Query: The mysterious 1755-56 "A New and Complete History of the British Empire in America"

Jay Lester Discussion

"A New and Complete History of the British Empire in America" was published serially (a total of 44 Numbers) between September 1755 and September 1756, without being completed. In fact, it reportedly stopped mid sentence! The work contains no title pages, which were to be provided upon completion. An advertisment in September 1755 states the work was "composed from the Manuscripts of an eminent Physician, and three other Persons, who, in the Years 1748, 1749, 1750, 1751, 1752, and 1753, travelled through every Province and Island under the British Dominion; together with many of the Spanish, French, and Dutch Settlements..."

Dr. John Mitchell immediately comes to mind as an "eminent Physician", assuming that the 1748-1753 travels pertain only to the "three other persons". Any ideas who those three other persons were?

The advertisements indicate that the work was published by Jon/John Scott on Paternoster Row.


Jay Lester

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I'd also like to know the answer to this question. It's possible that John Bartram was a contributor. He made extensive botanical sampling trips in North America, including one from 1748-1750.

Cole Smith

I'm going to suggest Benjamin Franklin as the name of one of those three men. Franklin didn't serve with William Hunter as co-Postmaster General under the British until 1757, but his first experience as a postal employee was in 1737 when he was appointed the postmaster of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the following 15 to 17 years, I think it very possible that he, as a then loyal British subject, could have and would have added his pen to the project.

-- Kenneth Habeeb, Northern California

The eminent physician was *not* John Mitchell -- his interest in geography was actually limited. Most of his work in Britain after he left Virginia was focused on botany.

I would instead suggest William Douglass, a Scots doctor (MD Utrecht) who migrated to Boston in 1716. In 1747–52 (i.e., until he died) he published as pamphlets the first history of the colonies in north America by a colonist to be published in Boston. The pamphlets were collected together and reissued as two volumes in 1749 and 1752 (posthumous). The series is not complete, properly considered. It was later reprinted in London in the context of the French and Indian War/Seven Years War:

Douglass, William. 1747–52. *A Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive Improvements, and Present State of the British Settlements in North-America: With Some Transient Accounts of the Bordering French and Spanish Settlements ….*, 62 pamphlets in 2 series. Boston: Rogers and Fowle. Reprinted as in two volumes, Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1749–52; London: R. Baldwin, 1755; London: R. & J. Dodsley, 1760.

(There are subtle changes in the text between the pamphlets and the books, esp. re the impressment riots in Boston that Douglass blamed on Commodore Knowles RN, whom Douglass derided in the pamphlets and who took Douglass to court for libel, winning precisely $1 in damages [the jury accepted the libel but disliked Knowles as well] and the change in the text in further printings of the content.)

(He also planed on including maps in the book, but that defeated him.)

It would not surprise me that this work would also be drawn on for more fugitive pamphlets in London, like that mentioned in the original query. It would be necessary to compare the content of these fugitive pamphlets against Douglass' work (which was full of tangential commentaries that an editor would likely have cut).

As for other gentlemen mentioned as sources for the fugitive pamphlets, they were likely authors of other published accounts of the British colonies that might be plagiarized by casting the authors as anonymous.

Hope this helps


While I can't refute your suggestion outright, Kenneth, I am fairly doubtful of Ben Franklin's contribution to this particular work. During this period of time (1745-175x), Franklin was highly engaged in public works projects, his own scientific research, and starting his political career.

This "Complete History" outlined by Jay above, and quite likely correctly attributed mainly to the content of manuscripts by John Mitchell, concerns itself a lot with political history, and more particularly with political boundaries. It most certainly tries to point out specific claims to boundaries made in the interior of the continent, in *Indian country*. This is an area where Franklin may have been of little help, not having travelled extensively through the Indian nations.

John Mitchell's map of 1755 "A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America..." is highly focused on establishing political boundaries for the British Empire as well, and I believe it was the map later used during negotiations at the Treat of Paris in 1783. Getting back to Jay's original questions on who could have contributed, I think it highly likely that Dr. John Bartram would have corresponded with John Mitchell, as they shared similar interests and Bartram made several trips to the interior of the continent, and particularly in the interior Southeast. He also visited Spanish Florida during those travels.

Secondly, I would be very surprised if John Mitchell had not corresponded with John William Gerard de Brahm while compiling information for his map. De Brahm was an excellent geographer/surveyor in the late 1740s and early 1750s, eventually being named the Surveyor General for the Georgia colony in 1754. His surveys of the colony would be very important in setting up the British Empire for boundary claims with the nearby Spaniards in La Florida. I know for certain that de Brahm had correspondence with military geographers/surveyors George Gauld and Thomas Hutchins as well, both of whom also had conducted surveys in the interior, so some of their information could have reached John Mitchell via de Brahm.

And before I got off on that direction, I nearly completely forgot about the contributions of Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson. Another set of excellent geographers, their 1751 map "A Map of the Inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole Province of Maryland and Part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina..." and accompanying report would have been in John Mitchell's possession as well, since the portion of his map north of the Granville line in North Carolina is nearly identical to Jefferson/Fry's revised version. I don't know if these two gentlemen were gathering information from numerous other sources, though.

Awesome, thanks for that info, Matthew. I was totally ignorant of William Douglass' work, and after reviewing this entry from the Osher Maps Library ( https://oshermaps.org/special-map-exhibits/percy-map/william-douglass ), I would be hard-pressed to pick any better possibility than Dr. Douglass, particularly in light of the fact that he had published those pamphlets covering the same subject material and passed away in late 1752, just prior to the publishing of this "New and Complete History". I wouldn't be surprised if you've nailed it.

I would still strongly suggest that John Mitchell was one of the other anonymous sources of information, with John Bartram and the others I mentioned as weaker possibilities in that mix as well.