View five rare maps of early America and Virginia, on loan from Paul Schott Stevens.

Special Exhibit Showing From

Mapping the "New World"

The five maps displayed here illustrate the progression of European geographic knowledge about Virginia and North America from the 16th through the 18th centuries. They chart the emergence of George Washington’s world, one defined by territorial expansion, transatlantic commerce, and slavery.

Early maps like these served as tools of both exploration and empire. As Europeans competed with each other for land and resources in North America and the Caribbean, they initially struggled to make sense of geographic space already well-known to its native inhabitants. In time, increasingly precise maps of the American landscape aided Europeans’ efforts to establish legal claims—real or imagined—to contested American land.

Oceani Occidentalis Sen Terrae Tabula

A revised edition of Martin Waldseemüller's Tabula Terre Nove (1513)
Strasbourg: Lorenz Fries, 1541

Thirty years after Martin Waldseemüller printed one of the first maps of the Americas, Lorenz Fries published an updated European perspective on the New World. “Terra Incognita” on Waldseemüller’s map has become “Terra Nova” on Fries’s. The Castilian flag marks Spanish territorial claims in the Caribbean, while the continent’s indigenous people are caricatured as primitive, reflecting common European misperceptions of native cultures.

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Americae pars, nunc Virginia

Frankfurt: John White and Theodore De Bry, 1590

Theodore De Bry’s engraving of John White’s manuscript map was the first finely-detailed view of a North American landscape. It depicts English claims to “Virginia,” which at the time encompassed both modern Virginia and North Carolina. Created in the wake of the failed English settlement at Roanoke Island, De Bry’s color engraving visualizes English understanding of indigenous political communities such as the Secotan, Chawanook, and Weapemeoc peoples. At right, the ships heading into the Chesapeake Bay suggest future pathways for settlement and commerce.

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Virginia

From Theodore de Bry’s Grand Voyages, Dreyzehender Theil Americae
Frankfurt: John Smith, 1627

This German version of Captain John Smith’s map of Virginia depicts the English colony shortly after Jamestown’s 1607 founding. Powhatan, the principal chief of the indigenous confederacy that dominated the region, presides in the upper left corner. The rivers command our attention. The English expected to settle the interior by following waterways upstream. In time, tobacco plantations worked by indentured servants and slaves replaced the indigenous settlements that dotted these rivers. The Potomac River is visible just above the “SA” in “Chesapeak Bay.”

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Carte du Mexique et de la Floride des Terres Angloises et des Isles Antilles: du cours et des environs de la Riviere de Mississipi

Paris: Guillaume De L’Isle, 1708

Europeans had a more precise understanding of North America and the Caribbean by the early 18th century. Guillaume De L’Isle drew on earlier French expeditions into the continental interior to create the first accurate map of the Mississippi River. His use of color falsely implies fixed borders between competing European and indigenous peoples.

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Carte de la Virginie et du Maryland Dressée sur la grande carte Angloise de Mrs. Josué Fry et Pierre Jefferson

Paris: Giles Robert De Vaugondy, 1755

Originally published in 1753, the Fry-Jefferson map was the most accurate map of Virginia at that time. This French version was printed at the beginning of the French and Indian War, which began when Governor Robert Dinwiddie ordered George Washington and his Virginia troops to drive the French off British-claimed land. Notice the place names along Virginia’s rivers. Most of the indigenous names featured in John Smith’s map are gone, replaced by Anglo-American settlements.

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Courtesy of Paul Schott Stevens

Exhibit Details

Now on display in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum (within the Lives Bound Together exhibit), these five rare maps allow visitors to see how Europeans used maps as tools of both exploration and empire. This short-term display coincides with the 2019 George Washington Symposium, Virginia Before the Washingtons.

Exhibit Dates

On display October 30th through November 18th, 2019.

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