Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

National Atlas

UPDATE 10/5/2014 – The National Atlas ceased to be updated as of 9/30/2014. A copy from 9/24/2014 lives on in the Internet Archive.

National Atlas – https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919123029/http://nationalatlas.gov/index.html

Representative questions that this resource can answer:

  • What time zone is Dallas located in?
  • Where can I find a map of Indian reservations?
  • What did the Electoral vote map look like in 1860 for Lincoln’s first election?


The US National Atlas is a set of mapping tools and static maps covering the entire United States and many different topic areas. Some of these topic areas seem so interesting and extensive, that I have given them their own entries, including the sections on Climate  and Geology (discussed elsewhere).

Most people will be satisfied with the printable maps available from the National Atlas, which fall into these areas:

  • Climate Maps
  • Congressional Districts for the 112th Congress
  • Federal Lands and Indian Reservations
  • Presidential Elections 1789 to 2008
  • Reference and Outline Maps of the United States
  • Satellite View Maps
  • Territorial Acquisitions of the United States
  • Time Zones

Climate maps include maps for precipitation of the individual states except Alaska and Hawaii. These maps can show where the arid parts of the states are. If you’ve got a green, green garden in Eastern Washington or an adobe house in the Seattle area, you’ll need to explain how and/or why those things can be.

The Federal Lands and Indian Reservation section is interesting in that you can choose from viewing all federally owned land or limit to specific agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Be warned that these maps won’t show you everything. On the federal agency maps, it says that “scale constraints” force the omission of federal properties less than 23,000 acres. According to WolframAlpha, 23,000 acres is about 36 square miles. At the national levels, the Indian lands display suffer from this same handicap.

Fortunately there are state level maps. These say that “small units” are omitted, but you can see the variety of federal and Indian ownership. Have a look at Arizona at https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919144150/http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/images/pdf/fedlands/AZ.pdf for a good example.

The Presidential Elections maps has four elections per map. Each election gives you the top two candidates and the electoral votes by candidate and by state. It can be helpful in examining the politics of a given era.

The satellite photos are available on a state level, though I don’t think too many writers would find them helpful. Unless you’re writing about an astronaut musing over his home state; or his mistress’.

If you’re not finding what you’re looking for in the printed maps, give MapMaker a try. It provides a number of different “layers” so that you can draw up maps of the rates of forcible rape in Arizona, or amount of cotton harvested in Georgia.



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