The Library of Virginia

Virginia in Maps

Virginia has the longest and richest history of any of the United States, recorded in rare books, manuscripts, newspapers, and journals. Maps are a key element of this documentary heritage, but are far less well-known or understood. Maps trace the discovery, settlement, expansion, and growth of Virginia from a tiny settlement at the very edge of the English empire to today's vibrant, modern state in the American South.

Maps form a visual record of Virginia's development showing the changing understanding of the geography of the colony and state through time. Cartographers produced maps based on the best available knowledge of the land, but cartography was as much an artistic endeavor as an exercise in geography. Meanwhile, the evolution of the methods and the sophistication of the instruments of map making show the effect of larger scientific and technological changes on charting the land.

The history of cartography in the Old Dominion shows the pivotal role of Virginia's mapmakers as political, military, and social leaders. Since maps are always drawn for a particular purpose, cultural and geographical perspectives are often reflected in the final product. For example, an elaborate cartouche can illustrate a pressing political issue of the time.

While highly valued as historic documents and holding a wide general interest and appeal, there is no existing comprehensive atlas that reproduces and interprets the important maps of Virginia. Additionally, there has been no definitive exhibition of Virginia maps drawn from American repositories.

In an effort to meet these needs, the Library of Virginia developed the Virginia in Maps project. This project consists of three major interpretive components: an illustrated atlas, a major exhibition, and a two-day scholarly symposium.

The main goal of Virginia in Maps is to increase awareness of the rich and diverse geography of the Commonwealth of Virginia through its maps and to highlight the Library’s extraordinary collection of more than 65,000 maps. By reaching out to a broad public audience, the story of the settlement, expansion, and growth of Virginia can be told through 400 years of maps.

The first component of the Virginia in Maps project was a symposium held on Friday and Saturday, April 23-24, 1999, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Louis De Vorsey, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Geography from the University of Georgia at Athens.    Saturday’s presenters included Marianne M. McKee, Library of Virginia; John R. Hebert, Library of Congress; Donald H. Cresswell, the Philadelphia Print Shop; Ronald Grim, Library of Congress; Richard W. Stephenson, Library of Congress (retired); Gary W. North, North Arrow, Ltd., David W. Lowe, National Park Service; John Hutchinson, Valley Conservation Council; Samuel D. Byrd, Library of Virginia; Barbara Vines Little, independent researcher; and William D. Shinar, Virginia Geographic Information Network.

The second component of the Virginia in Maps project is Mapping Virginia, a major free exhibition featuring more than 150 maps and books exploring Virginia’s cartographic history.

In five sections and with an interactive computer program, the exhibition provides insight into how maps were made, how maps reflect changing concepts of the environment, how maps indicate changing society, and how maps suggest Virginia’s role in the colonial empire and the American republic. Among the maps on display will be the 1827 Boye map, the 1755 Mitchell map of British claims in North America, the 1807 Madison map of Virginia, and the 1770 John Henry map of Virginia. The exhibition is open from April 23 through December 15, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.

The third component in the project will be a definitive atlas, Virginia in Maps: Four Centuries of Settlement, Growth, and Development, the first fully illustrated publication of historical Virginia maps. Co-edited by Richard W. Stephenson and Marianne M. McKee and available in the fall of 1999, the atlas will fill a significant void in the history of Virginia’s cartography.

The Library of Virginia Foundation is the recipient of a $177,000 Challenge Grant from a private Richmond foundation to support the Virginia in Maps project. Individuals wishing to contribute matching funds for this Challenge Grant, should contact the Foundation at 804/692-3900.

For more information about any of the elements of the Virginia in Maps project, please contact Ann Henderson, Public Relations Coordinator at the Library of Virginia, 804/692-3611.