Cartography and the American Revolution

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A good map can keep you from getting lost and allow you to explore brand new places. What do you do when you’re heading someplace without a map or, as the case was in early America, without an accurate map?

A new book discusses the history and importance of mapmaking in the United States at the very beginnings. The Revolutionary War prompted some major leaps in charting the newly formed United States of America, with cartographers braving the heat of battle to better map the land around them. Soldiers themselves, in addition to adapting to guerrilla warfare tactics, were often the only ones with accurate knowledge of the land they were fighting over.

The French and Indian War brought an additional international perspective to the mapping of the United States. Soldiers from England, France and Ireland in addition to Native Americans were at odds over the pieces of land each nation was trying to control. Maps, in this case, showed borders greatly distorted by each country’s desire to obtain land in America.

Maps from the battles of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War can be found as far away as Scotland, where researchers have compiled a collection of original maps drawn by cartographers, soldiers and scholars who explored the America in its early days.

The conquering of Quebec by the English during the French and Indian War was made possible by intricate mapping of the major fort and the rivers surrounding the city. James Cook also mapped the St. Lawrence River, which was thought to be unnavigable by the French at the time. This pioneered a life of exploration for Captain Cook and cemented a victory for the British.

The book emphasises some lesser-known maps to best convey the atmosphere and details of these battles, fought in unknown territory. A 1755 map, created by John Mitchell, was used by John Jay at the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. This map displayed the first and most accurate images of the United States at the time and was instrumental in solving the border disputes that marked America’s beginnings.

Wars were started and ended because of maps in their accuracies and inaccuracies. American history was certainly changed and influenced by maps, as evidenced by the book and the author’s intensive research.

Revolution: Mapping the Road to American IndependencePaul E. Cohen and Richard H. Brown (W. Norton & Company, 2015).

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