S. Max Edelson

Associate Professor
Co-Director, UVA Early American Seminar at Monticello
Director, Mapscholar

(434) 924-6401

431 Nau Hall
Office Hours: Tuesdays, 2:30-4:30 (General); Mondays, 2:30-4:30 (Digital Projects)

Field & Specialties

Colonial British America
History of Cartography
Historical Geography
Slavery and Plantation Societies
Digital Humanities


Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University (1999)

M.A., Johns Hopkins University (1997)

M.Litt., University of Oxford (1994)

B.A., Cornell University (1992)

Deep Springs College, Class of 1988

S. Max Edelson studies the history of colonial British America and the Atlantic world. His research seeks to describe the material as well as the cultural dimensions of new world colonization. His first book, Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (Harvard University Press, 2006) examines the relationship between planters and environment in South Carolina as the key to understanding this repressive, prosperous society and its distinctive economic culture. It shows that although plantations often represent stasis in myths of the Old South, they were in fact dynamic instruments of empire. Plantation Enterprise was awarded the George C. Rogers Prize by the South Carolina Historical Society and the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Award by the Agricultural History Society.  Harvard University Press published a paperback edition of the book in 2011.

His second book, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press, 2017), studies the cartographic record of empire in British America in the generation before the American Revolution. Under orders from King George III to reform the colonies, the Board of Trade dispatched surveyors to map far-flung frontiers, chart coastlines in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sound Florida’s rivers, parcel tropical islands into plantation tracts, and mark boundaries with indigenous nations across the continental interior. Scaled to military standards of resolution, the maps they produced sought to capture the essential attributes of colonial spaces—their natural capacities for agriculture, navigation, and commerce—and give British officials the knowledge they needed to take command over colonization from across the Atlantic. Britain’s vision of imperial control threatened to displace colonists as meaningful agents of empire and diminished what they viewed as their greatest historical accomplishment: settling the New World. As London’s mapmakers published these images of order in breathtaking American atlases, Continental and British forces were already engaged in a violent contest over who would control the real spaces they represented. The book features a dynamic digital archive of 257 maps and map collections.  He interprets the meanings of the Catawba Deerskin map on a recent episode of the radio show Backstory.

Max Edelson and senior scientist Bill Ferster were awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Implementation Grant in 2012 to develop MapScholar. MapScholar is a dynamic visualization tool for historic map collections. It offers a free, open-source portal that gives scholars the ability to bring together high-resolution map images from a variety of sources, analyze them in rich geospatial contexts, and use them to illustrate new interpretations in the history of cartography. Edelson received an American Council of Learned Societies Digital Innovation Fellowship in 2010 to pursue this digital humanities research.

Edelson is co-director of the UVA Early American Seminar at Monticello, an ongoing research seminar devoted critiquing research in progress on colonial America, the Ameican Revolution, the early republic and related fields.



Lee B. Wilson (2o14), “Masters of Law: English Legal Culture and the Law of Slavery in Colonial South Carolina and the British Atlantic World, 1669-1783,” Assistant Professor of History, Clemson University

Mary S. Draper (2016), “The Tropical Metropolis: Cities and Society in the Early Modern British Caribbean”

David Flaherty (ABD), The Board of Trade and American Empire in the Eighteenth Century

Jessica Cook (ABD), Geography of a Massacre: Cherokee and Carolinian Visions of Land at Long Cane

Hannah Tucker (ABD), Ship Captains in the Atlantic World

Nicole Schroeder, Disability and Medicine in Early America

Alexander Humes, Fortification and Spatial History in Early America

Emily Sackett (co-advised with Alan Taylor), The Founding Generation of Colonial American Women



(Recent and Selected)

The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press, 2017)

“Visualizing the Southern Frontier: Cartography and Colonization in Eighteenth-Century Georgia,” in Paul S. Sutter, ed., Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast (University of Georgia Press, forthcoming)

“The Territorial Pattern of Settler Populations in North America, 1625-1790,” a MapScholar Digital Atlas, http://mapscholar.org/population, 2015.

Featured Review of A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, by Richard S. Dunn, American Historical Review 120 (2015): 1431-1434.

James P. Ambuske, Ryan Bibler, and S. Max Edelson, “Visualizing Early America: Three Maps that Reveal the New World,” A MapScholar Digital Atlas, http://www.mapscholar.org/3maps, 2014.

“Defining Carolina:  Cartography and Colonization in the North American Southeast, 1657-1733,” in Michelle LeMaster and Bradford W. Wood, eds., Creating and Contesting Carolina: Proprietary Era Histories (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 27-48.

S. Max Edelson and Bill Ferster, “MapScholar: A Web Tool for Publishing Interactive Cartographic Collections,” Journal of Map & Geography Libraries: Advances in Geospatial Information, Collections & Archives 9:4 (2013), 1-2, 81-107.

Beyond ‘Black Rice’: Reconstructing Material and Cultural Contexts for Early Plantation Agriculture,” American Historical Review115:1 (2010): 125-135.

Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (Harvard University Press, 2006)

Current Research

Rivers, Islands, and Frontiers: Geography and Empire in Early America

British America began as colonists settled and developed Caribbean islands and North American river valleys.  This book will explain how geography shaped these two distinct colonial spaces, how trade integrated them into a single imperial place, and how independence and abolition wrenched them apart.  It will offer a new synthesis of historical geography scholarship to create a new conceptual model for understanding New World colonization and to focus the this knowledge toward a new understanding of spatial history, one illustrated and illuminated by new digital visualizations. 


Eye on the World: George III, the King’s Topographic Collection, and the Rise of the British Empire

This project investigates George III’s life as a map collector, analyzes the voluminous collection of some 2,500 cartographic object he assembled from ca. 1760-1800, and considers the changing role of the imperial state in gathering information about distant places.  

Awards & Honors

(Recent and Selected)

Learning Technology Incubator (LTI) grant, “Developing Effective Geo-Spatial Digital Pedagogy,” Arts and Sciences Learning Design and Technology, University of Virginia, 2017

Mellon Indigenous Arts Fellowship, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Provost’s Office, University of Virginia, 2017

Project Director, National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Implementation Grant (MapScholar), 2012-2016

ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 2010

J. B. Harley Research Fellowship in the History of Cartography, 2009

Kislak Fellowship in American Studies, Library of Congress, Washington, DC , 2007-2008

Courses Taught

(Recent and Selected)


Forum:  Introduction to Space, Knowledge, and Power

Pavilion Seminar: Digital Practicum in Map History

Maps in World History

Colonial Period in American History



Colloquium in the History of Colonial British America

Economic Culture in Early America

The Colonial Caribbean

Colloquium in Atlantic History

Tutorial in Historical Digital Visualization

Master’s Essay Writing

Problems in U.S. History to 1830: Material Culture

Problems in U.S. History to 1830: Slavery and Modernity

Problems in U.S. History to 1830: Atlantic World

Problems in Comparative History: Environmental History

Spaces of Empire: Geographies of Colonization in the Atlantic World



Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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