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George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps

by Barnet Schecter

A unique biography of George Washington inspired by the maps he used throughout his life—offering new insight into the historic events of his era.

From his teens until his death, the maps George Washington purchased and drew were always central to his work—as surveyor, military leader, private citizen, and statesman. After his death, many of the most important maps he had acquired were bound into an atlas, which remained in his family for almost a century before it was sold and eventually ended up at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library.

Inspired by this atlas, historian Barnet Schecter has crafted a unique portrait of America’s preeminent founder, interweaving twenty-six of the full maps and some two hundred additional detail views into a full chronicle of Washington’s life. The maps reveal Washington’s deep and abiding connection to the land and his lifelong focus on geography as a way of understanding the world.

The maps place readers at the scene during his first career as a surveyor, measuring and mapping parcels of land for settlers and speculators on Virginia’s western frontier. Drawing and studying maps became second nature for Washington as an officer in the French and Indian War (his skirmish with a French patrol is credited as the war’s spark). The maps he used throughout the American Revolution illuminate his struggles to outmaneuver the far more powerful British forces and maintain his own fragile hold as commander in chief of the Continental army. They underscore the many diplomatic challenges he faced throughout his two terms as president—fending off aggression at the borders, walking the razor’s edge of neutrality to keep the fledgling country out of war—and his ongoing efforts to shape and unite the new republic. And they also explain Washington’s relentless passion for acquiring land—he amassed tens of thousands of acres in Virginia, the Ohio country, and western New York—and his ongoing interest in making the Potomac River the primary connection between the eastern and western states.

In addition to the atlas maps and details, a dozen of Washington’s own hand-drawn maps enrich his story. These include his first survey, done at age fifteen, of his brother’s turnip patch; an evocative rendering of his own lands along the Ohio River; a sketch of the townhouses he owned in the District of Columbia; and the splendid survey he completed of his estates at Mount Vernon. Portraits of many of the notable figures with whom Washington interacted—whose exploits also play out on the maps—add resonance the saga of his life and times.

By allowing readers to visualize history through Washington’s eyes, to see events as they unfolded on the maps he studied, George Washington’s America offers a unique perspective on history, and important new insight into Washington’s character and his transformation from private citizen to founding father.

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