Mr. Mitchell’s Muscular Map

Post written by Eric Robinson

It’s hard to believe, but a document with the imperious title A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America was the cartographic basis for our American republic. John Mitchell’s 1755 masterpiece provided the lens with which the founding generation negotiated independence and plotted westward settlement. Needless to say, that’s not how Mr. Mitchell intended it. Today we’ll look at the map’s original purposes, and save a discussion of its later role in shaping our nation for a future blog entry. 

The 1755 Mitchell map on display at the Historical Society was a valuable resource to its owner, John Jay, one of the negotiators of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. Call #: M32.2.1A


In the mid 18th C New York City convulsed with anti-French and Catholic paranoia. A palisade was built on its northern edge to slow any invading force from Quebec, while dozens of slaves recently imported from Catholic islands in the Caribbean were executed. Irish malcontents were persecuted, and a Latin teacher was burned at the stake. You can see gallows and a fire pit just outside the palisade in David Grim’s map showing the city as it was in the 1740s.  Call number: M2.1.1

Mitchell produced his map amid the fervor of the French-English rivalry that spanned the globe. (Here in British New York, paranoia of a “Papist” invasion from French Canada was so intense that a fortress-like wall was constructed at the city’s northern boundary, near modern Chambers Street, stretching from the East River to the Hudson.) Mitchell’s map asserts the British colonial claims to disputed territories north of the Ohio River. This assertion was politically charged, as the region was aflame one year after the outbreak of the French and Indian War. Mitchell emphasizes his point by labeling French outposts in the militarized area south of the Great Lakes “usurped”.

Despite the French alliance with many native tribes, Mitchell is sensitive to Native American occupied regions—he carefully annotates land claims and areas dominated by particular tribes. Mitchell’s robust territorial assertions vis-a-vis the French, as well as his erudite description of Native American lands, stand in contrast to the larger but less precise 1733 A Map of the British Empire in North America by Henry Popple (not shown here), which was criticized as meek in the decades after its publication. The two beautiful but fragile and light-sensitive maps are presented alongside each other in the Historical Society’s new state-of-the-art display case, the Michael & Leah Weisberg Monumental Treasures Wall.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, an upcoming blog entry will discuss the use of the Historical Society’s Mitchell map during the 1783 Treaty of Paris. In another post, we’ll focus on the prominence John Mitchell gives to the Ohio River, and how it portends critical events in the history of the early American republic. In the meantime, we invite you to visit the Historical Society and view these spectacular maps in person.




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