Before it was purchased, the map was verified with the aid of the Virginia State Library, Library of Congress, and Historical Society Curators in Pennsylvania. This map is widely regarded as the single most important map of North America. It was the most comprehensive such map produced prior to the French & Indian War, graphically illustrating the various territorial claims made by the competing British and French empires, including the British colonies.Years after it was first published, it was used to define the borders of our new nation. Urbanna’s map, published in 1755, is actually the first edition, third impression.
John Mitchell was born in Lancaster County, Virginia in 1711. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his master’s degree in 1729, followed immediately by medical school there. He returned to Virginia in 1731, establishing a medical practice in Urbanna in 1734. He was a respected physician, botanist, chemist, biologist, and surveyor.
His comfortably large Urbanna home was located near the current Southside Sentinel office and included at least four lots on which was a large garden which he used for his botanical and apothecary studies. He had an apothecary shop, a small chemical laboratory, a collection of books in several languages, barns, stables, orchards, etc. In 1738 he was appointed Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County. He formed a friendship with Benjamin Franklin when he visited Philadelphia in 1744.
Upon his return to England for health reasons in 1746, he was urged by his friend, Lord Halifax, to create a map of North America. In 1750, when his first draft of the map was made, it was conceived to present to the British powers a single large format illustrating the extent of the French threat to the British claims in North America. Eventually, his map was published by Andrew Millar in 1755, the year before war broke out with the French. It measurers approximately 75 x 52 inches, printed from eight separate, engraving plates. When the pages were joined, the map was colored pale pink and green.
Mitchell’s map shows the British Colonial claims of Virginia, both Carolinas, and Georgia extending beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. In the West, Mitchell’s treatment of the lower Missouri is a vast improvement over earlier maps. Mitchell correctly shows the northern branch of the Missouri to be the main branch , although his estimate of the latitude of the river’s source is inaccurate. Nonetheless, the information Mitchell’s map provided led Meriwether Lewis up the Marias River to determine the northern reaches of the Missouri River basin.
A second edition was published in 1757, followed by others, each adding information as it was learned. Mitchell’s map was the only map used during the Treaty of Paris peace negotiations between Great Britain and her former American colonies in 1783, and has been utilized to resolve many subsequent treaty negotiations and boundary disputes, the latest in 1932.
Urbanna came to possess this incredibly valuable piece of history through the efforts of many fine citizens of Urbanna and Middlesex County. At the direction of Mr. Gene Paulette, president of the Bank of Middlesex, Mrs. Jessie Martin DeBusk, assistant vice president of the bank, was tasked with research and coordinating activities for the upcoming celebration of the bank’s 75th anniversary. Learning much about John Mitchell’s impact here, she led a 2-year search for a map from dealers in England and the United States. At length, a letter was received stating that W. Graham Arader, III, a dealer in rare maps, books, and prints owned one of the maps. Although funds could not be raised at that time for its purchase, Paulette and DeBusk held onto the dream and kept in touch with Arader.
Multiple telephone calls and exchanges to museums, the Virginia State Library, the Library of Congress, and Historical Society Curators in Pennsylvania were utilized to authenticate the map. In 1979 Mr. Arader advised the committee that after May 31st, the map would not be available at any price, as he liked it on the wall of his dining room. But, he had promised that Urbanna could have first refusal and he would not go back on his word.
Through community donations and town funds, the committee collected the $7,500 needed to purchase the map. On May 31, Jessie DeBusk, Carl Torrence, and Charles Price, members of the Tricentennial Committee planned to fly to Pennsylvania to make the deal. When bad weather cancelled the flight, they were joined by additional committee member, Robert L. Montegue, III. Although bad weather prevented the group from flying, they decided to drive to Pennsylvania.
The authentication was made, payment delivered, and arrangements made for the map to arrive in Urbanna the morning of June 1st so that it would be ready to be the centerpiece of the town’s Tricentennial celebration in 1980.
Before the map was moved the its location in Urbanna’s 1765 Scottish Factor Store, it hung for many years in the Bank of Middlesex building.
Fast forward to 2012, when appointed members of the Town’s museum committee, along with town staff members, decided to look into stabilizing the map to prevent irretrievable damage due to age and exposure. For some time, the map had been valued at $32,500 and was considered a major, although overlooked asset. Mary Studt from Richmond Conservators Of Works On Paper was called in to appraise its condition and offer a range of treatments and costs. Returning with three levels of treatment from simple stabilization to full restoration, Town Council voted to move forward with a partial restoration. But, when the map arrived at the Richmond studio in 2013, a new appraisal was ordered. Shocked to discover the unrestored value to be in the range of $500,000, Council reconsidered its plans and voted to move forward with the complete restoration, and upgraded the insurance policy.
Absent from its home base for a year, the beautifully restored, and archivally remounted and framed map was returned to the Urbanna Museum and Visitors Center (James Mills Scottish Factor Store), and rededicated with Urbanna’s First Annual Founders’ Day Celebration on August 30, 2014.
Recorded in the Mitchell family Bible: Doctor John Mitchell died in England in 1768. The Virginia Gazette reported under news from London, dated March:
“Yesterday died Dr. Mitchell, who made the map of North America.”www.JohnMitchellMap.com
Donations are appreciated.
Special lectures and presentations available.
For information, call the curator (804) 832-9934.