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Mapping the Start of A Nation

ISSUE:  Winter 1977
Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760—1790. Edited by Lester J. Cappon and others. Published for the Newberry Library and the Institute of Early American History and Culture by Princeton University Press. $125.00.

EVERY good mapmaker wants a terra incognita of his own. For Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson in 1751 it was the crest of the Alleghenies, and for Lewis and Clark, a generation later, it was everything from the Missouri shoals to the blue South Seas. Cartographers are not often lonely so-journers these days; they are likely to be team players with assignments in historical research, drafting, toponymy, or indexing, and they concern themselves with hypsography and hydrography, with isopleths and choropleths. What they are seeking, though, is the same old challenge: something uncharted to chart.

Mindful of what John Adams said, that the Revolution and the War were not the same (the first preceding the second), Lester Cappon and his staff have been newly charting the life of the nation during the revolutionary period, 1760—1790. And like all dedicated cartographers since Ptolemy, they have wrought something monumental in response to the vastness of their assignment. What we now have is the first of its kind, a superb atlas that lpoks in an innovative way at the era we have lately been celebrating.

The work opens with basic maps of the American colonies as they appeared about 1775, followed by maps of the principal cities. Next comes a collection of boundary maps, setting forth the concept of territorial jurisdiction and including some proposed colonies and states that never came into being, such as Vandalia, Transylvania, and Westsylvania. Other maps show the growth of the American population, 1760—1790, a task made more difficult by the fact that the first sound national census was not made until 1790.

The three groups of maps that follow are designed to portray, and in part to quantify, those aspects of life which the editors call economic, cultural, and political. The economic group includes data on imports and exports, shipbuilding, sugar production, potteries, paper mills, silver-smithing and ironworking, transportation, mail routes, and the fur trade. Cultural activities include printing houses and publications, educational institutions, libraries, learned societies, religious congregations, and the routes of naturalists John and William Bartram in their travels through the South. (The Bartram map, compiled with obvious care by Cappon himself, might have been omitted but is a delightful addition. ) Political activities include the stamp act crisis of 1765—1766, the work of the Regulators c. 1764—1771, and other symptoms of the approaching break with Great Britain.

Cappon’s atlas then presents the War of the Revolution itself, mapped with new cartographic techniques. Most maps in the past have shown the war as a conventional two-party land conflict drawn on a large scale, although it does not readily lend itself to that kind of graphic display. Cappon’s maps deal with “the distribution of the war over space,” rather than the distribution of troops over small areas. This concept has been sophisticated further to depict the level of military importance of each arena during the whole period. Three levels of intensity have been distilled from a review of the literature. For the rationale of this series, Cappon gives credit to his cartographic editor, Barbara Bartz Petchenik.

None of the maps in the atlas is a facsimile of an 18th-century one; all are fresh interpretations, either redrawn or created for this edition. In only one instance does this procedure seem questionable, when it omits the 1755 map by John Mitchell entitled A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America. This document has been called the most important map in American history; it was used by officials of the warring parties in the Paris negotiations of 1782—1783 and has been influential in scores of boundary disputes from that century to this, a recent occurrence being the New Jersey-Delaware boundary case of 1932. Instead of a facsimile or redrawing of the Mitchell map, the atlas presents a construction based on the M creator projection designed to show the distortions introduced by Mitchell.

No one should expect an atlas to tell all the truth, We are given maps of the Spanish borderlands (p. 19) and the city of Santa Fe (p. 13), and are left to infer that Spain was an active neighbor of colonial America sharing a mutual border. The border between the two jurisdictions is correct as shown, a de jure reality but scarcely a de facto one. For what the map cannot show is that France, not Spain, controlled the vital region west of the Mississippi. During the four decades in which Spain “owned” the Mississippi Valley there were few Spaniards in the area: certain high officials, some soldiers, a few merchants and clerics, but no great number of common citizens. It is striking that, in contrast to the rich lexicon of place names the Spanish bequeathed to the Southwest, they left almost none in the Mississippi Valley.

A textual section follows the maps in the atlas, presenting historical and bibliographical data as well as general exposition. The resources of the Newberry Library in Chicago are such that it not only housed the project but provided nearly all the research sources required for both maps and text,

The atlas is a satisfying combination of editorial acumen, cartographic skill, and high performance in the printing trades. As Cappon remarks in the introduction: “Maps are passive objects which “will speak only when they are properly questioned. ” To make the map fully articulate in its multiple uses depends upon the art and craft of the cartographer.” In this case, guidance by a knowledgeable editor is an additional factor evident throughout.


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