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18th Century Maps of North America: Perception vs. Reality

Between 1755 and 1775, over the course of just twenty years, three seminal maps of North America were published in London, even though those responsible for the maps never left England! These three maps, discussed in more detail below, were prepared for a British audience in an attempt to reinforce opinions regarding British control of North America. A fourth map, also published in London, depicts the extent of the United States in 1802.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Arguably the most important of the first three pre-1800 maps addressed in this blog is John Mitchell’s iconic 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America pictured above. At the request of the English Board of Trade and Plantations, the equivalent of the State Department, Mitchell was tasked with preparing a large map of North America based upon maps provided by each of the thirteen colonial governors. The intriguing story behind the map lies with its illustrated claim of English sovereignty extending from the Atlantic Ocean westward past the Mississippi and, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean. These claims are evidenced by the horizontal colonial boundaries extending into French territory.

Our second map, pictured below, was originally published in London by Emanuel Bowen in 1763. Unlike Mitchell’s map, which incorporated the territorial aspirations of the British colonies, the 1763 map by Bowen illustrated the political realities dictated by the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year’s War in North America.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The third revolutionary map in our saga was published in London by Carington Bowles in 1771. Like the Bowen map illustrated above, it, too, includes colonial territory lost in 1763, but also emphasizes unsettled colonial boundaries.  Of those, the most notable are the western boundary of Pennsylvania, the northeastern boundary of Virginia, and the western boundary of New York, as establishment of each defined those colonies’ access to Lake Erie.

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 1774 ?, 1774]

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 177?, 1771]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The final map of North America in our brief exploration of revolutionary maps was published in London in 1802. Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) produced the most current and accurate cartographic representation of the American West up to that date. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carefully studied the map in 1803 and even carried a copy on the first leg of their landmark expedition. Arrowsmith’s map immediately pre-dates the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and subsequent 1804-06 expedition by Lewis & Clark.  Rather than fill in the American West with conjectural or inaccurate data, he has deliberately left large areas blank, allowing viewers to envision for themselves the nature of the vast territory recently acquired before the landscape could be recorded by scientific surveys.

Arrowsmith, Aaron, and J Puke. A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America. [London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

So why are these maps significant? And how do they illustrate cartographic perception and geographic reality?  First, British control of North America is implied in Mitchell’s 1755 map which depicts British colonies extending from “sea to sea”.  Secondly, the geographic reality of British control of North America are all shown on the commercially produced 1763 Bowen map, the 1774 Bowles’ map, and Arrowsmith’s 1802 map which all relied on factual data. It all comes down to the intentions of each cartographer and those who employed the cartographers!

Learn more:

Creating the United States. A Library of Congress exhibit drawing heavily on items related to American Revolution from various parts of the Library. (April 2008 – May 2012).

Rivers, Edens, and Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. A Library of Congress exhibit showcasing items from various collections the related to Lewis and Clark expedition. (July 2003 – November 2003).

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