Maps from the early 1800s capture a tumultuous time. A time when “Louisiana” stretched across a vast section of North America. A time when Mexico was known as “New Spain,” and a time when Istanbul really was Constantinople.
It was a time when, if it wasn’t for its location and context, the misshapen continent of “New Holland” would barely be recognizable as Australia—and the countries we now most closely associate with Africa were almost entirely absent, with the exception of old-school heavy hitters like Ethiopia and Egypt.
So when my dear friend, Henry Lincoln, gave me a fully intact 1808 edition of Laurie and Whittle’s New and Elegant General Atlas, I knew the book told the story of a pivotal time in modern history. Printed in London, the atlas contains 38 full-color maps—all on fine vellum paper. Dedicated to the Princess Charlotte of Wales, the atlas proclaims that it is “Chiefly Intended for the Use of Schools and Convenience of Gentlemen’s Libraries.”
But beyond the worn edges of the colorful maps, the marginalia in the atlas was even more interesting than the lines of latitude and longitude that crossed its well-preserved pages. While the atlas’ colorful cartography spanned an ever-expanding globe—I wanted to know the story behind the individuals who had owned the book and turned those heavy pages. I wanted to know if the atlas had inspired them to explore the world.
As I paged through the thick vellum leafs, the atlas began to give up its secrets in the form of faded signatures and cryptic notes. The most prominent clue was on the inside cover—an ornate cursive signature with a practiced flair that proudly proclaimed, “John Valentine Brigton 1830.”
A few pages later, someone had carefully penned “Agnes A. Valentine” and “Academy Lane, Montrose.” On the backside of the map of Savoy and Piedmont and the Isle of Sardinia (I’ll let you google those yourself), were the words “Bearehill Brechin.”
Further into the atlas, the name “Thomas Valentine” was inscribed on the back of The Russian Empire and Asia. And a few pages later, adjacent to a one-page map of North America and The West Indies: With the Latest Discoveries, Agnes’ signature appeared yet again. But however bold Agnes’ name may be, alongside her sctipt, John had definitively staked his claim: “Belongs to John Valentine.” The power of a well-placed verb.
Even though Valentine was a fairly common surname in the 1800s, the signatures and other scribblings in the atlas provided valuable clues about its original owner. The words Montrose Academy, Bearehill, and Brechin turned out to be locations that helped narrow down the many Valentine families living in Europe at the time. Montrose was in Angus, Scotland. And Bearehill in Brechin was a stately Georgian mansion. Today Bearehill still stands and functions as an old-folks’ home, but in 1808, it was the home of John, Agnes, and Thomas Valentine, and their parents.
The children’s father, David Valentine, had been born in Montrose, Scotland in 1760. At the age of 19, he had joined the British navy and by 1793, risen to the rank of lieutenant. After commanding several ships and being taken prisoner during a battle with the French frigate Uranie, David was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Five years after his commission, in 1809, Lieutenant Commander David Valentine married Agnes Ann Valentine at St. Pancras Old Church in London. Agnes was David’s cousin, which wasn’t unusual at the time. However, her father’s name was also David Valentine—which added an unexpected level of confusion to sorting out the family’s genealogy.
Once that minor slip in the gene pool was sorted out and dried off however, it became clear that the atlas had belonged to David Valentine’s youngest son, John. The one with the beautiful cursive writing and the assertively decisive use of verbs.
Young John Valentine was born on March 28, 1817 in Montrose, so by the time he penned his signature in the atlas in 1830, John was 13 years old—and most likely a hardcore contender for the “Best Penmanship” award at Montrose Academy, where he was a student.
In the early 1800s, a good number of Scots were settling in Canada, particularly Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, which is actually Latin for “New Scotland.” After graduating from Montrose Academy, John Valentine made the bold decision to join his fellow countrymen, adventure across the sea, and immigrate to Canada— following in the wake of his seafaring father and uncle before him.
Upon arriving in Ontario in 1851, John and his new business partner, George Jardine, opened the very first store in Bruce County. After securing the rights to establish a mill on the Teeswater River, John then built a sawmill—and by 1856, he was also operating a gristmill. While the Valentine gristmill processed the grain that would feed the communities in Paisley and Bruce County, the Valentine sawmill supplied the region with lumber, which was floated down the river to build homes, barns, businesses, taverns, and other buildings necessary to grow an economically viable settlement. In many ways, John Valentine and his mills sustained and built Paisley, Ontario and other villages further downriver in Bruce.
In addition to providing the construction resources and the sustenance necessary to jumpstart a developing region, John was also a civic leader who helped shape the politics of Bruce County. John served as Reeve of the Paisley Township for six years and was a member of the Bruce County Council. In 1859, his neighbors elected him Warden of the County.
When Paisley, Ontario celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017, the county historical society shared a quotation from a commemorative Atlas of the County of Bruce that had been published in 1880. The quotation proudly proclaimed that, “of all residents of Bruce, either past or present, no man ever held a higher position in the heart of the people” than John Valentine.
Eight years prior to the publication of that quotation, in 1872, John Valentine had passed away. And while John’s life ended at the relatively young age of 55, I like to imagine that the journey that brought him to Canada and led him to help establish the town of Paisley, Ontario was inspired by Henry’s colorful atlas in which John had inscribed his signature at the age of 13.
In addition to John Valentine’s adventures, Henry’s atlas led me to some other interesting stories that were swirling around the Valentine’s family history, particularly John’s uncle James.
As it turns out, James Valentine, was the very first crewman to die onboard the ill-fated HMS Bounty. Before the onset of the infamous mutiny against Captain Bligh, John’s Uncle James fell victim to the boozing-ship-surgeon’s poor judgment, perishing from a gangrenous infection that set in after Dr. Huggans bled his arm as a treatment for asthma. Because obviously. What else would you do to treat asthma??
Back in Scotland, local legend claims that the Valentine family’s Georgian Mansion, Bearehill, is haunted. Used as an infirmary in the early 1900s, locals claim that many of the dearly departed who lost their lives in that facility never truly departed, still lingering in hallways and behind curtained windows. And John’s older brother, Thomas, whose name also appears in the atlas, had his own adventures as a Canadian pioneer.
But as interesting as those tales might be, those stories are for another time. For now, it’s enough to have found the owner of Henry’s atlas—and to have learned that its many maps might have served as an early inspiration for John Valentine to look beyond Montrose, explore the world, and help to build a still thriving community in Ontario, Canada.