THE UNKNOWN MAP THAT DEFINED NORTH AMERICA (November 26/04)

The Mitchell Map has been described as the “most important map in North American history;” and unless you’re really into history, your comment on reading this likely will be, “I never heard of it before.”

This was my reaction when I came across mention of the map on Ivan Smith’s website, the Nova Scotia History Index. Mr. Smith undoubtedly has one of the most extensive Maritimes history sites on the web today. While Smith’s main interest appears to be anything related to our early industries, he delves into many little-known aspects of provincial history. As well as the history of early power and telephone companies in Nova Scotia, for example, one can find postings on such diversified topics as the Saxby Gale, Prince Henry Sinclair, the 1929 earthquake, Oak Island and so on.

Getting back to the little-known Mitchell Map, the important role it has played in North American history is explained on Smith’s website and other related sites. The map was produced by Dr. John Mitchell, a distinguished physician and scientists who was born in Virginia and emigrated to England in 1746. Mitchell produced his first draft in 1750 and it was first printed in 1755.

As is explained on the web, Mitchell was worried about the French expansion in North America and “concerned that the British protect their interests there.” He was commissioned by the Board of Trade and Plantations to produce a map defining British claims in North America. Apparently, Mitchell studied the histories of all the colonies in order to produce a map that argued for British control of most of the continent. He spent five years studying “much manuscript and documentary information,” using the most trustworthy sources available including the records of the Board of Trade and the British Admiralty. The result was a detailed and precise map that was “universally accepted as the best depiction of North America from its first appearance through to the end of the century.”

Why is the Mitchell map so important? To put it the map in perspective, here are a few quotes I’ve selected from websites Ivan Smith has linked to his History Index: “The most comprehensive map of North America produced during the Colonial Era, it represented the various territorial claims made by not only the competing British and French empires but also by the various British colonies.

“It has accordingly served, as recently as 1932, in legal disputes between eastern states. More importantly, it was the map on which the boundaries of the new United States were defined by American and British negotiators in Paris in 1782-83; in that capacity, it has continued to be of importance right up to the 1980s US-Canadian dispute over the Gulf of Maine fisheries.”

“The Mitchell map was used as the primary political document of America, called upon whenever a border dispute came up. When the negotiations to end the (American) Revolution were concluded in Paris in 1783, it was Mitchell’s map upon which the border between Canada and the United States was described and it was used subsequently in numerous border disputes right into the early 20th century. The map became in effect the official map of North America during the last half of the 18th century and even into the 19th.”

For a look at the map that “made North America,” follow the link [look for 1755 February 13] found on Ivan Smith’s History Index.

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