scales were enlarged to show smaller landowners, and supplemental sketches and biographies were offered for an extra fee.

The living room of the Frank Hardacre.

The production of an atlas would follow a similar pattern. Up to a year or more before publication, canvassers would prowl the countryside and encourage individuals to sign up to purchase one (or more) copies of the finished product, plus any extra fees for sketches, portraits or biographies would be collected. Portraits cost between $100-$250, while biographies were available for 2.5 cents/word. Sketch artists and biographers (using floral and verbose wording to increase their fees) would then follow the salesmen and quickly compose a draft for the publisher. Lengthy biographies and large images were a primary way for prominent citizens to showcase their success, so canvassers would focus on an area’s wealthy citizens first. After the selling, sketching, writing, compiling, collating and arranging was complete, a final economic analysis was made before the print run. Even at this late stage, it was possible for publishers to be unable to cover the cost of printing from the subscriptions collected to date. The final product, which could take up to two years from start to finish, was sold for between $6 and $15. This was a significant investment, and reflects the place of status a county atlas could have to a home. According to one expert, the atlas was “a cultural expression of pioneer pride, material accomplishment, and civic self-congratulations” The book would often occupy a place of honor in the home, perhaps next to the Bible on a shelf in the parlor. 

Frank C. Hardacre’s Atlas of Knox County

Frank Hardacre
Title page of F.C. Hardacre’s 1903 Atlas

Most atlases published during the period of 1876-1926 were distributed by commercial publishers in major urban centers, like G.A. Ogle in Chicago and the Beers family in Philadelphia. The example we’ll be reviewing today was published locally by Frank Hardacre, who had previously created several wall maps of Indiana counties and one other atlas of Jasper County. Not much can be found on Hardacre’s early life – he likely arrived in the city sometime after 1900 with his wife and children. The localized aspect of his atlas would be beneficial – reduced costs for surveying, sketching and printing, long term business relationships could be established for repeat customers, and short-term credit could be extended to friends and neighbors in order to boost subscriptions.

Because Knox County was relatively populous and agriculturally successful, subscriptions were not terribly difficult to come by. It’s one of a few Indiana counties that had three or more atlases published prior to 1926, with the earliest appearing in 1880. Hardacre’s is the last to be published from the group, and reflects the city at a time of significant change. The atlas follows the typical model described above and includes extensive historical, social and cultural details, with photographs taking the place of engraved sketches from earlier publications. Despite the more advanced technology used in its production and later issue date, the atlas still fully embodies the frontier attitude of self-reliance and independent success.

The title page is quite literal, and outlines in one long sentence the various components that comprise the atlas. The courthouse, photographed in the middle of the page, still stands today.

The second page is the index, which provides an illuminating overview of the contents of the atlas. Only 15 of the 108 total pages actually show maps (more in reality, since some were double sided), with the vast majority of real estate dedicated to historical and biographical information, since that’s what made the most money! The list of Historical Features is dominated by churches and an emphasis on (Christian) religion is something that will be seen throughout the atlas. The Index to Illustrations provides a neat snapshot of the kinds of subscribers and includes private citizens, business and prominent buildings.

The Maps

Map of the United States

The first map to appear after the Index is this lithograph of the United States (how patriotic!), not actually created by Hardacre. He likely purchased the rights to reproduce this map from a larger publisher like Rand McNally or George Cram, though they are not credited. Although the state’s configurations largely reflect the borders we know today (with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska’s omission), the country still had one foot in the previous century. The organization of Oklahoma, still partially labeled as Indian Territory, alludes to this frontier past. However, the obvious spread of the railroad, significant settlement in the western states, and relegation of natives to shrinking reservations show that monumental change will soon be coming.

Map of Indiana

Continuing our reduction in scale, the next map in the atlas is that of Indiana. The prevalence of rail lines throughout the state is on vivid display, with lines radiating from Chicago, Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Evansville and even from Vincennes. Unlike in the west, railroads construction in Indiana primarily branched out to established populations (rather than settlement following the line), which made the state very accessible and encouraged the growth of localized markets. The progress of western development is also evident when comparing Indiana to its neighbors. Ohio, to the east and settled earlier, exhibits much greater density than Illinois, which had a more rural population at the time of publication.

Map of Knox County

It would be presumptuous to say this map of Knox County is the first in the atlas to be of practical value to a subscriber, but most buyers were most interested in topics close to home. This county map provides an excellent overview of the survey system, showing various delineations between ownership and township boundaries, railroads (converging in Vincennes), roads, streams, ditches and levees. Most of this information would have been captured by the Public Land Survey, which was originally tasked with parceling lands that comprised the Northwest Territory into equally divided sections. One a base line and meridian were established; surveyors would measure out (by hand) the land divisions. A township, six square miles, would be subdivided into 36 sections of one square mile each. The survey usually only covered details down to the quarter section (160 acres). One section in each township, usually Section 16, is set aside for educational purposes and those schools are labeled accordingly on the map. Churches are also shown, emphasizing the piety of the county.

Map of the North Part of Vincennes Township

The first cadastral map focuses on the area around the historic center of Vincennes. Very little detail is provided on downtown, but plots surrounding the city show their owner’s name and the corresponding acreage. Despite the surveyor’s best efforts, land claims around Vincennes appear to be in utter chaos. This is because the earliest settlers along the Wabash were French, and their original claims conflicted with later government surveys and land grants. To add to the confusion, the French residents maintained common lands for communal agricultural purposes, which also had to be incorporated into the surveys of the city. Curving roads followed old Indian trails and buffalo traces, making straight lines difficult to plot. Lastly, the unit of measurement used by the French varied from the English acre, causing even further consternation among cartographers, including Hardacre, who lamented “these are especially difficult to properly plat, and with all this I have endeavored to arrive at some degree of accuracy.” 

Eleven further township maps follow, each exhibiting similar characteristics, albeit with less density. These maps provide a fascinating insight into the early 20th century Midwest and the development of the “American Dream.” The emphasis on private ownership of land is immediately apparent, and a review of owner’s names shows many to have originated from Europe, alluding to the waves of migration from previous decades. America was seen as the land of opportunity, where anyone could come and work a living from the land. Before the era of complete mechanization and corporate farming, individual homesteads were the foundation of rural society and a source of great pride for their owners.

The History

After the final township map, the focus of the atlas shifts from land ownership to historical information and covers the state, county and town levels. Mr. Hardacre provides us a brief preface to this section in which he includes a portrait of himself, a brief synopsis of the production process (and the corresponding difficulties), a large signature and an image of his wife in their luxurious carriage on the opposite page. Elsewhere in the atlas is a photograph of the publisher’s living room – Hardacre wanted to express the same pride in his accomplishments and economic success that his subscribers did.

The historical information presented on the pages of the atlas is largely political and

won’t be examined here in depth. Background material and short stories, including some hearsay, on early French settlement, conflict with the English in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, prominent citizens (generally all white men), important treaties, church history, economic development and significant construction milestones are all covered in depth. Many of the historical references are supplemented with lithographic sketches and photographs. To accompany the images, Hardacre used flowery, longwinded language that is typical of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Sample page from the historical section covering formation of the county’s townships

Also typical of the age was Hardacre’s opinions on the native populations that played such a pivotal role in the history of Vincennes, and indeed the entire United States. Throughout the historical section are countless references to the red-man, savages and “the uncivilized,” while patronizing language dismissed native culture and customs. The courage of the white settlers (French, English and American) is loudly applauded, since they brought refinement and “proper society” to the frontier.

Hardacre’s dismissal of native history.

“The hardships, dangers and privations endure by these forerunners of civilization were so great, that men less hardy and brave would have shrunk from the task, and have returned to the homes they had left. To them, great credit is due, for they laid the foundation upon the civilization which we enjoy was established.”

I found it fascinating to juxtapose this statement with the publisher’s laughable description of the initial contact between natives and the white man on the shores of the Wabash River.

“When they landed at Chippe Kokee (Vincennes), the little band of white men were given a welcome by the Indians. They camped for the night just below the wigwams of the red men. The next morning the Piankeshaw Chief invited them to possess the land adjacent to the Indian village. The generous offer was accepted by Monsieur de Vincenne, and the “pale faces at once set to work building their future habitations. The savages not only looked on without objections while the fort was being erected and little church was being built, but actually assisted in the work with their own hands – an especial favor, as the Indians have always avoiding labor, leaving that for the squaws to perform.”

A theoretical image of Chippe Kokee.

Clearly, when speaking about the Native American populations, Hardacre is trivializing and condescending. When discussing the fur trade that laid the economic foundations of early settler populations, the publisher explained “the Indians bartered their furs for trinkets and “fire water,” of which they were inordinately fond.” The priests were the only avenue for salvation, since “Christianity and civilization go hand in hand.” In fact, God played an important role as the guiding hand of the conversionary zeal and economic exchange, according to Hardacre.

“Christianity and civilization go hand in hand.”

“The missionaries went out to plant the Cross along the route; and to convert the savages to Christianity; the fur-dealers went forth to establish trading posts, and to barter with the Indians. The object of one was spiritual, the other temporal. Both were successful, and their actions were of Providential direction.”

The Biographies

Prominent people of Knox County.

As the adage goes – “save the best for last.” Hardacre, hoping to please his long list of subscribers, culminates his atlas with the biographies, portraits and photographs of his patrons. No amount of flattery is reserved in this section, and the author struggles to find synonyms to describe prominent, influential and important citizens. The biographies generally include similar information for each citizen, including a brief history on how they came to Knox County, their business or trade, family situation and political/organizational affiliations.

In addition to individual persons, there are also short biographies of the numerous churches in the city, generally written by their respective pastors and priests. There are at least 11 places of worship in Vincennes in 1900, with the city’s population at just above 10,000 citizens. Piety and Christian morality must have played an important role in society, or at least that was the impression that was trying to be made. There is a notable omission of any saloons, gambling halls or other locations of “ill repute” within the covers of the atlas.

An ad for Eugene Hack & Anton Simon’s Eagle Brewery

Of particular interest in the biographical section are the various advertisements for contemporary industries, often closely associated with the profile of their owners. Vincennes had experienced a decade or so of significant industrialization prior to publication, with the city’s first electric light company and numerous factories springing up to cater to local needs. 

A photograph of Charles O’ Donnell Jr.’s prize steed, alongside an ad for his meat market.

“YOU CAN SAVE MONEY HERE.” An ad for The Big Store in Vincennes.
Advertisement for the Robinson-Donaldson Buggy Company.

Advertisements were not necessarily limited to Knox County businesses. The Frisco System likely shelled out several hundred dollars for this two-page advertisement for their line to the western states, with an emphasis on Oklahoma. As seen in the first map of the United States, former reservation land comprising the Indian territory were slowly undergoing privatization and sell-offs. The opening of these new sites set off land runs in the late 19th century that saw thousands of “Sooners” flood the territory. Additional claims were released through 1907 (through auction), which saw the admission of Oklahoma Territory as the 46th state. The ad praises the territory’s agricultural prosperity and the metropolis of Oklahoma City, and includes photographs of many crops also grown in southern Indiana.

The inclusion of this advertisement is emblematic of the ceaseless optimism that the western frontier held. Folks who were down on their luck could always pack up and try elsewhere – at first in the abundant forests of the Northwest Territory, then in the gold fields of California, and finally in the Great Plains.

Oklahoma is a fitting place to close this article on an atlas of Knox County, Indiana. It’s an excellent example of how looking at a map (or assembly thereof) can draw you to other places, often in unexpected ways.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through an early 20th century county atlas. Feel free to drop me a line if you’d like help finding similar resources on your hometown, or if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!  


Cauthron, Henry. A history of the city of Vincennes, Indiana, from 1702-1901. Vincennes: M. C. Cauthorn, 1902. Print.

Conzen, Michael P. “Maps for the Masses.” Chicago mapmakers : essays on the rise of the city’s map trade, edited by Michael P. Conzen. Chicago: The Chicago Historical Society for the Chicago Map Society, 1984. Print.

Cresswell, Donald. Mapping Indiana : five centuries of treasures from the Indiana Historical Society. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2015. Print.

Hardacre, Frank C. Historical Atlas of Knox County, Indiana. Vincennes: F.C. Hardacre, 1903. Print.

Kingsbury, Robert C. The County Atlas in Indiana, 1874-1926. From the proceedings of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, 1977. Print.

Ristow, Walter. American maps and mapmakers: commercial cartography in the nineteenth century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985. Print.

White, Albert C. A History of the Rectangular Survey System. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, 1991. Print.