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A new atlas by the Library of Virginia traces four centuries of Virginia history.

Our History Unfolds


"Virginia," John Smith wrote, "is a Country in America that lyeth betweene the degrees of 34 and 44 of the north latitude. The bounds thereof on the East side are the great Ocean. On the South lyeth Florida: on the North nova Francia. As for the West thereof, the limits are unknowne." Smith penned those words in 1612.

Four years earlier, he'd set out by boat with a small party of colonists from Jamestown for a three-month survey of the major rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Later, he had his map engraved to accompany his pamphlet titled "A Map of Virginia." His work is reprinted in a new, large-format atlas.

The book, to be unveiled this summer by The Library of Virginia, illustrates four centuries of state history, from its days as a struggling English colony to what it is today. The story is told in 360 pages, with five essays and 187 maps. They range from a 1585 sketch of the Virginia and Carolina coastline to recent, pinpoint-perfect satellite images of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

It took four years to compile "Virginia in Maps: Four Centuries of Settlement, Growth, and Development." The project highlights the state library's extensive collection of maps. But the editors searched throughout the country and in European archives for Virginia maps.

"We wanted to have the most important maps of Virginia in the book, no matter where they were," says project coordinator Gregg Kimball. The timing seemed right for the atlas. The library was about to move into a new building and the publication department was ready for another project. A compilation of maps could serve as a reference guide and teaching tool, two goals of the state library. Richard W. Stephenson, retired Library of Congress specialist in American cartographic history, and Marianne M. McKee, the library's map specialist, took on the job of editing the book.

History often balanced on the accuracy of maps. People died because of unmarked dangers, colonization sites were chosen and battles won and lost. Maps also were a way to help legitimize territorial claims, and Virginia was often caught in a power struggle between the English, Spanish, French and Dutch. Each wished to carve up and claim as much of the new continent as possible.

For Stephenson, early Spanish maps tell a great story. "These maps … are right at the time of the initial settlement of Virginia and show how effective the Spanish were in intelligence gathering," he says.

The Spaniards apparently captured an early map by Smith and copied it. The information was sent to Spain, where King Philip III was urged to assemble an armada and mount a strike against the Jamestown colony.

Eventually, the king decided not to launch a raid.

"If Philip had said we're going to wipe it out, who knows, we'd all be speaking Spanish today," Stephenson says. "It's a stretch, but it's something to think about."

Some of the 18th-century work in the book belongs to George Washington, who worked as a surveyor in his youth. "You don't really think of him as a kid wandering around in the western part of the state, but he was very young when he went out," Kimball says. Also in the atlas are two maps of Alexandria that Washington drew as a teen-ager. Civil War maps convey interesting history, as well.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had to rely on flawed maps during the Peninsula campaign in the summer of 1862. "When he got up to Yorktown, he thought it was going to be a simple little thing," Stephenson says. "You just capture Yorktown and move right on up the peninsula. When he got up there he found that the Warwick River flowed across the peninsula rather than what his maps showed, it going parallel to the James River."

McClellan found his bold campaign to capture Richmond bogged down. "So consequently, he wound up having to siege Yorktown, and of course he lost several weeks by doing this," Stephenson says. "In the meantime, the Confederates were able to move troops to fight what became the Seven Days Battles, and stop them. Otherwise the war would have been over in 1862."

Kimball is amazed at how accurate some of the older maps are, considering the resources of the day. Stephenson is impressed with how many Virginia maps existed. McKee says she was enlightened about the influence of different countries on the development of Virginia.

"I learned as we went along what a wonderful collection of maps we have," she says. "It was one moment of discovery after another." In the process of compiling the atlas, the project offered an opportunity to better preserve many of the library's older maps, which are fragile and brittle.

Many were cleaned and stabilized. Some were slipped in Mylar folders. "These old maps are full of information and good stories. We have reports and field notes with some of them, and the calligraphy is beautiful," McKee says. "A picture does serve for a thousand words."
— Landmark News Service

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