New W&L Law Faculty Member Develops Legal History through Maps

Lexington, VA Friday, November 18, 2011


Prof. Jill Fraley
In the margins of a nearly 300 hundred year old map Washington and Lee law professor Jill Fraley has studied during one of her many visits to library and government archives, she finds a note that tells when the Kanawha River was discovered by the French.

This note, says Fraley, is not merely a statement of historical fact. It's the beginning of a legal argument.

"People are often surprised to see old maps, some ten feet tall, covered with handwriting," says Fraley. "These notes may detail discovery or first possession or event habitation, and they form the basis of legal arguments for ownership. These old maps set in place property law schemes that are still at work today."

Fraley joined W&L this fall as an assistant professor of law, and specializes in legal history, property, and environmental law. She earned undergraduate degrees in history and religion, a J.D. from Duke, as well as LL.M. and J.S.D. degrees, from Yale University, after which she practiced law for 8 years, handling mostly toxic tort cases.

But her interest in history remained, and after a project she was working on while still practicing was solicited for publication by an academic press, she decided to return to Yale to further hone her historical research skills. The project, a study of the history of Appalachia with a focus on law and geography, became her dissertation. She is currently revising it into book form for one of five academic presses that are interested in publishing the volume.

"My book traces how the federal government created the identifiable region we know as 'Appalachia' through the mapping practices of the Tennessee Valley Authority and later the Appalachia Regional Commission," Fraley explains. "I also explore why these regional governing bodies were established and what the challenges are to governing an area based on land features rather than state lines."

Fraley notes that the TVA was created in 1933 with the stated goal of operating for the "common good" but that it was unclear from the outset just what that meant. This lack of clarity meant that political circumstance dominated policy, and after the outbreak of World War II, the TVA militarized and developed land use practices that maximized resource extraction at the expense of the land. This, in turn, created conflicts between the TVA and the Environmental Protection Agency that exist to this day.

"The TVA created an unfortunate model of what regional government meant," says Fraley.  "It meant dealing with natural features in a way that furthered the common good on the scale of the nation even while acting on the scale of the region."

An avid map collector, Fraley's possesses thousands of print and digital maps, the largest portion of her collection devoted to maps that illustrate the colonial process and boundary development.  Fraley says she uses them to help her understand how land, property and territoriality were understood centuries ago, how allegiance is represented, and how territory is claimed. That, in turn informs her research into what role the federal government should have in telling landowners how to manage their land.

"I guess you could say I've always seen property as integral to environmental questions because control and ownership of land is the central question in most environmental claims," says Fraley. "Lawyers tend think of geography as fixed--there is the federal and there is the state--but the reality is that we often govern in ways that don't match up with that dichotomy."

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