“One cannot see a more savage country, and no part of the earth is more uninhabitable.” —Pierre Charlevoix, 1756. And about winters in the north: “It is then a melancholy thing not to be able to go out of doors, unless you are muffled up with furs like the bears…. What can anyone think, where the very bears dare not show their face to the weather for six months in the year!”
The last quotation (1767) is from John Mitchell, who cited the above comments by Charlevoix and Champlain in assessing New England, New York, and Quebec during discussions about the future of the American colonies. His writings at that time supported a solution Mitchell had proposed a decade earlier, one that would have drastically altered today’s map of the Americas and seriously revised the history of the Adirondack region.
Since most of us know nothing about this particular John Mitchell, it seems unlikely he could have made such an impact. But he does have impressive credentials, primarily as the creator of what experts acknowledge is the most important map in American history. That’s quite the achievement for a man who had no map-making qualifications, but was instead a noted botanist and a practicing physician.
Mitchell was born in Virginia in 1711. After studying medicine in Scotland, he toiled as a doctor in Virginia while investigating regional flora, thus gaining wide knowledge of America’s plant families. For health reasons, he moved in 1746 to England, where he continued pursuing his two favored sciences.
As both a loyal native of the American colonies and a loyal British subject, Mitchell became an outspoken advocate for the future of each, and a strong voice against the French, who were angling for supremacy in North America. Through his knowledge of colonial geography and his impressive connections in England, he was commissioned to create a map that included the many territorial claims made by the British, the French, and the colonies. Size mattered: the finished product, published in three sheets in 1755, measured about 6½ feet wide by 4½ feet high.
The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, which established the United States as an independent country. During negotiations, the new nation’s boundaries were hammered out based on the Mitchell Map (as it became known). That alone established it as America’s most important map, but it has remained in use since that time. Among many examples are its use by Thomas Jefferson to settle a border issue in 1790; resolving an 1890 dispute between the US and Canada over fishing in the Gulf of Maine; and settling a 1932 disagreement over the boundaries of several eastern states. It is frequently cited in presidential proclamations and treaty documents housed in the Library of Congress.
The map remains Mitchell’s most obvious claim to fame, but he was also involved in the wide-ranging discussion in the mid-1750s about what to do with the American colonies. Although the idea of independence had sometimes been mentioned, it was deemed at that time very unlikely, for if the colonists declared themselves free of Britain, other countries were likely to step in and take advantage of their vulnerability. For the time being, it was the equivalent of choosing between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know.
This was still two decades before the Revolutionary War began, and the colonies were hardly unified in their interests. John Mitchell realized that the fragmented economy among the colonies as a whole worked against their unification, which in turn made his native land, America, a less valuable trade partner for his adopted country, Britain, and left the colonies susceptible to intrusion by the French.
He publicly expressed deep concern over Britain’s treatment of the colonists, including harsh taxation even as they strove to become economically viable. Calling it counterproductive, he urged British officials to allow the colonies latitude for developing on their own. Otherwise, he warned, the possibility of rebellion could become reality in the future.
For that reason, after studying the issue closely, Mitchell published a book in 1757 calling for serious consideration of his proposal: “We should divide our many colonies on the continent of North America into three — the Northern, Middle, and Southern. Under the first I include Nova Scotia, New England, New York, and New Jersey. In the Middle division are Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. And in the Southern division we include North and South Carolina and Georgia. These three divisions make three different and distinct countries, separated from one another by natural boundaries, and different in situation, climate, soil, products, etc.… I cannot see anything that should hinder it from taking place immediately.… The [present] divisions are generally too small for their safety and defense …”
At that time, said Mitchell, the bulk of the French were in Canada—an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 troops—and were best opposed by the Northern Country, which had about 90,000 men “at least fit to take the field.”
Northern New York, which would have been part of Mitchell’s Northern Country, was sparsely developed, and New England’s agricultural resources were considered insufficient to sustain the population. The Northern Country’s economy, therefore, would be based on coastal fisheries.
Had Mitchell’s views been adopted, life in the Adirondacks and North Country would be quite different today. We could still be part of an independent nation comprising New England, New York, New Jersey, and Nova Scotia. With Canada fragmented in the same way, and Mitchell’s proposed Middle and Southern Countries, plus developments to the west, today’s North America might well have resembled Europe, with dozens of independent countries occupying the landscape instead of multiple states forming a single nation. Perhaps the Adirondacks and huge wooded tracts in New England would have been largely stripped of timber in support of the Northern Country’s economy.
It’s all speculation, of course, based on Mitchell’s plan, which ultimately was not adopted. Interestingly, many of his suggestions in the 1750s regarding Britain’s treatment of the American colonies were also not heeded — and it was those very issues that led to the revolution twenty years later.
Photo: The Mitchell Map
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.