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Updated 10:00 AM December 4, 2006




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U buys rare map of Northwest Territory

He learned surveying at an early age, became a sailor, clockmaker, brass founder, maker of potash, button maker, silversmith, gunsmith, inventor of steamships, was captured by Indians—and still had time in his leisure to produce a copper-engraved map "from scratch."
Fitch's map was designed to be folded into a small packet that could be carried easily by folks moving into the frontier commonly known at the time as the "West." The copy obtained by the Clements has been separated at the folds and attached to an acid-free fabric backing for preservation, leaving what appear to be "wide lines" crisscrossing the map. (Courtesy Clements Library)

John Fitch (1743-1798) produced a map of the Northwest Territory, a "road map" of the upper Middle West. One of these handmade, privately printed maps now resides at the University's Clements Library.

While there are only six or seven copies of Fitch's map identified, all have been in the hands of public institutions on the East Coast. Now a copy of his "Map of the North West Parts of the United States of America (1785)" has found a permanent home in "the West" portrayed by the map itself, in one of the six states eventually carved out of the Northwest Territory: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"The Fitch map has every quality that goes into making a 'headline' sale item at an auction," said Philip Mason, chairman of the Clements Library Associates, the organization that bid on and bought the map for the library. "It is of the greatest importance from a documentary and research point of view."

This historic and geographically important document, produced by what historians regard as a somewhat enigmatic and ill-fated American genius—engraved on a copper plate of his own making, printed on a cider press and hand colored by the wife of a local farmer—includes manuscript additions of importance that exist on no other copy of the map.

The additions provide detail on Native American history and settlement and on natural resources such as deposits of coal. Scholars undoubtedly will study the handwriting of these notes, compare them with existing examples and determine if they were made by Fitch himself, the first owner of the map or perhaps by Benjamin Franklin or some other luminary of Philadelphia of the 1780s.

Fitch is remembered among historians as the inventor of the first steamboats. Between 1787 and 1796 he built four successful vessels, but lacked the capital and skill as a businessman to profit from these ventures. Fitch committed suicide at 55 in a public tavern in Bardstown, Ky.

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