The Map Thief Map

Tucked away in a humble, notebook-sized folder, this 1635 map of Virginia—by Ralph Hall, working from a copy of John Smith’s 1612 map of the region—might seem unremarkable. Its life at the Newberry, though, has been anything but ordinary.

The map was once part of a renowned atlas known as the Historia mundi. By then over 60 years removed from its original printing, the atlas was updated and translated into English by Wye Saltonstall in 1635. Saltonstall published his atlas, in other words, just 28 years after Jamestown’s founding (and 11 years after Virginia was chartered as a royal colony). By then, Virginia’s European colonizers were just beginning to get on their feet, after having experienced years of hunger, violence, and uncertainty.

The atlas seems eager to downplay the Virginians’ early hardships. It waxes effusive about Virginia’s climate and soil, detailing numerous crops to be grown and animals to be hunted. On the map, panthers and wild boars romp between the tiny crosses and minuscule buildings that indicate settlements. Bounty and prosperity, the map seems to imply, are on offer in the new colony.

Little could its creator have suspected that this map would be stolen nearly 400 years later. In 2005, librarians opened the Newberry’s Saltonstall atlas to discover a jagged stump of a page where the map of Virginia once had been. The culprit? Map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III. Smiley, it emerged, had stolen maps from research libraries across the nation. Thankfully, the Hall map would eventually be returned to the Newberry; other maps (including one from the Newberry) stolen by Smiley during his crime spree remain at large.

On Saturday, September 27, at the Newberry, journalist Michael Blanding discussed Smiley’s exploits, which he details in his new book The Map Thief. This map and the atlas to which it once belonged offer but a glimpse of the abundance of maps and atlases available at the Newberry today. The Historia mundi is just one of thousands. And this map—unique as it may be—is not the only one with stories to tell.

This essay was written by Meredith Carroll, who is participating in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Newberry Seminar this fall.