Degrees of Latitude: Mapping Colonial America

by Margaret Beck Pritchard and Henry G. Taliaferro, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002, ISBN 0810935392, 434 pages with 283 illustrations (including 159 plates in full color), $95.

This oversize volume was prepared to celebrate the 75thanniversary of the beginning of the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg by John D. Rockefeller Jr. It is crammed with maps and fascinating information about the American colonials’ world from the 17th to the mid-18th century. Maps are explained “within their historical and social context… as cultural markers that reveal the interests, wants, and needs of the people who made and used them.” An example of the variety of this book are two maps showing supposedly same, but actually different, maps of the French claim to North America: one made by the French in 1718 and the second by the British in 1720.

The work begins with “Clearing the Land” with 25maps when the struggle for ownership of the Americas was primarily between the Dutch, French, and English settlers. “Maps, charts, atlases, and globes became important symbols of the enlightened [colonial] gentleman” along with their own learned studies in art, literature, and natural sciences. Girls were instructed in how to make silk embroidered globes.

The largest section, accounting for 60% of the pages, is anchored on 73 maps from the Colonial Williamsburg Collection with detailed explanatory texts for each, supplemented with more maps, sections, charts, and drawings for a total of 200 items. The first of these is the 1592 Ortelius map of the western hemisphere.

Supplanting that first map is a 1570 section showing an unusual extension of South America, a later one showing this corrected, and yet another showing what may be the first illustration of Chesapeake Bay. Almost the last item of this Williamsburg owned section is Thomas Jefferson’s 1787 map of Virginia to Lake Erie.

In 1698 John Custis, whose descendents would include George Washington and Robert E. Lee, was preparing to return to America after several years in London learning the tobacco trade.  Before departing he purchased an English folio composite world atlas, “atlas factice”.  It comprised 103 maps, charts, and text sheets of which 94 are known by the Foundation today. 32 are reproduced in color.

The seller was Philip Lea, one of the most successful British map dealers of the period whose sale to Custis was important as “demonstration that he had achieved the learned and sophisticated status aspired by the colonial gentry.” The last section “Philip Lea and the Seventeenth-Century Map Trade” uses his experiences to show how the map trade was shifting from dominance by the Netherlands to the British and Lea’s role in it.

Overall, this profuse study is an in depth fascinating account of two centuries of map collecting when the map makers role was growing in knowledge, skill and accuracy, and maps themselves were becoming more reliable.

Peter K. Oppenheim
From Society’s September 2003 Newsletter