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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

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  • Develop historic context
  • Conduct historic research
  • Survey the landscape


  • Define significance
  1. Apply the National Register criteria
  2. Select areas of significance
  3. Define period of significance
  • Assess integrity
  1. Apply qualities of integrity
  2. Identify changes and threats to integrity
  3. Classify contributing and noncontributing resources
  4. Weigh overall integrity
  • Select defensible boundaries
  1. Define the historic property
  2. Decide what to include
  3. Select appropriate edges


  • Complete National Register form (s)
  • Follow registration procedures in 36 CRF Part 60

An in-depth study is necessary to identify the significant historic properties of a rural area or to determine if the area as a whole is a historic district. An understanding of important aspects of a community, region, or State's historic development and physiography, in the form of historic contexts, helps identify rural areas that merit study and indicates the reasons they may be significant.

The study requires several steps: the history of the area targeted for study is related to local or State contexts, historical records are examined, and existing landscape characteristics are surveyed. The purpose of the study is to gather the information needed to make decisions about the eligibility for the National Register of the entire area or smaller properties within it. The guidance below describes historic resource studies in rural areas; it supplements the general guidelines in National Register Bulletin 24: Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning.

Developing Historic Context

Historic maps, such as this 1879 map of Burleson County, Texas, were used by the U.S. Census Bureau to determine district boundaries. These maps are now among the cartographic records of the National Archives. Local libraries, state archives, and published atlases are other good sources of historic maps. (Record Group 29, National Archives)
Information about the history and development of the rural area is organized into historic contexts based on common themes, periods of time, and geographical areas. A historic context is an important theme, pattern, or trend in the historical development of a locality, State, or the nation at a particular time in history or prehistory. Because rural areas often reflect multiple land uses and physical evolution over many years, they usually relate to more than one historic context.

Themes derive from important aspects of development, such as settlement, dairy farming, railroad transportation, or gold mining. They are related to the specific periods of time and geographical areas that they were influential in shaping, for example, grain production in eastern Washington, 1860 to 1940. Each theme is associated with specific types of historic properties, such as granary complexes or large wheat-growing ranches, that may be eligible for listing in the National Register.

A knowledge of historic contexts can guide the selection of a study area that is likely to possess historic landscape characteristics and contain one or more significant properties, including rural historic landscapes. For example, the knowledge that cherry production played an important role in a State's agricultural economy since the early 20th century, or that reforestation has occurred in 80 percent of a county extensively farmed in the 1840s can lead to the identification of significant cherry-producing areas or reforested farms that have evidence of early land uses and division.

A knowledge of contexts provides a historical focus for conducting a rural study. It helps in determining the appropriate sources for research, survey techniques, professionals to make up the study team, and specialists to consult. It gives team members direction on the kinds of properties they are likely to encounter in the field, the characteristics they should look for and record, and the historical documentation that will be most useful for evaluating significance. It enables them to view landscape characteristics as integral parts of overall economic or social systems rather than isolated features. For example, a drainage ditch is seen as part of an extensive system of waterways that allowed thousands of acres of tidewater to be settled and farmed.

A written statement of historic contexts should be developed at the beginning of the study. The statement incorporates or references information about previously identified contexts and documented historic properties. It also documents contexts identified during the initial consideration of the study area. It includes research questions to guide the analysis of landscape characteristics and describes the characteristics that an eligible rural property must possess. The statement can be refined, augmented, and revised as information is gathered during identification, as evaluation proceeds, and when National Register forms are completed.

State Historic Preservation Offices, Federal Preservation Officers, and some local governments, are defining historic contexts as part of their historic preservation planning process. These may be a source of comparative and thematic information about patterns of community or regional development, specialized activities, and properties important in the history of a particular State or locality.

Sources on both cultural and natural history should be consulted. Facts about the events, persons, groups, and physical development that shaped an area's cultural identity may be found in State or local histories, archeological studies, or specialized studies on topics such as transportation, ethnic heritage, vernacular architecture, irrigation, wheat farming, mining, or hardwood lumbering. Historic maps, plats, and land records provide valuable information about historic boundaries and ownership, circulation networks, clusters, and land uses. Studies on physical geography provide information about topography, soils, climate, natural vegetation, and water resources that determined land uses, circulation networks, and spatial organization. Ecological studies may address hydrology, climate, patterns of vegetation, and biotic communities that have influenced land uses, vegetation, and responses to the environment.

The eleven landscape characteristics relate to historic contexts in several ways. The four processes--land uses and activities, patterns of spatial organization, response to the natural environment, and cultural traditions--directly reflect themes on which contexts are based. Knowledge of a region's settlement patterns, natural topography, cultural influences, and historic land uses, provides an understanding of how a region was organized and developed historically. For example, waterways in the Colonial period influenced settlements around natural harbors and at the fords and falls of rivers, and Hispanic traditions of land division in New Mexico created a recurring pattern of long narrow fields.

Landscape processes explain how communities were structured and divided into smaller units based on ownership, land use, geography, politics, social custom, and economic needs. This information is a logical basis for defining property types that existed in a particular geographical area during a period of history, for example, a square mile township, a 10,000-acre ranch, or a 160-acre farm. Rural property types can be described by the landscape characteristics and the features representing them.

Property types meeting the definition of rural historic landscape--such as a village cluster with outlying farms--become manageable units for survey, evaluation, and National Register listing. Landscape characteristics not only define the types, but also explain their interrelationship and evolution from a historical perspective. As survey and research proceed, the characteristics become the hallmarks of historic properties that should be considered for National Register listing.

Conducting Historic Research

An 1847 map of Berkely County, Virginia (now West Virginia), indicated land ownership, roads and waterways, natural features, and county boundaries. It also provided statistics on acreage, population, crop production, livestock, schools, and manufacturing capital. (Record Group 77, National Archives)
Useful sources for studying the history of rural areas include: historic maps and plats, historic photographs, aerial photographs, census records, local and county histories, federal land-grant records, homestead papers, deeds, wills, diaries, commercial records, newspapers, farm accounts and receipts, soil surveys, vegetation surveys, oral histories, local stories and folklore, and family records.

Selection of sources, for both general information and references to specific properties, should be based upon the statement of historic context and the character of the rural area under study.

Historic maps indicate the location of historic roads, settlements, mills, ports, quarries, and meeting houses. Land records, plats, deeds, and wills indicate the historic ownership of land, patterns of land division, and historic boundaries of properties. Historic photographs indicate changes in land use practices, land division, vegetation, and clusters. Historic periodicals may help date developments in technology--such as fencing materials, dry-land farming, or irrigation techniques--that have affected the division or character of land. In addition to original applications, homestead records at the Washington National Records Center (Suitland, Maryland) include the proofs filed after settlement to fulfill the terms of ownership; these describe early land uses, improvements, and buildings. Changes in spatial organization can be observed by comparing aerial photographs of various dates. Population schedules of the U.S. Census provide demographic information, such as the size of households, occupations, and ethnic associations. Also, census records for agriculture and industry provide data and statistics on the historic land uses, ownership, and productivity of an area. Agricultural census records may also indicate the kinds and numbers of livestock on farms, and whether they were fenced or at free range.

Agricultural practices generally vary from state to state, and region to region. Agricultural periodicals, such as the Michigan Farmer or Connecticut Valley Farmer and Mechanics, were published state by state or regionally beginning in the early 19th century. State colleges of agriculture, established under the Morrill Act of 1862, and experiment stations first established in 1887 became valuable sources of information for farmers on topics of science, agriculture, and even construction methods for farm buildings. Similarly, mining periodicals and the publications of mining schools, in many states, provide information about scientific and technological advances that affected mining activities.

In 1935, the Soil Conservation and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services began recording rural areas through aerial photography. A 1937 photograph of South Lima Township, Washtenaw County, Michigan, shows a typical midwestern pattern of farmyard clusters, roads, orchards adn fields, and wetlands. (Record Group 145, National Archives)
Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service assumed an active role in shaping American farms by recommending the planting of wind breaks, revitalization of soils, contour plowing, and other techniques. Reports, pamphlets, and bulletins of federal agricultural programs may be found in university libraries and archives and the National Agricultural Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Beltsville, Maryland). Aerial photographs and soil maps are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Archives, EROS Data Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, and private air photo services (see Sources of Aerial Photographs). Records of other federal agencies in the National Archives, including those of the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Fisheries, Coast Guard, and Forest Service, also provide information on rural land uses and activities.

Oral history is often essential. Local farmers, foresters, mining engineers, and extension agents are often valuable sources of information about the agriculture, silviculture, or mining of a particular region. Onsite interviews with local farmers may provide insight into how a farm has been managed and what changes have occurred in the past 20 to 50 years. Other long term residents, including merchants, teachers, librarians, and town officials, may recollect events or activities related to changing community patterns. Information about current vegetation and agricultural practices is available from the agricultural extension service, State experimental stations, and plant ecologists and other scientists in universities and State government.

Surveying the Landscape

Aerial photography is a valuable tool for surveying large rural areas. A recent aerial view of Hanalei, Hawaii, shows the organization of two fields, placement of irrigation ditches, system of roads, watereways and mountains, general areas of vegetation, and location of clusters. (Robert Z. Melnick)
An onsite survey is essential in gathering information about a rural area, its characteristics, and condition. The section "Documentation of Landscape Characteristics" provides a convenient checklist of the landscape characteristics that can be used in the field. The boundaries of the survey area should be based on a knowledge of historic property types, as well as current planning needs. Field investigations should be directed at identifying existing landscape characteristics and determining the extent to which historic properties and characteristics remain intact.

The amount of documentation to be collected for each characteristic depends on its relative size, scale, and importance. The statement of contexts should be used as a guide for determining which characteristics are most important given the area's primary activities, associations, and period of development. If, for example, canals played a vital role in the region early 19th century development, then locks, towpaths, canal sections, natural waterways, and associated buildings should be given particular attention. Landscape characteristics meeting the National Register definitions of building, site, structure, and object, furthermore, require classification as contributing or noncontributing and must be located on a sketch map that will accompany the National Register form.

To view a rural area from various perspectives and observe landscape characteristics, the survey team should:

  • travel all roadways;
  • gain access to as much acreage as possible, on foot or by car, horse, bicycle, boat, or other means appropriate to study area;
  • cover fields, orchards, forests, mines, waterways, pastures, and open range; and
  • examine abandoned roadways, land use areas, and homesites, as well as those still in use.
Surveyors should be prepared to take photographs and make detailed notes and sketch maps in the field. They should be acquainted with the general history of the area, including major land uses, important persons and events, historic property types, and the landscape characteristics that are likely to exist. They should be equipped with maps and photographs from various time periods, as well as current topographic and base maps, for reference during field investigations. On site, surveyors should:
  • describe and mark on a sketch map major natural features, archeological sites, buildings, bridges, outbuildings, roadways, waterways, orchards, fields, pastures, quarries, mining shafts, and boundary demarcations;
  • identify vegetation that is predominant or related to land uses;
  • date features as accurately as possible (they can be verified by historical research before or after field investigation);
  • record the condition of characteristics, noting the evidence of historic field patterns, roadways, or boundary markers; deteriorated and altered buildings and structures; ground disturbances; new land uses and construction; age and condition of vegetation; abandoned fields or roads; reforested areas; and relocated farm structures;
  • note visible changes in the landscape, by comparing historic and contemporary views provided by maps, illustrations, and photographs. Indicate changes to the historic boundaries of properties due to subdivision, consolidation, growth, or abandonment;
  • relate characteristics to the statement of context and historical data, by associating existing features with specific historic activities, land uses, persons, customs, and periods of time; and
  • note any characteristics or processes requiring further research.
Field observations should be recorded in a standard format that can be readily used for evaluation, registration, and planning. Landscape characteristics as well as categories of information for buildings, engineering structures, districts, and archeological sites should be included. To facilitate recording landscape characteristics, the survey area should be divided into geographical units, perhaps based on the boundaries of properties under single ownership, or on quarter or half sections of United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographical maps.

Aerial surveys are useful for examining large tracts of land. Aerial views can help determine the spatial relationships among natural features, areas of land use, vegetation, waterways, roadways, and buildings and structures. When photographed at appropriate times of year, aerial views may reveal details such as stone walls or ruins that may otherwise be obscured by foliage or dense vegetation. Aerial surveys are most helpful in identifying field patterns and land division, but they are of little help in describing type condition of individual structures and buildings. Aerial photographs taken with infrared film distinguish plant materials of differing types and age, and often detect abandoned roads, buried walls, and refuse sites not visible from the ground.

Computerized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are useful in analyzing data about rural land uses, viewsheds, clusters, and vegetation. Aerial photographs, historic maps, and current maps can be compared to determine the nature and extent of land use changes through time. GIS can create a standard scale for maps and photographs having different scales. Topographic information can be plotted with rural landscape characteristics to determine spatial organization and visual relationships by using typical operations such as map overlays, distance calculations, and interpolation. These operations can also be used to define the boundaries of National Register properties and to assess the visual impact of land use changes.

Suggestions for Completing a Rural Survey

Form used to survey the 17,000-acre Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve in Washington recorded landscape characteristics, percentage of land uses, types of land use activities, natural topography, types of vegetation, roadways, fences, and buildings and structures. Each form covered a half-section (320 acres) of the USGS topographic grid and was supplemented by a panoramic photograph, representative photographic views, a site map, and a sectional diagram. (Pacific Northwest Regional Office, National Park Service)
1. Be comprehensive both in documentary research and site observations. Important information may be found in state and county offices, but also in local historical museums, in family collections, or through personal recollections. The physical evidence present in the landscape itself is an important source of information.

2. Use the statement of historic contexts as a guide for identifying historic properties and judging what features require the greatest attention and contribute most to historic significance. Do not hesitate to change, refine, and add to the statement as the survey proceeds. Early ideas help guide and shape further investigations.

3. Be well-equipped as you enter the field with both a knowledge of the history of the area and personal tools such as maps, aerial photos, sketch pads, markers, note pads, cameras, compasses, and binoculars. Being ready physically may be just as important as being well-prepared intellectually. Necessities such as gasoline, water, or food are not always readily available in rural areas. Field work may require special outfitting and provisions, such as hiking boots, rain gear, or insect repellent.

4. Be sensitive to ongoing rural activities and the rights of property owners. Receive permission before entering private land. Inquire about unsafe conditions or areas that are off-limits, such as newly planted fields, animal pens, uncovered wells, open mining shafts, sink holes, traps, poison ivy, or potentially dangerous animals--domestic or wild. Close gates behind you, and take care not to interrupt working operations.

5. Listen to the people who know the landscape. Talk with people, try to understand the history of the place from the viewpoint of the people who live and work there. Have specialists in aspects of agriculture, mining, or local history and ecology accompany you in the field; they can provide important insights.

6. Keep careful records of photographs, maps, notes, ideas, and thoughts. Record the subject and vantage point of each photograph, and key the information, if possible, to a map or aerial photograph while you are in the field since this information may be difficult to recollect back in the office. Also record the film roll number, frame number, date, and photographer.

7. Remember, always, landscapes change. Historic photographs are good indicators of the ways things were and can be used to compare changes over time. Do not expect to find any property in its historic condition. Look for the landscape of the past as you would expect it to appear today. Trees may be larger, ground cover may be different, buildings may have been moved, fences may be lost or in relic condition, and farming techniques may have changed.

8. Do not rely upon any single source. Check and countercheck any information. Eyewitness accounts are not always accurate and historical photographs can sometimes be misleading. Judge the value of each historical photograph; it may record a moment in time, but not necessarily an important one.


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