There are rewards for diligence. We have been rearranging the collections storage stacks at the Camden Archives and Museum for the past month. Three of us going through each box, each folder, each book and object making sure that it is listed in the collections database correctly. My task is to check the oversized materials -- the things that need to go in a map case and the large books stashed around the stacks. It’s not scintillating work but it has to be done -- so we plod through one more stack of books and the next shelf of storage boxes. So, determined to finish the stack of large books before going home for the day, I reach for the last one, thinking “Ooh, this one is kind of sketchy looking!” The large brown covered book measured about 2 feet by 1-1/4 feet. As I picked it up, I could see that the pages were unevenly stitched between the covers in a really random way. I hadn’t seen anything like this volume before.
As I carried it out of the dimly lit stacks into the work room, I began to see that it had a title on the front cover. My heart raced as I laid it down and read “Atlas of the State of South Carolina” on its cover. (You must understand that museum and archives people get real excited about things like old atlases!) I called our curator, Rickie Good, to come see what I had on the table and we both peered at it as I opened the cover and moved two leaves of brown paper that had come unbound. The next page that appeared had beautiful, flourishing sepia colored script that said “South Carolina Railroad Company.” The book was stitched by hand. The next page was a map as familiar as family for a history-minded person -- the Map of the State of South Carolina, in pastel colors, with the history of the state written around it in columns. We looked at each other with our jaws dropped -- did we have a first edition copy of the Robert Mills Atlas published in 1826? Neither of us had ever seen an edition like this before.
The next page revealed the carefully folded map of the Edgefield District, partially backed with linen. Each of the 29 district maps were carefully folded and stitched into the volume, which explained the ragged edges I had seen when I first examined the book at the shelf. For those of you who may not do historical research, the Mills Atlas is one of the “go to first” resources for South Carolina historians. The maps were drawn from 1821 to 1825 by 20 surveyors who produced incredibly detailed maps of the geographical and man-made features of each district in the state. Robert Mills reworked the 28 district maps between 1823 and 1825 and privately published the first edition of the atlas, which was the first such volume produced in America. In 1838, he privately funded the second printing from the original plates. The atlas was not reproduced again until 1938.
With the help of Ron Bridwell, a rare book expert, we determined that our very old volume was from the 1838 printing, as rare to find in this day and time as the first printing. The stories that this book could tell -- it would tell us how the South Carolina Railroad people poured over each map while they were determining the best route to lay a new set of tracks. It could remind us that hundreds of people looked at it in its 175 years of existence as they searched for their family’s plantation, where such-and-such creek was located, where the oldest roads in South Carolina went. And it would remind us that it was a first in our new country of the United States, as it proudly documented the natural and the built environment of our beautiful state. It is a snapshot of our progress in taming this land by 1825. And it lives at the Camden Archives and Museum! Yes, there are rewards for diligence!