Maps and charts are some of the best historical sources out there. For studying the coast and shipwrecks, they’re indispensable–the first sources I look for when starting a research project. (For a great introduction to the history, problems and politics of charting the American coast see Mark Monmonier’s Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change.)
You can find many charts and maps online (and for free). I’m a big fan of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Historical Maps and Charts Collection, which includes more than 35,000 high-resolution scans of everything from nautical charts and bathymetric maps to city plans and Civil War battlefield maps. Another place to look is American Memory, the Library of Congress’s digital content portal. (more posts coming about these soon!)
The chapter I’m writing now focuses on the stretch of the New Jersey shore bounded by Barnegat Inlet and Wreck Pond. Fortunately, there are a lot of New Jersey maps and charts that are readily available–Rutgers University has collected many and linked to them here. The image on the left, taken from an 1833 state map, offers a unique window onto the coast at the time it was made. Zoom in (image on the right) and we can clearly see the landscape as well as the roads (not all of these had actually been built), taverns (house with a flagstaff), and settlements (few and far between) that defined life on the nineteenth-century coast. Invaluable knowledge for any understanding of shipwrecks or coastal life during this or any time.