A huge collection of historic maps has been donated to the estate
In the summer of 1781, Gen. George Washington and his French engineers probed the British defenses of New York, looking for a way to attack. While the British responded with heavy gunfire, Washington observed, and the engineers prepared a map of the enemy positions.
After studying the map, the Americans and the French realized that New York was too well defended, historians say. Washington decided instead to slip away and attack the British force at Yorktown, Va. There, three months later, the British surrendered and the Revolutionary War drew to a close.
Now the historic French map, along with more than 1,000 other rare maps and images, have been donated to the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon by a noted New York collector.
The maps, some of them one-of-kind, drawn in pen, ink and watercolor, come from the collection of Richard H. Brown, an author and expert on Revolutionary War-era maps and images.
They are part science, part art and part narrative history.
“I constantly … try to bridge this link between map and art, because so many of the people who were doing them were artists,” said Brown, the retired founder of a New York investment firm. “They may not have been Picassos. But they were pretty talented artists in their own right.”
The bulk of the collection, estimated to be worth about $12 million, arrived at the library late last month.
It will eventually be available to scholars, in person, and later some of the items will go on public display, library officials said. Most of the pieces have already been digitized and are online.
Jim Ambuske, the library’s digital historian, said the collection may be one of the best of its kind in the country.
The collection includes 13 maps once used by Washington’s French subordinate and Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette, and one co-authored by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson.
The latter work, in its 1751 rendering of Virginia and Maryland, suggests prosperity, and slavery.
The map’s dedication emblem, or cartouche, depicts a harbor scene in which a prosperous-looking young man sits smoking a pipe, while slaves work in the background and one presents him with a drink on a tray.
“I think that’s, unfortunately, a vision of Virginia commerce,” Brown said. “That’s what it was. It was masters. It was slaves.”
The map, by the elder Jefferson and Joshua Fry, says it shows “the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.”
It was the standard map of the area for decades, Brown said.
It shows a tract of land that would one day become Washington, D.C. — just up the “Patowmack” River from Alexandria, north of “Cameron’s Ordinary,” between Goose Creek and Magee’s Ferry.
In 1751, the only thing depicted there was the homestead of someone named Watson.
The collection also includes a giant multivolume atlas called the “Atlantic Neptune.” Dating from 1776, it was “arguably the most important atlas published in the 18th century to depict North America,” said Ambuske.
There are also books that include maps within their pages, like the British officer John Graves Simcoe’s 1787 journal of his time as commander of the Queen’s Rangers, a crack outfit of pro-British American “loyalists.”
Another map from 1762 shows “Cherokee Country” in what would later be Tennessee. It lists the main Cherokee towns, some of which, Toqua, Tallassee, and Chilhowee, still appear on modern maps. It also names their “head men” and the “number of fighting men they send to war.”
“The individual map can tell a short story,” said Kevin Butterfield, the library’s executive director.
And it can be a record of a battle, or of one that didn’t happen.
The 1781 French map of New York was part of a wise decision not to start a battle, said Joseph Stoltz, the library’s director of leadership programs.
That year, the American and French forces planned to link up and attack British-occupied New York.
Beforehand, the allies conducted a “reconnaissance in force” to get the British to shoot at them so that engineers and cartographers” could spot the British forts, Stoltz said at the library. “As the Americans and the French are thinking through what would an attack on New York look like, they realize this is going to be a lot more complicated.”
Aides produced hand-drawn maps and a 30-page plan in French — which was also donated to the library — and presented them to Washington and the French general Rochambeau, Stoltz said.
“This would have been one of the maps,” he said.
“New York Island” was protected by a network of forts, from Harlem Creek to the tip of Manhattan, the maps showed.
The attack would have required seven different assaults, and the generals realized: “This is not a good idea,” Stoltz said. “It would have been way out of their league.” They began looking for alternate targets, and “as a result of these maps,” started a contingency plan for besieging Yorktown, he said.
Brown, the donor, lives in New York City. He said he founded the investment firm Northaven Management in 1995.
He began closing it down in 2010.
“I didn’t have any soul in that business,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like the right thing for me to be doing.”
He wanted something more important, so he began to build his collection and guide other collections. He said he chose Washington’s estate on the Potomac River as the home for his maps because the span of the collection fits so well with key parts of Washington’s life.
Brown said he started collecting in 1990 when he bought some old maps of Philadelphia.
“I was a kid that learned visually rather than through reading 20,000-page books,” he said. “I was always interested in history … and the amount of history that was embedded in [maps] was totally amazing.”
The detail of a 1778 map of what was then western Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania tells how many yards wide the creeks are. It notes, in what was then western North Carolina, “a spring 50 feet deep of very cold water, as blue as indigo.”
It says an area east of the Wabash River in modern-day Indiana “is level, rich & well timbered, & abounds in … meadows or savannahs and innumerable herds of Buffaloe, Elk [and] Deer.”
And it depicts a solitary wilderness dwelling on the Scioto River in modern Ohio, known simply as “Hurricane Toms.”