The American Revolution and Its Era: Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, 1750-1789
Colonial Claims by European Nations
Before the mid-18th century, the poor quality of available maps concerning North America and the Caribbean regions naturally reflected the equally poor state of Europeans' geographical knowledge of these areas. Contemporary cartographers created most maps at a small scale (i.e., they showed a large area) so only major features such as towns, rivers, harbors, and some roads could be shown. Many, if not most, physical features such as rivers and mountains had not yet been explored, surveyed, or charted by Europeans; their locations or courses were therefore not well represented on early maps of the region.
By the 1750s, the need for new and better maps was growing. Imagine that you were a shipmaster involved in trans-Atlantic trade. What kinds of maps would you need? Or consider the needs of a British or French official trying to regulate colonies in North America and the West Indies. What kinds of maps would you need to do your work effectively? What if you were a French or British military leader involved in a war for empire? What could happen if the maps available to you were inaccurate?
The needs of all of these groups are reflected in the maps produced in the 1750s. Shipmasters and merchants involved in the growing commerce across the Atlantic needed better navigation charts and maps to reduce the risk of losing their ships and cargoes. In addition, British and French officials, charged with regulating their respective colonies and imperial trade, needed better maps. The increasing competition between the imperial powers, especially Great Britain and France, in North America and the West Indies led to a number of wars for empire, which created an even greater demand for new and better maps of many different kinds. This was especially the case with the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years' War), 1754-1763.
Given some of the impetus to create maps in the mid-1750s, it should come as no surprise that many maps were produced to locate (and to assert claims to) territorial possessions. For example, in 1755, John Mitchell produced a relatively small-scale map (i.e., "a big picture" map) titled "A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America." Mitchell created this map for the British Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations, the governing body for the British colonies in North America. It was printed in London in 1755. At the end of the American Revolution, British and American negotiators consulted this map to fix the boundaries of the new nation and other nations' territories in North America. This map, according to Library of Congress Senior Manuscript Specialist John R. Sellers, "is considered one of the most important documents in American history."
Many people in many places reproduced Mitchell's map for their own uses. For example, the French produced the map at the right, printed in Paris in 1756.
Compare the two maps:
- What uses would these maps serve?
- What details are shown on the maps?
- Were any changes made to the map before being published by the French?
- How accurately are physical features portrayed on the maps? What areas are the most accurate? Why do you think that is the case?
- What are the implications for accuracy of the practice of copying another person's map?
Maps of the time often contained a great deal of text. The map at the right, created by John Lodge in the 1750s, illustrates this point.
The detail to the far right (from the lower right side of the map) presents a timeline (and assertion) of British claims to territorial possessions in North America. (Other details of this map are equally interesting and can be viewed using MrSid technology.)
- According to John Lodge, what is the English claim to North America founded on?
- What is the general topic of the text? Why do you think he goes through the establishment of English colonies one by one?
- What does this text suggest about Lodge's purpose in preparing this map?
- Look at some current maps of North America. Do any of them have as much text as the Lodge map? Why do you think most current maps have less text? Can you find any contemporary maps with large amounts of text? In what other ways are they similar to Lodge's map?
The titles given 18th-century maps were often quite long and descriptive, as the title of the map created by William Herbert in 1755 (right) demonstrates.
- What conclusions can you draw about William Herbert based on the language used in the title?
- What do you think a "Society of Anti-Gallicans" means?
- Looking more closely at the details of the map (using MrSID), where are the French encroachments to which the title refers?
- According to the map, where are various Indian tribes located?
The map to the right, produced in 1758, is noteworthy because of its detail concerning Native American tribes, their lands, and the cessions of territory they purportedly made to the British. The map also details what was known at the time about a number of physical features.
The details of this map are interesting and informative concerning British-Indian relations. The first detail below describes the tribal make-up of the Iroquois, or the Six Nations. The second detail recounts some of the land cessions made by these tribes to the British.
If you view sections of the map using MrSID, you will find many other details like those shown on the right.
You have looked at a number of maps drawn during the 1750s. Think about all of these maps as you consider the following questions:
- What is the common content theme of these maps?
- How are the maps different?
- Think about what you know of events of the 1750s. Why would maps like the ones you have studied be needed or useful in the midst of these events?
- Search the collection for a map that shows the results of the Treaty of 1763
- How did the Treaty affect the North American claims of France and Great Britain?