About Oregon Maps

The University of Oregon Libraries and the Oregon State University Libraries present the Oregon Maps online collection in celebration of Oregon's sesquecentennial.

Whether traveling city streets and country roads, or observing forests and farms from an airplane window, the patterns of the landscape have come to resemble the maps we draw.  As European settlers populated Oregon, Western traditions of cartography came as well.  One hundred and fifty years later, the Jeffersonian survey grid is imprinted in everyone's mind as most of Oregon's roads and property boundaries have been drawn on top of our Public Land Survey System.


Maps are not simple representations of the world. People create maps to indicate how to get from one place to another and, more broadly, to reconstruct as best as they are able the world around them. But in doing so, mapmakers emphasize characteristics on their maps that can indicate prejudices or ideological positions. The intent of the mapmaker can also result in maps that, for example, leave out traces of human habitation (roads, towns, political boundaries) in order to better emphasize physical geography. In short, maps tell a story, but one that leaves certain facts out in order to emphasize others. Thus, the maps assembled for this collection are remarkable artifacts of the physical history of Oregon and evidence of the concerns and aspirations of Oregonians across generations.

The first maps of what is now Oregon were made by ocean-bound explorers, and thus very focused on the coastline and, in particular, rivers that could be passages further inland. Spanish and English maps from the sixteenth and the seventeenth century show coastal details that may indicate that these explorers identified, for example, the mouth of the Columbia River. By the second half of the eighteenth century, we can more clearly recognize some of the features of the coastal Northwest and by the early nineteenth century maps delineate many features of the Oregon coast, with special attention to the Columbia River as a potential route inland. The maps produced in the immediate wake of the Lewis and Clark Expedition fill in more details further inland, but the focus is on rivers as rivers were the main transportation route. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, maps of the Oregon region were primarily river-oriented and this would not change significantly until after 1830 and the growth of American emigration to Oregon Territory.

The earliest map in the current collection is a federal land survey map from 1876. As a survey map from the General Land Office, the focus is clearly on the division of land into developed political units. This is a great snapshot of the development of Oregon communities and also the swaths of land granted to railroad companies. More striking are the white spaces, both east and west, that give the impression of undeveloped or uninhabited spaces. Closer attention reveals that many of these blank spots are Indian Reservations and thus not uninhabited at all.

The many road maps of Oregon from the twentieth century, from a 1916 plan created by the State Highway Commission and proceeding nearly year-by-year up through 2005, provide further visual evidence of the history of Oregon's development. A 1922 map produced by the Oregon Tourism and Information Bureau shows the extent of Oregon's roadways in the early part of the century. Red indicates paved roads, which are primarily in the Willamette valley and along the Columbia River; the network of gravel roads (colored yellow) are more extensive, but the state is still mostly dominated by dirt roads, especially in the east. Many of the routes that now cross the mountains to connect the Willamette valley with the central part of the state were not fully in place in 1922; what is now U.S. 20 extended out of the valley only to Cascadia then. The bottom of the map notes that the distances between points West of the Cascade Range and Eastern Oregon points are via Portland and the Columbia River Highway, unless otherwise noted highlighting the circuitous travel required to traverse the state. By the 1950's (but prior to the Interstate Highway Act of 1956), an official highway map shows a far more extensive network of paved roads and there are more east-west routes over the Cascades. The first sign of interstate highways I-5 from Eugene/Springfield up to Albany is on the 1961 Oregon highway map, and on the 1963 map we can see that I-5 appears in stretches starting in Medford and is a continuous route connecting Eugene and Portland. In the northern and eastern sections of the state, I-80 (now numbered as I-84) appears in stretches around Baker, LaGrande, and Ontario as well as along the Columbia between The Dalles and Hood River.

Oregon mapmakers were obviously not solely interested in human development. A U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of the Willamette Valley from around 1909 lays out details of the valley floor, but even here, the hand of human settlement appears: the city of Eugene and the San Francisco and Portland Railroad appear prominently, and the lack of contour lines in the Coast Range and Cascade foothills show that these areas remain out of reach to the surveyor. All of the other maps of rivers and terrain in the collection show similar results: no matter how much we attempt to describe nature, we cannot help but show our imprint upon it.


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Last revision: 06/17/2010