George Washington and His Maps

In his journey from surveyor to soldier to leader, our first president used cartography to get a feel for the young nation

Many of George Washington's decisions during his long career were made only after careful readings of the existing cartographical materials. (The Granger Collection, New York)

First in war.

First in peace.

First to look at a map whenever he had a question about waging the former and sustaining the latter.

It's not how we typically picture George Washington: bent over a map by candlelight, scrutinizing, measuring and in some cases actually drawing the topographical details that would help conquer a wilderness, win a war, create a republic. But as historian Barnet Schecter shows us in his illustrated new history, George Washington's America: a Biography through His Maps, many of our first president's decisions during his long career as a surveyor, soldier and statesman were made only after careful readings of the existing cartographical materials.

About 43 of Washington's maps—the actual maps—were saved and bound together, most likely by his family after his death in 1799. Eventually, they made their way to Yale University's Sterling Library. Schecter, a 1985 Yale graduate, read about them in the university's alumni magazine. Intrigued, he went to New Haven to see them and was flabbergasted by their richness—exquisitely rendered, copper-plate engraved, many with additional water color painting. All were from Washington's personal library and (in a stroke of good timing for Schecter) recently cleaned and restored. "I was blown away," says Schecter, the author of the critically-acclaimed books The Revolutionary Battle of New York, and the Civil War Draft Riots. "To hold maps he held sends shivers down the spine."

"The Yale atlas enables us to look over Washington's shoulder," Schecter writes in the introduction to his book, "accompanying him as he journeyed through these landscapes, of struggled to direct his generals and monitor their campaigns in distant theaters of battle." Schecter's book examines 190 of the founding father's maps, including the original 43 maps in the Atlas as well as others that appeared in a separate inventory of Washington's library.

Here are 10 maps Schecter feels are most important in understanding the significance that maps played in the life of Washington in each phase of his remarkable career.

Map 1: A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia

Map of the most inhabited part of Virginia
(Yale University Library)

Part of the significance of this map, originally done in 1751, was its creators: Peter Jefferson, Thomas’ father, and Joshua Fry, who commanded George Washington during the French and Indian War. But Schecter suggests that it also maps out the contours of the young Washington’s mind and character. “All the land up to the mountains was owned by people like Lord Fairfax,” Schecter says. “This map sets up one of the great shaping forces of Washington’s life—his search for land beyond the mountains. It shows the acquisitive, ambitious side of the man.” Later, he notes, “That self interested pre-occupation became ‘how do we unify this country?’” Washington found the answer to both of those questions in his maps.


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