The Library of Virginia

Abraham Ortelius, 1587The early maps of Virginia reflected the ideological perspectives of their makers and users. They also served both as political and as propaganda statements for the British, French, and Spanish explorers intent on colonizing the North American continent. Pamphlets, books, and engraved images encouraged settlement in America. John Smith's map of Virginia, first published in 1612, Virginia 1627 showed the new territory as a veritable Garden of Eden. In the early years of settlement, maps of Virginia presented the colony as though approached by the sea, with west at the top and north to the right. These maps used information gained from both American Indians and European explorers. The Appalachian Mountains formed a major barrier to discovery of what lay beyond. After explorers pushed past the mountains and mapmakers visually described the new explorations Virginians recognized the potential for trade, settlement, and mining.

Johannis Van Keulen, 1685For much of Virginia's early history, the Chesapeake Bay and its coastal rivers were crucial to developing a trans-Atlantic trade with Europe in tobacco and other agricultural products. Easy access to the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean from the many rivers hampered efforts to establish inland towns. The scattershot pattern of houses dotting maps of colonial Virginia reflects the relative ease with which farmers could transport their hogsheads of tobacco to British ports.

Expanding settlement of Virginia's interior produced demand for land surveys and plans of towns. The number and variety of maps thus formed a body of basic documents for mapmakers interested in defining larger areas of the colony. Surveyors such as Joshua Fry, Peter Jefferson, and John Henry made their own surveys but also used existing maps to create large-scale maps of the entire colony of Virginia.

A Map of the most Inhabited part of VirginiaThe Fry-Jefferson map was the first map of the colony to show the correct orientation of the Appalachian range through which ran the Great Wagon Road that connected Philadelphia with North Carolina. Having worked on surveys of both the Virginia-North Carolina boundary and the boundaries of the Northern Neck Proprietary, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson incorporated those completed surveys into their map. Commissioned in 1750 by the Board of Trade and Plantations in England, Fry and Jefferson completed their map of the colony in 1751. The map was first published in 1754 with an elaborate cartouche that emphasized Virginia's dependence on a tobacco economy based on chattel slavery.

Maps of Virginia during the mid-1700s expressed British claims at the expense of competing French and Spanish claims. In 1755 John Mitchell published a large map of North America to show where French and British claims overlapped. The American and British diplomats consulted the map extensively to draw up the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. European countries expected the new United States of America to stay within the treaty boundaries, but the new country intended to push its boundaries deeper into the interior. Virginia's claim to the West suggested a vision of an empire controlled by the eastern states.


Mapping Virginia

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Surveyors and Mapmakers

Mapping Technology

Vision of Empire

Building the Commonwealth

The Geography of Culture

Educators' Lesson Plans


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