August 24, 2004
CW displays original 1768 drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line
Colonial Williamsburg has recently put on display the original drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line map, a magnificent historical document produced in 1768 to determine the official boundaries between the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Once owned by Malcolm Forbes Jr., president of Forbes magazine, the map is on loan to Colonial Williamsburg by an anonymous donor and is part of “Degrees of Latitude: Mapping Colonial America,” an extraordinary exhibition of 77 historic maps and four atlases as well as military and surveying equipment, at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum now through Aug. 14, 2005.
The Mason-Dixon survey was the culmination of a bitter boundary dispute between landholders in the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The original English royal charter granted to Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, provided him with the territory north of the Potomac River up to the 40th degree of latitude. One of the primary issues between the Calvert family of Maryland and the Penn family of Pennsylvania was whether the northern border of Maryland should be at the actual location of the 40th parallel or where Lord Baltimore mistakenly thought it was at the time he received his grant, about 13 degrees to the south of its true position. After six decades of litigation, the Penns and the Calverts came to an agreement on the location of the border and engaged two British surveyors, astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, to survey what became known as the Mason-Dixon Line demarcating the boundary between their two colonies.
Mason and Dixon arrived in America with the most sophisticated scientific equipment available at the time, allowing them to base their entire survey on astronomical observations. After spending almost five years running the line, Dixon prepared the manuscript draft of the survey. Colonial Williamsburg curator of maps and prints Margaret Pritchard said, “Dixon’s map looks quite different from any other map in our exhibition. Like other maps, it illustrates roads, rivers, streams and other landmarks, but only where they bisect the boundary. Rather than serving as a means to guide someone from one place to another, this map is a visual representation of the single-minded determination that the two men shared for their assignment to scientifically determine the dividing line between two colonies that had been in dispute for so many decades.” One hundred years later, the Mason-Dixon Line became the imaginary boundary between the North and South that symbolically divided the country in the bitter political, economic and philosophical confrontation that eventually led to the American Civil War.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s award winning DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, supported by the DeWitt Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg, displays the foundation’s exceptional collection of English and American decorative arts. Entered through the reconstructed Public Hospital of 1773, the museum is on Francis Street near Merchants Square and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For program information call (757) 220-7724.