George Washington maps on display

Some displayed maps were made by George Washington himself and chart significant events in his life.
Some displayed maps were made by George Washington himself and chart significant events in his life. Photo by Zeenat Mansoor.

A new exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library provides an inside perspective onto George Washington’s world through his own maps.

The exhibit, “America Transformed: From George Washington’s American Atlas to the 21st Century,” which opened Wednesday in the Memorabilia Room, features newly restored maps from a composite atlas acquired about 40 years ago. The maps show strategic battle sites and political areas Washington focused on during his presidency and some were even made by Washington himself.

“The maps could be a way of going back in time and experiencing the world through Washington’s eyes,” said historian Barnet Schecter ’85, who discussed his book “George Washington’s America: A Biography Through his Maps,” yesterday at SML.

Near the exhibit’s entrance is a 1762 John Rocque map of North America that Washington used for general reference. Schecter said he found it ironic to see a map that falsely designated certain areas of the continent as land or water.

The exhibit displays maps alongside present-day maps of the same areas for comparison.

“Our brains understand [Washington’s world] so much better when we see it,” Schecter said.

Schecter said the maps chart a change in Washington himself. Slaveowner Washington devised a plan to free his slaves in 1793, producing a map of his plantation at Mount Vernon that divides the plantation into five smaller farms, Schecter said. Washington planned to sell four of the farms to other farmers with the understanding that they would hire his slaves as free laborers, he added.

Scheter said Washington never carried out his plan while he was alive for political reasons, instead freeing his slaves in his will.

Schecter began working on his book in 2007, just before the library began restoring the maps. He wrote the book using electronic images of the maps in their unrestored state and illustrated the text of his book, published last November, with photographs of the restored maps.

The preservation efforts, which began in 2008 and finished in January 2010, were motivated in part by a desire to make the maps digitally accessible to researchers, said chief conservator Christine McCarthy. A donor also expressed interest in Washington and offered to sponsor the project around the time the library decided to undertake restoration, McCarthy added.

After unbinding the maps, McCarthy said the preservation team washed some in a bath of calcium bicarbonate solution, which removes substances that cause yellowing. The preservers also reinforced the maps using carefully selected, removable materials that can be replaced using more advanced preservation techniques as they develop in the future.

“Anytime we’re adding anything to original material we want to be sure of what it is and how it will react and age over time,” McCarthy said.

Washington, childless, left his estate, including his library and maps, to his nephew Bushrod Washington. Bushrod left the atlas to his own nephew, John, in 1829. As southern families witnessed economic hardship in the wake of the Civil War, John’s grandson Lawrence Washington auctioned the maps in Philadelphia in 1876 for $26 to General Joseph Roswell Hawley 1888. Hawley’s family sold the atlas to Yale in 1970.

The exhibit, which includes an interactive tour of the restored maps on a touch screen monitor, is open until May 23.

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