Tracing the Maps in George Washington's Life
Beginning with his early career as a surveyor and throughout his life as a soldier, planter, businessman, land speculator, farmer, military officer, and president, Washington relied on and benefitted from his knowledge of maps.
"The want of accurate Maps of the Country which has hitherto been the Scene of War, has been a great disadvantage to me. I have in vain endeavored to procure them and have been obliged to make shift, with such sketches as I could trace from my own Observations . . . ."1
Most Americans are familiar with George Washington's role as the leader of the Continental army against the British forces in the American Revolution or as the first president of the United States, but many may be unaware of Washington's lifelong association with geography and cartography. Beginning with his early career as a surveyor and throughout his life as a soldier, planter, businessman, land speculator, farmer, military officer, and president, Washington relied on and benefitted from his knowledge of maps. Between 1747 and 1799 Washington surveyed over two hundred tracts of land and held title to more than sixty-five thousand acres in thirty-seven different locations. Early in the Revolutionary War, even with the responsibility of leading the army on his shoulders, Washington sometimes found it necessary to make his own field sketches, as the quotation above suggests. Recognizing a need, Washington appointed Robert Erskine as the first geographer to the Continental army in 1777.
Since his death in 1799 more than a thousand biographies have been published exploring various aspects of George Washington's life. Most nineteenth-century works give little attention to Washington's early years, when he worked as a surveyor. The majority of twentieth-century biographies do discuss Washington's surveying and land acquisition, however, and in recent years a number of works have been specifically devoted to the subject.
The George Washington Atlas, initially published in 1932 by the George Washington Bicentennial Committee, was the first attempt to compile a bibliography of maps drawn or annotated by George Washington. The atlas was conceived as part of the nationwide observance of the two hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth and identified 110 extant maps or surveys drawn or annotated by Washington.2 The editor, Colonel Lawrence Martin, chief of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, attempted to list all known Washington maps and brought more than twenty new items to light. These range from Washington's first survey exercise in 1747 to his last survey of the Mount Vernon lands and include pencil sketches, pen and ink drawings, roughly drawn field surveys, and finished survey plats. Recent research has uncovered additional items not included in the 1932 inventory.3
Washington's cartographic career can be divided into two phases: public surveyor and private land speculator. Undoubtedly, the close association with and practical knowledge of the land that Washington gained as both a surveyor and land speculator contributed to his development from surveying apprentice to one of the leaders of Virginia, and later, of the United States.
Senior Reference Librarian
Geography and Map Division
Library of Congress
1. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 7:65.
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2. Lawrence Martin, ed., The George Washington Atlas (Washington, D.C.: United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932), vol. 1. The atlas was prepared in the course of one year and was published as a folio edition in February 1932. An expanded quarto edition appeared later in 1932 and was published in the first volume of the History of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration (Washington, D.C.: United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932). The folio edition was reprinted in 1995 by the Virginia Surveyors Association.
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3. Edward J. Redmond, "George Washington's Activities in Securing Land Grants along the Western Frontiers of Virginia 1767-1799 and List of Maps Drawn or Annotated by George Washington" (master's thesis, West Chester University, 1991). Prepared from the list compiled by Martin.
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