Washington’s maps, cool again

The statement — “These parts are entirely unknown” — printed over the entire area of Canada, was once a completely unironic assertion from one of George Washington’s maps of Northern America. Now on view as part of the exhibit “America Transformed: From George Washington’s American Atlas to the 21st Century”, this map and the 21 other facsimiles featured by the Yale University Library Map Department, allows viewers to look over Washington’s shoulder at the world he keenly fought for, ruled and knew.

Although never listed in Orbis, Washington’s American Atlas has long been considered one of the secret treasures of the Yale Map Department since its acquisition from the governor of Connecticut in 1970. Until the late 1800s, the atlas was one of the invaluable pieces of history passed down through Washington’s heirs, when the family sold the map after having presumably gone through hard financial times. Two years later, after receiving funding for the Atlas’ extensive and necessary conservation, the maps have finally been restored to their full health, and fame.

The exhibit was inspired largely by the recent publication of Barnet Schecter’s ’85 book of Washington’s history based on his work with the atlas, “George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps.” Schecter’s interest was piqued upon seeing an image of the Atlas’ “Seat of War Map” while reading an article about the map collection in the Yale Alumni Magazine back in 2007.

And no wonder. The Seat of War Map of New England is one of the most exciting in the display. The vivid illustrations, such as small fire ideograms representing the “Burning of Charlestown,” and notable events, such as the March of Washington, turn the lively map into a flowing battlefield experience for viewers. For the technologically inclined, versions of the maps are presented alongside their modern equivalents taken from the Collection’s GIS data sets, also accessible through poking the exhibit’s flashy large touch screen.

Despite their small quirks (like entirely missing pieces of New York), the maps aren’t that different from the ones used today. But besides these modern additions and some panels chronicling the Atlas’ difficult conservation project by the Library’s Preservation Department, the exhibit seems to have relatively little text.

That is, until one notices the fascinating selection of documents from Manuscripts and Archives, some written by Washington himself, featured in the center of the room. “It would give me pleasure to render you any services in my power, but it is impossible for me to comply with your request, without violating the principles of justice and incurring a charge of partiality,” Washington writes from Valley Forge on Jan 8, 1788 in a letter to an anonymous captive pleading for his help. No one knows who this man was.

Even more mystery is present in the maps themselves. It’s unclear whether these maps were collected and collated into a book per Washington’s request or were bought all together as the date and geographic range of the maps differs greatly.

What can be known is a lot more about Washington himself.

“They give us a better sense of him as a human being past the reserved façade he cultivated through which most Americans know him. He was also an extremely ambitious and aggressive young man who went after his goals with a tremendous focus and intensity.” Schecter said.

The exhibit, foreshadowing America and Washington’s focus on land from scientific curiosity to conquest, will remain on view until May 23 in the Memorabilia Room of the Sterling Memorial Library. Washington’s maps broadened his view as land speculator and speculative dreamer of what America could become. He was right on the money.

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