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Of Maps, Manuscripts, and Memory

The staff of the Geography and Map Division, and the members of the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society, dedicate this important acquisition and blog post to our former colleague, Ed Redmond, who passed away last month and whose life was lived surrounded by maps and manuscripts just like it.

In his memoir History Continues, the great medieval historian Georges Duby, writes about the emotional mysteries and joys of historical research in a library,

I was alone. I had managed to have a carton [of ancient medieval documents] brought to my table [by the librarian]. I opened it. What was this box going to turn up? I withdrew the first packet of documents. I untied it and slipped my hand between the sheets of parchment. Taking one of them, I unfolded it, and already I felt a peculiar pleasure: these old skins are often exquisite to touch. Along with the palpable delight goes the sense of entering a secret preserve.  One can almost feel the presence of the man who, eight hundred years earlier, took up his goose quill, dipped it in ink and began to form his letters at unhurried pace, as if engraving an inscription for eternity—and the text is there, before one’s eyes, as fresh as the day it was written. In all the intervening years, who else has set eyes on these words?

Duby was however, not alone. There was someone else present, who had set their eyes on these parchments. Behind those pieces of folded history are the hands of another, someone else besides the scribe who wrote them centuries ago, someone who took note of the intellectual and the material aspects of those documents, and thought them important enough to save, to preserve, and to catalog.

It is in the acquiring, in the making available, and in the act of preserving for the world, that the passions of the librarian and archivist are to be found. We are people who understand the fragility of the books, maps and manuscripts that are entrusted to our care, and in doing so, sit next to scholars, like Duby, as they explore lost worlds and begin to create new ones. We have front row seats and are witnesses to the ephemeral nature of the historical record and of life itself. It is in this witnessing and enabling of the scholarly process, that we find the life of Ed Redmond, a long-time reference librarian and expert in the early cartography of the United States, who passed away a month ago.

Ed was taken early in his career by the cartography of the early colonists, and later came to think that almost everything cartographic was of interest. For more than thirty years he was that other person in the room, helping countless scholars, students and library patrons, find their way through the world’s largest collection of maps. It is in his memory that the Library of Congress’ Geography and Map Division, along with its friends group, the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society, has purchased an early survey record book and journal of the colonial merchant James Hunter.

Title Inscription to James Hunter’s Book of Land Draughts. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The manuscript, which bears the title, James Hunter his Book of Draughts of his Lands, is composed of more than sixty entries, many of which are hand drawn survey maps, with ownership and price information relating to Hunter’s investments, between 1767 and 1789.  Most of the notebook and its drawings are not by Hunter himself.  At the back of the manuscript however, there are a few pages which may have been jotted by him when he started to keep records of his real estate transactions. One page gives a spreadsheet account of a few real estate transactions in 1767 and 1769, including one which took place in the important London Coffee House on March 29, 1769, where Hunter purchased 275 acres.

Record of Hunter’s Purchase of 275 acres at the London Coffee House.

Hunter, a George Washington confident, was a fascinating figure whose career spanned the American Revolution, and who, as a Pennsylvania native, Ed would have loved researching.  Like many early merchants he invested much of his money in land speculation and was surrounded by plats, surveys and maps. He owned several farms, many homes, and was much taken with woodlots. He was born in Coleraine, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland in 1729, and came to Pennsylvania in his youth, setting up an Irish goods shop in Philadelphia, along Strawberry Alley.

Typical Map from James Hunter’s Notebook. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Just before independence in 1774, he was one of the twenty-eight colonists who formed the Philadelphia Troop of Light Horse, which remains one of the oldest military units in the United States still in active service. Hunter served in the Continental Army and participated in the battles of Trenton and Princeton and by 1778, had retired to his Radnor Pennsylvania home.

Documents like the notebook of James Hunter, which in their time were created and used by individuals, not as records for posterity, but rather in the everyday pursuit of their lives, are memorials to their passing. Looking through Hunter’s notebook, we can see him looking at surveys and conducting business over a cup of coffee. The manuscript, in all its simplicity, gives us a unique, emotional and deeply personal view of history, not by describing great events, but rather by letting us know that here a life was lived.

The staff of the Geography and Map Division, and the members of the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society, dedicate this important acquisition to our former colleague, Ed Redmond, whose life, like James Hunter’s, was lived surrounded by maps, manuscripts and coffee. He will be missed.


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