Oxholm’s unique map collection

In 1777, the Chamber of Customs (Generaltoldkammeret) sent the young Lieutenant Peter Lotharius Oxholm to the Danish West Indies. The lieutenant was to examine and describe the condition of the colony’s defenses in text and pictures. He was a self-confident type, extremely effective and brilliant at making maps.

Oxholm lived on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John for a couple of years. Here he prepared a comprehensive report along with thirty-two maps and drawings that were beautiful and have provided posterity invaluable knowledge about the Danish colony. He describes with insight and precision the three islands, but he emphasizes the government buildings – especially military installations – both existing and intended. The Danish Ministry of Culture has classified Oxholm’s maps and drawings as being of “unique national importance” (Enestående National Betydning).

Foreign powers in the waters

Oxholm was born in 1753 and obtained a military education with the infantry, where he was particularly interested in engineering. In 1777, the promising young man was sent to the Danish West Indies, where he stayed in 1778-1780 in order to examine the condition of the colony’s defenses. Foreign powers’ warships and privateers had encroached several times on Danish maritime territory and harbors in connection with the Revolutionary War in North America (1775-1783).

Oxholm arrived on St. Croix on March 14, 1778. He had been carefully instructed about what he was to examine, and he got started immediately. Oxholm was the quiet, self-confident type, and the Governor-General and the West Indian Government would have preferred to have had his assignments. Moreover, they were annoyed that Oxholm did not limit himself to the defense-related assignments. For example, he sent to the Chamber of Customs – without the Governor-General being involved – a seventy-one page report on October 1, 1779, which among other things dealt with St. Croix’s political situation, the organization of the sugar trade, pilotage service and schools. Overall he got a lot of work done on all three Danish islands, and his expenses increased.

Oxholm was sent home

The General-Governor and Oxholm each complained about the other to the Chamber of Customs in Copenhagen. It ended with Oxholm being called home in the beginning of 1780. Accordingly, it was in Copenhagen that Oxholm finished his 127-page report about the armed forces with related maps and drawings. Information about Oxholm’s further life can be found under the tab “Fates”.

Thirty-two wonderful maps

Thirty-two detailed and especially useful maps and drawings and a thick related report are the result of his exertions. Both the people in the Chamber of Customs and modern cartographers are impressed at the high quality and great precision that characterize the maps. And that says more than a little about Oxholm’s abilities, because of course he did not have at his disposal anything like the tools available today. One example of his skill is the very large map of St. Croix which he produced in the beginning of the 1790s on his own initiative, and which he had engraved in copper and printed in 1799.

Drew maps until the end of his life

But Peter Lotharius Oxholm made several maps and drawings that are found other places than in the map and drawing collection of the Danish National Archives. Immediately after his arrival on St. Croix, for example, he drew an excellent map of Fort Christiansværn in Christiansted with immediate surroundings. The map is an attachment to his letter of March 26, 1778, to the Chamber of Customs. Examples of both unprinted and printed Oxholm maps are also found in other institutions such as the Royal Library (Danish National Library).

Oxholm could not let go of the Danish West Indies. Right up to his death, he continued with both making precise maps and drawings and making suggestions for improvements of everything possible in the Danish colony.

Three groups of maps and drawings

Oxholm’s maps and drawings in the Danish National Archives fall into three groups. One comprises maps of large or small portions of the islands, towns and harbors. The second group is drawings and plans of civilian royal buildings such as government buildings, customs and weighing houses, warehouses and hospitals. The third comprises the actual military installations such as forts and batteries.

The maps in the Danish National Archives

In addition to Oxholm’s original thirty-two maps and drawings, the Danish National Archives’s collection includes a number of copies of them. The copies have also been made by Oxholm himself, because the General Customs Office at that time could not find the original maps and drawings and thus had to ask Oxholm to prepare a new set. And he did that in 1797 with the aid of his old sketches. The later versions are hardly distinguishable from the originals. The total of forty-five preserved hand-drawn maps and drawings in the Danish National Archives are numbered 337.300-337.343 (along with 337.215 and 337.221). Duplicates of thirteen of the drawings are in the Danish National Archives. But another five duplicates have ended up in the Royal Library’s map collection (Danish National Library). These involve Oxholm’s copies of 337.328-337.332.

Oxholm’s original report has its place in the Danish National Archives, more precisely stated in Generaltoldkammeret, Ældre del, Vestindisk-guineisk renteskriverkontor, Dokumenter vedkommende forsvarsvæsenet og fortifikationerne i Vestindien (“Chamber of Customs, Older part, West India and Guinea Revenue Accountant Office, Documents concerning the armed forces and the fortifications in the Danish West Indies”) I-II, bundles 465-466.

Oxholm’s instructions of December 12, 1777, are in the Danish National Archives, Den vestindiske regering (“West Indian Government”), Instruktionsprotokol (“Register of Instructions”) 1723-1784, serial no. 3.40.1, pages 213-220.


Ganneskov, Eva, Peter Lotharius Oxholm i Dansk Vestindien 1778-80 (“Peter Lotharius Oxholm in the Danish West Indies 1778–80″), in Dansk Vestindisk Selskabs blad, XIII:3, 1978.

Green-Pedersen, Svend Erik, Peter Lotharius Oxholm, in Dansk biografisk Leksikon, vol. 11, Copenhagen 1982.

Gøbel, Erik, A Guide to Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies (U.S. Virgin Islands), 1671-1917, Odense 2002.

Hopkins, Daniel P., Peter Lotharius Oxholm and late eighteenth-century Danish West Indian cartography.  http://cas.umkc.edu/stcroix/mapping/essayfieldOxholm.htm (accessed 19 May 2015)