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

Hale receives instructions from Washington
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.

Map 2: A General Map of the British Colonies

General map of the British Colonies
(Yale University Library)

Washington owned the original 1755 map and referred to both it and the updated 1775 version throughout his life (he even mentions the in a letter). What’s important about it, Schecter says, is that it shows the placements and names of Native American tribes. “During the French and Indian War, Washington learned that there was a bewildering array of tribes and alliances,” Schecter said. This map helped Washington better understand the Indian tribes and their physical proximity. This particular detail from the map shows, in capital letters, the territory of the six Iroquois nations south and east of Lake Ontario. From east to west: Mohocks, Tuscaroras, Onyuts (Oneidas) Ondages, Cayugaes and Senecas.

Map 3: Washington’s Map of the Frontier

Washingtons map of the frontier
(University of Virginia, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

This map of the western frontier, drawn by the 21-year-old Washington in 1754, reveals something about his character, as well as his ability as a draftsman. “This shows his toughness, as well as his skills,” Schecter says: “That he was willing to go out and trek through rain and snow in the wilderness and come back with an accurate map.”

Washington’s map was also influential. It shows the forks of the Ohio and its confluence with the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers (site of modern day Pittsburgh), and helped convince Virginia authorities that this strategic site—where a fort was planned—was vulnerable to attack and needed to be defended.

Guess who was appointed to lead the mission to defend the new settlement?

Map 4: The Seat of War in New England

The seat of war in New England
(Yale University Library)

This detail is part of a well-known map drawn in London in 1775 depicting the opening battles of the Revolutionary War, Washington likely got his copy through French map dealers. Shown here, in addition to giving us a good look at the city of Boston in 1775, is the Battle of Bunker Hill, fought just before Washington took command of the army. Orange flames of Charlestown burning, as depicted in this map, are part of what captured Schecter’s attention when he first looked through the atlas at Yale’s Sterling Library.

Map 5: An Authentic Plan of the River St. Laurence… with the Operations of the Siege of Quebec

Plan of the River St Laurence and siege of Quebec
(Yale University Library)

This map shows the famous 1759 Battle of Quebec, in which the British general Wolfe defeated the French general Montcalm. Why was it in Washington’s collection? “He dispatched [Benedict] Arnold to take Quebec in 1775,” Schecter says. “So this map plus letters from Arnold were his ‘intel.’ This is how he followed the campaign back in Cambridge.”

No doubt while reading this map, Washington also noted the area marked “Landing Place” by the village of Sillery, just west of the city. Here, a young British officer led a group of volunteers up the palisades along the river—the spearhead of a flanking movement that proved to be the decisive point of the battle. That young colonel was the same man that Washington now faced 16 years later: British Army general William Howe.

Map 6: A Map of the City of New York

Map of the Province of New York
(Yale University Library)

Originally drawn by British military engineer John Montresor, this map was consulted by Washington as he planned the defense of the city of New York in 1776. The plan involved American troops fighting house to house in Lower Manhattan, in an effort to inflict mass British casualties. The plan never materialized, as Howe flanked the Americans by landing his troops well above the city. “This was a moment that Washington stumbled,” Schecter notes.

Map 7: An Accurate Map of North and South Carolina

Accurate map of North and South Carolina
(Yale University Library)

This was the best available map of the Carolinas when Washington sent Gen. Nathaniel Green there to stem the British advance in the American South. The fact that it was part of Washington’s collection, Schecter says, proves an important point: “These distant theaters of the war are a very important part of Washington’s story. Although he was not there himself, making decisions, he’s heavily engaged through the maps.”

Map 8: A Map of the United States According to the Definitive Treaty

Map of USA according to Definitive Treaty
(Yale University Library)

This 3–by-2-foot map shows the boundaries of the new country as established by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. This was also the first important map that designated the United States by name. No wonder Washington had it in his collection. “You see the U.S. as one unified country here,” Schecter says. “He probably took great pride in that.” (In the inset to the map, the United States is shown without state borders, making it seem even more of a homogenous entity, which also no doubt pleased the general.)

Map 9: A Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina

Map of the western parts of Virginia Pennsylvania and North Carolina
(Yale University Library)

Washington consulted this map—which he considered “amazingly accurate”—before recommending to Congress the borders for what would become the states of Ohio and Michigan. He also used it to plan strategy in the Indian wars of the early 1790s.

Map 10: Washington’s Own Survey of Mt. Vernon

George Washington survey of Mt Vernon
(Yale University Library)

In December 1793, Washington told his secretary Tobias Leer that he planned to rent out the farms on his 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate, except the primary one, on which his mansion was located. He attributed this momentous decision to advancing age, but admitted in a private letter to Leer that the reason “more powerful than all the rest, was to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings.” He was talking, of course, about slaves—and his desire to free the ones in his possession. But how to do it? This map, Schecter says, reveals one idea. “What he hoped to do was take the four separate farms that made up the estate and hoped to divide it up, rent it out and have farmers cultivate the land and hire the free slaves.” This plan, alas, never came to fruition, and his slaves were freed instead upon his death six years later.