II. Narrative Account


This document examines the background of both Mitchell’s map in its various incarnations. It also considers the historical and symbolic significance of the copy of the map which Richard Oswald annotated in 1782 during the Treaty of Paris, the acquisition of a copy of which by the Osher Map Library is the occasion for this web site.

Who was John Mitchell?

Details of the life of John Mitchell (1711-1768) were little known until the publication of a biography by botanical historians Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Berkeley & Berkeley 1974). Reference should be made to that work for more details. Having said that, there is still much room for a detailed study of Mitchell, the cartographic propagandist, among the archives in London.

Mitchell was from a merchant/planting family in Virginia that was sufficiently well off to send him to the University of Edinburgh. He received his M.A. in 1729, and studied medicine there until late 1731, although he does not seem to have actually received a medical degree. He returned to Virginia to practice medicine. Like many doctors educated at Edinburgh in the eighteenth century, Mitchell acquired a strong interest in botany. On his return to the colonies, he began to pursue his botanical studies in earnest, acquiring for himself a significant place in North American natural history. In 1745, even as he argued that the source of a series of epidemics afflicting Virginia were the unsanitory troop ships from Britain, Mitchell fell ill himself and was forced to quit Virginia. He returned to Britain and regained his health. It was only then that he developed his interest in maps and map-making.

Other Authorities Mentioned on Mitchell’s Map

Mitchell dedicated his map to George Montague Dunk, second earl of Halifax. He was president of the Board of Trade and Plantations between 1748 and 1761.

John Pownall, who ‘signed’ the map’s printed certification of authority, was secretary to the Board. In that role, he would have worked in conjunction with Halifax in overseeing the Board’s responsibilities; he would also have been responsible for framing the issues brought before the Board. He was the elder brother of Thomas Pownall, governor of Massachusetts from 1756 to 1761, who founded several forts in Maine, including Pownalborough. Thomas Pownall was himself an avid geographer and published an influential geographical treatise and map of the American colonies in 1776.

Thomas Kitchen (1718-1784), the map’s engraver, is like many other craftsmen from this period. That is, we know the products of his labor, but we know little about him as an individual.

Making the Map: The First Edition

Mitchell was prompted to make his map of North America by the threat which he and others perceived as being posed by the French. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713-14) had brought an end to Queen Anne’s War (known in Europe as the War of Spanish Succession). The territorial delimitations for North America which were laid out in that treaty were not particularly specific. As a result, the British and the French had different interpretations of their mutual boundary. The British claimed all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi and Spanish territory, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. The French, on the other hand, held that British territories ended with the ridge of the Appalachian mountains, and that the lands to the westward — from modern Ohio to modern Louisiana — were theirs. The different claims are made visible on the Osher Map Library’s new Mitchell map where the British claims are marked in blue-and-red, the French in green-and-yellow. To this end, the French built numerous forts along the Mississippi and its tributaries in order to control access to these interior lands. Mitchell and others argued that this threat needed to be countered.

Indeed, even as Mitchell sailed to Europe in May 1746, the British were once again at war with France (the War of Austrian Succession). Entering the English Channel, Mitchell’s ship was seized by a French privateer out of St. Malo. The passengers were all landed at St. Malo, but their possessions — including Mitchell’s entire botanical collection — were conviscated. Mitchell and his wife at length reached London in late May; his herbarium was eventually returned, but much damaged.

None of the large maps then available of each of the several colonies could demonstrate the manner in which the French were encircling the British colonies. A map of all of North America was needed, but the only one then being produced in Britain was Henry Popple’s massive A Map of the British Empire in America (London, 1733). In twenty large sheets, and measuring 239 x 229 cm (7’10” high by 7’6″ wide), this map covered the Caribbean as well as North America. It too had been made to highlight the French threat and to promote British settlement (see De Vorsey 1986). While popular, its density of data was not as great as Mitchell apparently would have liked because he set out to create his own map to highlight the French threat.

According to the lengthy statement that would be engraved on the second edition of his map (below), Mitchell completed his first draft map in 1750. (The map itself no longer survives.) At the same time, he was making a place for himself in London’s polite society. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1747, a group that was as much social and antiquarian in its purpose as it was scientific. His botanical interests secured him the interest, for example, of the duke of Argyll. Through such connections his cartographic work came to the attention of the Board of Trade and Plantations, the government institution which oversaw the American colonies. A probable conduit was Lord Dupplin, a member of the Board with whom Mitchell dined at Argyll’s in 1749. (All this section is based on Berkeley & Berkeley 1974).

The Board was impressed both by the work which Mitchell had put into his map and by the lack of knowledge about many parts of North America. The Board accordingly gave Mitchell access to their records, and to all the geographical reports and maps which they contained, so that he could make a more complete map. It also requested the colonial governors to send new surveys to London, showing in part the French encroachments. Mitchell was not paid for his work, but was given the rights to profits from the map’s eventual publication.

The result was the first edition of the map — A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America — which was engraved by Thomas Kitchin and published by Andrew Millar in the Strand. Not as big as Popple, its eight sheets nonetheless show the Atlantic colonies and Canada in greater detail. The copyright statement bears the date of February 13th, 1755. That it was based on official, and new, data sources was confirmed by a certificate engraved — with the same date — near to the title cartouche on the eighth sheet:

“This Map was Undertaken with the Approbation and at the request of the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations; and is Chiefly composed from Draughts, Charts and Actual Surveys of different parts of His Majesties Colonies & Plantations in America; Great part of which have been lately transmitted to this Office by the Governors of the said Colonies and others. John Pownall Secretary. Plantation Office Feby. 13th. 1755.”

John Mitchell’s map has been the object of a prominent cartometric study. A grid was first applied to a modern map; its lines were then copied onto Mitchell’s map according to its geographical features. The result is a wonderful image of the relative expansion and contraction of geographic space across the face of Mitchell’s map (Cappon et al. 1976, 58, 125-26; a portion of this image was reproduced by Tufte 1983, 146).

There were one or two minor engraving errors in the first edition. The name and address of the publisher was misspelled. The town of Worcester in Massachusetts was wrongly labeled “Leicester,” giving two towns by that name in the Commonwealth. These small errors were corrected, presumably during 1755, giving rise to the three issues of this map. (See relevant cartographic notes.)

Across the body of the map, Mitchell placed many small annotations concerning the competing British, French, and Spanish claims. He was very clear in pursuing the British claims, derived from their ancient charters, that their colonies properly extended all the way to the western ocean. Many in the interior portion of the map are quoted by Fite & Freeman (1926, 182-84).

Consider, for example, the area of modern Alabama and Mississippi (on sheet 6), in which we find the following comment justifying British control of the lands north of the Spanish claim along the coast:

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Just to the south, at the mouth of the Apalachicola (Alabama) river, which Mitchell took as the eastward extent of the Spanish claim to land along the Gulf coast, Mitchell noted that the Spanish might once have had a fort on the western shore but it was now destroyed. The implication is that in failing to reoccupy the site, the Spanish had lost their claim to the land:

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With respect to New England, Mitchell showed the boundaries as then claimed by Massachusetts against the French colony of Québec. That is, the British claimed all the lands as far north as the St. Lawrence River. He was also aware of the confusion caused by the British acquisition, by the Treaty of Urecht, of the French colony of Acadia. French claims to what is now Maine fluctuated between using the Kennebec and the Penobscot as the western boundary of Acadia. In the treaty, the Penobscot was used as the definition of the western extent of the new colony of Nova Scotia. This of course angered the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who claimed out as far as the St. John River, in modern New Brunswick. Mitchell sought to allay both concerns by (a) engraving one boundary as a dotted line from the Bay of Fundy to the St. Lawrence, and (b) adding a similar dotted line along the Penobscot River. In labelling the territories, he did however run provincial and tribal names across border (b). These boundaries are visible on sheet 3.

Making the Map: The Second Edition

As noted, Mitchell’s first edition appeared in February 1755. Three months later, in May, Thomas Jefferys published John Green’s A New Map of Nova Scotia and Cape Britain [i.e., Breton] … with an Explanation (London, 1755). In his explanatory pamphlet, Green made reference to Mitchell’s map. More particularly, he took Mitchell to task for errors in his outline of the coast of Nova Scotia and the adjacent portions of New England:

“While I am writing this, there is published a New Map of the British and French Dominions in North America, by Dr. Mitchel: From which ours differs much in many Respects … [Port Royal] is put is put 10 Minutes more South than in ours; and [the North-entrance of Kanso Gut] 10 Minutes more North, after Mr. Robert.” (Green 1755, 18)

After listing Mitchell’s errors — and giving a table of differences — Green observed that his map was indeed better than Mitchell’s because it was based on both the recent observations for latitude and longitude made by M. Chabert and Blackmore’s surveyed map of Nova Scotia. In contrast, Mitchell had obviously used only a few spotty values. Green concluded:

“I judged it necessary to say thus much, to obviate any Objections which might be started against this [Greene’s] Map, on account of its disagreeing so considerably with the other [Mitchell’s]. And as that Gentleman has produced no Vouchers to support his Performance [map], I presume what I have done that way [i.e., produced the Explanation to explain his sources] will sufficiently justify mine.” (Green 1755, 22)

It is clear that Mitchell made his second edition in reaction to Green’s criticism. Mitchell added large blocks of text to sheet 7, which lay out for the reader all of the sources that he used in defining the latitudes and longitudes which shaped his map. The lower text block goes through all the basic sources: published accounts, direct observations, and most interestingly the logbooks of British men-o’-war to which he had access through the Board of Trade and Plantations. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s explanations are rather abbreviated and by no means as clear as those of other eighteenth-century geographers.

The upper block is more discursive and understandable than the lower. In it, Mitchell summarizes the changes to the New England and Nova Scotia coastline that he has made. He apologizes for not having used Chabert’s work, for the simple reason that he did not know of them; now that he has incorporated them into his map, he has made the necessary changes. On the other hand, his own access to the Board’s documents meant that he was forced to dismiss Blakemore’s survey out of hand:

“The Map of New England & Nova Scotia requires a farther Consideration, as we find them very erroneously laid down in all our Maps & Charts, especially our many New Maps, copyed from a New Map of Nova Scotia [i.e., Greene’s], copyed from Popple and d’Anville: and those Errors are maintained by Arguments & pretended authorities, which seem to have confirmed them. The only Authority they have for all this is a feigned Survey by a pretended Surveyor General Blackmore in 1711-12: who appears by his Journals to have been Lieutenant of the Dragon Man of War 1711, and made a rude Draught of this Coast (as well as he remembered it perhaps) in 1715, with a Petition to the Board of Trade to enable him to Survey it at that time, which he never did as we can learn. But this draught falling into the Hands of some Workmen, Mr. Moll published it as an Actual Survey “made by her Majesties especial Command,” from which this Coast has been thus erroneously laid down ever since.”

It is difficult to be certain when Mitchell made his additions. Did he reconstruct the Nova Scotia coastline and get the map re-engraved before the end of that year, or did he take longer? The British Library printed catalogue of maps suggests that the second edition might have appeared in 1757. This is quite possible — and indeed I tend to favor 1757 — because of commercial reasons. In the first place, in 1756, Britain once again declared war on France, to start the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War, 1756-63). Such an event would certainly have restimulated demand for a map of one of the probable theatres of war. This would date the map to 1756 and later.

In the second place, Mitchell is generally assumed to have authored a pamphlet published in 1757 and entitled The Contest in America between Great Britain and France with Its Consequences (London, 1757). The anonymous writer — or editor — of a work published in London in 1775, American Husbandry, remembered that:

“Upon occasion of the last war [i.e., 1756] Dr. Mitchel was employed by the ministry [i.e., government] to take an accurate survey of all the back countries of North America, most of them being then but little known except to the French … This was the origin of his map of North America, the best general one we have had; at the time it was published, it was accompanied by a bulky pamphlet, written by the Doctor and entitled, The Contest in America, in which he enters into a full elucidation of the importance of the back countries …” (Quoted by Berkeley & Berkeley 1974, 258)

The confusion over dates in this passage would indicate that for one individual at least, Mitchell’s map was associated with the war. Moreover, there is the implication that the map was accompanied by — published in conjunction with — the pamphlet. Given the time that had elapsed before this recollection, it is possible that the author/editor of American Husbandry had conflated the two editions as one. (Some authors have argued that American Husbandry was written by Mitchell and subsequently edited, perhaps by Arthur Young.)

Making the Map: The Third and Fourth Editions

Mitchell died in 1768. Sometime thereafter (presumably), the eight plates to his map were acquired by Thomas Jefferys or William Faden. A new edition of Mitchell’s map — the third — was then published by the firm of “Jefferys and Faden.”

Jefferys was a well-known London map publisher — he had for example published John Greene’s New Map of Nova Scotia — but he had bankrupted himself in 1766 by overcapitalizing an ambitious project to survey several English counties at large scales. As a result he had to sell many of his plates and he entered into partnerships in order to spread future risk. One partnership was with the young William Faden, who was only sixteen in 1766. Faden’s father, William Sr., was a printer who seems to have sufficiently wealthy to buy his son a partnership with Jefferys in 1767-68. After Jefferys’ death in 1771, Faden continued to publish his maps under Jefferys’ name. This changed in 1773 when Faden added his own name to the map imprints — as “Jefferys and Faden” — and registered the new name of the firm in the City of Westminster’s Rate Book (see Harley 1966, 47).

Although Faden removed Andrew Millar’s name from the copyright statement when he republished Mitchell’s map, he did not change the date of publication, which still read 1755. From the firm’s history, however, it is clear that the map would have been published in 1773 through 1775 (the date of the fourth edition).

The occasion for the new edition would seem to have been the Québec Act of 1774. Britain had conquored French North America during the French and Indian War; at the war’s conclusion in 1763, the French retained Cape Breton and other islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but Britain kept Québec. A Royal Proclamation in 1763 established preliminary boundaries between Canada and the Atlantic colonies; those limits were finalized by the Québec Act of 1774. Faden’s new version of Mitchell’s map featured several changes in the boundaries of the northern states that seem to reflect the Act.

For example, the straight boundary line running roughly east-west to the north of Lake Ontario — labelled “Limits of Canada and the Iroquois according to De L’Isle and other Geographers” and prominent on the first two editions — was erased and replaced by a boundary line passing through Lake Ontario. On the other hand, Massachusetts’ claim to comprise territory all the way to the St. Lawrence river was negated by both the 1763 proclamation and the 1774 act yet that new boundary was not updated:

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On this detail of the Osher Map Library’s fourth edition of Mitchell’s map, the color wash represents the colonial boundaries as defined in 1763 and 1774: Canada, in green with dark green trim, has a territorial component along the south shore of the St. Lawrence; New England, in cream with yellow trim, and Nova Scotia, in pink with amber trim, reach only as far as the presumed watershed between the Atlantic and St. Lawrence (see more on coloring). The map itself is, however, still engraved with the original New England-Nova Scotia boundary running all the way to the St. Lawrence; this dotted line is masked by the thin red line that represents the eventual settlement of the U.S. border at the Treaty of Paris, but it is visible where it runs across the green of Canada. Nor, clearly, were the new northern limits of New England and Nova Scotia engraved on the third edition. That is, if the map was republished to reflect the 1774 boundary changes, then this boundary should have been reengraved rather than be shown only by hand-applied color.

My sense is that the chronological coincidence of Faden’s publication of the map with the Québec Act of 1774 was probably not just coincidence. Perhaps the later issue of the third edition were made to reflect the 1774 act. Whatever the case, more research on the contents of each version of the map needs to be done to attest to Faden’s motives in producing the third edition.

Finally, hot on the heels of the third edition, Faden brought out a fourth edition, marked by a change of name in the map. Faden re-engraved the line in the title reading “British and French Dominions” to read just “British Colonies.” The new title was thus, A Map of the British Colonies in North America …. The name change is clearly a recognition that France no longer had a colonial presence in North America, other than Cape Breton, and so reflects the culmination of British assertions of power in the continent.

It is significant that the fourth edition has no alterations in the geographical detail: the only change is in the title. The implication is that the fourth edition was actually an extension — a futher issue, almost — of the third. The dating of the fourth edition is made clear by an entry in Faden’s 1778 catalogue of maps, which lists a “Map of the British Colonies in North America [by] Dr. Mitchel” as having been published in 1775.