John Mitchell (1711-1768) had a remarkably varied and distinguished career as a physician, botanist, chemist, biologist, and surveyor. Mitchell lived for a time in Virginia but returned to England in 1746 and remained there until his death. In 1750 he was asked by the president of the Board of Trade and Plantations to prepare a map of the British colonies in North America with the objective of maximizing British territorial claims. Drawing on the archives of the British government, Mitchell worked for five years on this project.
True to his instructions, Mitchell extended the boundaries of Virginia, both Carolinas, and Georgia across the Mississippi River. In its treatment of the West, Mitchell’s map depicts the lower Missouri more accurately than any other map of the time. Mitchell did not indicate the source of the Missouri, although his notation, “Missouri river is reckoned to run Westward to the Mountains of New Mexico, as far as the Ohio does Eastward,” suggests his belief in symmetrical geography. Mitchell correctly shows the northern branch of the Missouri to be the main branch of the river, 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.
Although this was the only map Mitchell ever produced, it is one of the most significant maps in American history. It was the only map used during the Treaty of Paris peace negotiations between Great Britain and her former American colonies in 1783. The map helped settle many subsequent treaty negotiations and boundary disputes, the latest in 1932. Thomas Jefferson recommended that Nicholas King use Mitchell’s map in preparing a new map for Meriwether Lewis, saying: “it was made with great care we know from what is laid down in those western parts with which we have lately become acquainted.”
Mitchell’s map went through twenty-one editions and impressions to 1791. The University of Virginia Library Special Collections owns several editions and impressions of “A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America,” the earliest being the third impression of the first English edition (1755). The map on display is the colorful first Dutch edition. Also on display is a smaller version of this map which was included in John Huske’s The Present State of North America, &c. (London, 1755).