Did you know France sent a military spy down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to prepare for an invasion of the United States? He made 23 detailed maps, but only one of an overland route: the road from Maysville to Lexington and Frankfort.
Don’t be alarmed. All of this happened in 1796.
After a four-decade search, the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center recently purchased rare original prints of two of the maps made by French Gen. Georges Henri Victor Collot, who was an excellent mapmaker but a lousy spy.
“About a month ago, we got a call from a gentleman who said, ‘I think we’ve got your maps,’” said C.J. Hunter, executive director of Kentucky’s oldest museum. “We haven’t been able to find these before, and we’ve been looking for a long time.”
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The maps will be unveiled March 21 at the museum’s Charter Dinner, a fundraiser for the endowment that purchased the maps for an undisclosed sum. After that, only copies of the maps will be displayed. The originals will be tucked away in the museum’s climate-controlled archive room.
The rarest and most expensive of the maps, “The Course of the Ohio from its Source to its Junction with the Mississippi,” was bought from a private collector. It was the first copy of that map to come up for sale in decades, according to rare map dealers who facilitated the sale. The second map, showing the road from Limestone (now Maysville) to Lexington and Frankfort, was bought from an undisclosed museum in Louisiana.
“These were at the engravers in Paris before Lewis and Clark were coming down the river, and nobody knew they existed at the time,” Hunter said.
The story behind these maps is a fascinating window into the political intrigue of global superpowers more than two centuries ago.
France began colonizing the Americas in the 16th century, but in 1763 was forced to cede its territories west of the Mississippi River to Spain and east of the river to Britain.
The eastern territory became part of the United States in 1783. But because many Mississippi Valley settlers were Francophiles, the government of post-revolutionary France saw an opportunity.
In 1796, Pierre-Auguste Adet, the French ambassador to the United States, assigned Collot, an expert mapmaker and former governor of Guadeloupe, to make a frontier reconnaissance mission to assess whether a land-grab might be possible.
Alas, Collot was not very secretive. Before he left Pittsburgh on his journey, American authorities discovered his mission and shadowed him. Zebulon Pike, a U.S. Army officer who would later become an explorer and the namesake of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, arrested Collot at Fort Massac near what is now Metropolis, Ill., but had no legal grounds to detain him.
Later, Collot was not so lucky. Spanish agents later tailed him, and he was deported as soon as he reached New Orleans, which was then controlled by Spain. But Collot was allowed to keep his maps and journals, and he returned with them to France.
Napoleon Bonaparte acquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, and he appointed Collot and Adet as officials in the new French territory. But before they had a chance to act on any expansion plans, the emperor sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803.
Collot’s maps were printed in Paris in 1804, but officials decided it would be politically unwise to publish them and reveal the scope of French espionage. The maps were kept secret until 1826, when they appeared in a portfolio of only 300 French and 100 English copies.
There are older maps of Kentucky, most notably John Filson’s map from 1784. But Collot’s maps were the first to show the region in such accurate detail. The large map shows the region’s fortifications, as well as Ohio River settlements that are now cities. Yellow Bank is now Owensboro. Red Bank is Henderson.
The road map to Lexington and Frankfort is notable for its upside-down orientation, beginning at the Ohio River and going south. The detail is remarkable: even variations in tree cover are shown as the road passes through Washington, Millersburg (spelled with an “h” at the end) and Paris to Lexington and Frankfort.
“This is considered the finest example of mapmaking of that period,” Hunter said. “The more you look at it, the more you see. I'm just fascinated by the skill of Collot and his entire team that came through here so long ago.”