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Maps Forge Cohesive National Character

portrait of george washington  

Portrait of George Washington examining Ellicott’s Plan of the City of Washington. By Edward Savage (courtesy of The Old Print Shop)


January 18, 2011 – In the decades after the American Revolution, maps helped forge a new American identity, and unify the fledgling nation. As opposed to those created by Colonial powers, which served the goals of the mother nation, early American maps reflected the optimism and ambition of the early Republic. Whether illustrating the vast area of the new national territory, expressing the sovereignty of the newly-formed states or advancing infrastructure projects, the maps revealed how Americans sought to transform the landscape to suit their economic and political goals.

A new exhibition, Toward a National Cartography: American Mapmaking, 1782-1800, opening January 18 at the Harvard Map Collection, explores those early years of American cartography through a display of 22 maps that fit into six broad categories. The first three,  “Nation,” “States,” and “Towns”, emphasize different spheres of allegiance and identity, while the latter three, “Navigation,” “Expansion,” and “Connection”, look respectively at three epic national endeavors – the charting of the coast, the westward movement of the population, and the development of a vast network of roads and canals.

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and transformation,” said guest curator Michael Buehler, a map scholar and principal at Boston Rare Maps. “Americans were free in a way they never had been before, and that is reflected in these maps. I also appreciate the raw immediacy of the maps – they are bold and to the point – that is different from the more refined map-making traditions of the colonial powers.”

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The exhibition includes 22 maps, many of which are extremely rare, as well as supporting materials. Though the bulk of the items are taken from the holdings of the Harvard Map Collection, one map in the display come from a private collector, three are on loan from the American Antiquarian Society and two are from the collection of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Among the highlights: a 1784 map by William McMurray that illustrates the full extent of the then-United States – just the second such map produced in America, and a 1785 map by John Fitch, one of the earliest maps to show the “Old Northwest” divided into proposed new states.

Map-making following the Revolution was particularly important, said Joseph Garver, Librarian for Research Services and Collection Development, for creating a cohesive national character for the U.S.

“In the period after the Revolution, the first maps of the whole of the U.S. as it existed at that time began to emerge,” he said. “In part because of these maps, people started to think of themselves, first and foremost, as U.S. citizens, then as citizens of their state and city or town. Until then, there simply wasn’t a lot of cartographic consciousness in this country.

“I hope people will come away from this exhibition with an understanding that the process of map-making at this time was not easy,” Garver added. “People had to go out and walk those roads, walk through swamps and climb mountains, and in many cases they were doing it from scratch. There was not a lot of previous mapping in many of these areas.”