America was a true frontier in colonial times, a broad expanse of land so vast that its early settlers had no real conception of how far it stretched. There were only tales from earlier Spanish explorers that somewhere either far south or far west perhaps the fabled City of Gold, El Dorado, actually existed. Whatever was thousands of miles away was of far less immediate consequence than where rivers, creeks, and developing towns were located. But even for these very pragmatic concerns there were few accurate maps, and a crucial job in the colonies was that of surveyor. Many military men made their careers in this capacity, and some, such as Andrew Lewis, achieved lasting fame with this occupation.
While mapping was vital for all the original thirteen colonies, Virginia was in a special position where maps would determine so much of its economy. For one, all territories west of Fincastle, in the remote western part of Virginia, belonged to Botetourt County and the western boundaries of the county were not defined, meaning that lands in what would become Tennessee and Kentucky were actually portions of this endless Virginian county. The question was, what was beyond? What is to the north? Where do these rivers go? It was all a matter of imminent importance for surveyors and cartographers.
THE MITCHELL MAP
John Mitchell was a physician by occupation, but he had a keen interest in mapping and the geography of the colonies. Born in Lancaster County, Virginia, in 1711 to an affluent family, he was sent to Scotland to study medicine in college. He earned a master’s degree but never completed his doctorate; nonetheless he returned to Virginia to work as a doctor. This was not uncommon at the time, however. Of the men claiming to be physicians and practicing medicine in the colonies, especially in rural areas, few had what we would consider today fully appropriate training and credentials, and there was little regulation of doctors up until the end of the nineteenth century.
Mitchell and his wife Helen enjoyed living in Virginia, and Mitchell was fascinated with the plant-life of the colonies as well as its Native American peoples. But both husband and wife had chronic health issues, and as a doctor Mitchell recognized that they probably could have an easier life and access to better medical care in London. So in 1746 they boarded a ship to England. Sadly, the ship was attacked by pirates, and many of Mitchell’s goods were stolen. And then to top it off, most of the rest of his goods were confiscated by customs authorities once the ship came into port.
He arrived in London as a man of known stature, since he had communicated with naturalists, botanists, and gentlemen scholars via letters. But he was without much money, and while his credentials might suffice for practicing medicine in the colonies where doctors were scarce, they would hardly provide for him to compete with the esteemed physicians of London.
His wealthy and important friends, however, were delighted to invite him to visit their grand estates and sought some form of work for Mitchell. One such person was the Earl of Halifax, George Montagu-Dunk, President of the Board of Trade, who desired a map superior to the ones extant at the time. Knowing that Mitchell both needed the work and had impressive research skills as well as a familiarity with the colonies, he asked Mitchell to produce such a map.
Nonetheless, Mitchell was an odd choice for this task, and his selection has for decades puzzled historians. Geographers and cartographers were not rare professions in London, and Lord Halifax had higher political ambitions. So to commission a map of this sort and not select the most reputable map maker would be foolish. A physician who lacked the full credentials and was in poor health himself did not seem to be the best choice for this massive project. So why was Mitchell selected? The most likely answer is that Lord Halifax recognized in Mitchell skills he believed in, but also perhaps so Halifax could retain the project under his own control—something less possible had he approached the Admiralty or other official organizations which also could have supplied a cartographer.
Mitchell scoured the academic libraries of London for maps of America but found them insufficient in helping much to make his own map. So Halifax implored the governors of the colonies to send him copies of the best regional maps they had for Mitchell’s research. When you consider transportation at the time plus the expense and difficulty in producing these maps, it was an awesome request, even from a man of Lord Halifax’s considerable stature. And it appears to have been honored: Mitchell got his hands on the finest regional maps of his time—maps in many cases produced locally for military or governmental officials. This, along with his own diligence, allowed Mitchell to produce inarguably the best comprehensive map of the new American territory of its time and a map that would continue to be the foremost of its kind for decades yet to come.
The map John Mitchell produced, which became known simply as “The Mitchell Map,” was recognized over time as an exemplary work of cartography and research, and the map became widely used in a variety of official diplomatic, legal, and administrative forums for reference on boundaries and land features, most notably at the Treaty of Paris, but even in some American legal proceedings as recent as 1932.
It was simply the finest and most comprehensive work of cartography of early America ever produced.
When still in Virginia, the Mitchells made their home in Urbanna, Middlesex County, and it was from here that John Mitchell both practiced medicine and also served as a justice of the peace for the county. Many of Mitchell’s observations on American flora and fauna, including his description of the Virginia opossum which was one of the first in detail of this unusual animal, were made from his residence in Urbanna.
Due to these notable historical connections to the town, when Urbanna was preparing for its 1980 tricentennial in 1979, local leaders, including president of the Bank of Middlesex Gene Paulette and bank vice president Jessie Martin DeBusk, agreed to make a strong effort to obtain a copy of the famous map for the town’s museum in honor of the tricentennial.
They wanted as close to a first edition of the map as possible, but it was clear that finding such a rarity would be difficult and probably also quite costly. Nonetheless, DeBusk, Carl Torrence, Charles Price, and others worked tirelessly to learn all they could about the map, visiting the Library of Congress (which had a copy) and corresponding with antiquarian dealers. They also gained the knowledge required to determine the authenticity and value of such a copy if they could even locate one. Remember, this was 1979 in a small coastal town in Virginia with a population just over 500—no internet, no ready access to vast archives, and Washington was over an hour away. Still, this determined cadre of local people—bank officials and businessmen—worked diligently to learn about and acquire a first-rate copy of the Mitchell Map.
A rare maps dealer in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, W. Graham Arader III, had been in touch with DeBusk and Paulette for some time and had a first edition, third impression, copy of the Mitchell Map for sale, but Urbanna had not been able to come up with the funds for its purchase. Mr. Arader had grown fond of the map himself and mounted it in his own dining room, but when the Urbanna committee did secure the funding, he kept his word to reserve first offer to Urbanna.
On a foggy morning, May 31, 1979, DeBusk, Torrence, and Price travelled to Pennsylvania to inspect and purchase the map, and despite rainy weather and cancelled flights (they eventually had to travel the entire way via car), they at last met with Mr. Arader and purchased the map for $7,500. Today it hangs in the Town of Urbanna Visitor Center for townspeople and tourists alike to see. The money paid for it in 1979 seemed like a fortune at the time, but in the end it was an investment even bankers would be proud of: the map today is worth over half a million dollars.
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