1793 Phinehas Merrill plan of Stratham, New Hampshire

Phinehas Merrill, PLAN of the TOWN of STRATHAM. [New Hampshire], July 17, 1793.
Engraving, 9 3/8”h x 7 3/8”w plus margins, spot color. Toned. Paper friable, with some horizontal cracks reinforced by lining verso with thin tissue. Left edge trimmed close, just intruding into neat line at one spot.

A rare, informative and charming map of Stratham, New Hampshire by important regional surveyor Phinehas Merrill, and the only map of a New Hampshire town published in the 18th century.

The map depicts the town of Stratham (incorp. 1716) situated along the Squamscott River in southeastern New Hampshire. The town’s boundaries are shown, including the bearing and length of each segment, as are roads, bodies of water, wetlands and hills (the last shown in an exaggerated “molehill” style). Superimposed on this framework are the location and names of approximately 150 land owners, mills, meeting houses and the school. The many dwellings are depicted in tiny profile, with what seems to be an attempt to indicate their orientation to the road. A horizontal stroke under certain names indicates owners who do not reside on their properties.

It is tempting to class the plan as a wonderful albeit diminutive piece of folk art, but this would be misleading: Phinehas Merrill was a serious surveyor, and for its time and place the plan represented a considerable undertaking. This is demonstrated by the use of a consistent scale (200 rods:inch), the boundary coordinates, the richness and density of the land ownership data, and the relatively consistent iconography.

The plan is rare: I know of but nine impressions at American institutions and two in private collections. Peter Benes’ New England Prospect illustrates a 2nd edition (p. 45 fig. 45), bearing some additions and a date of May 17th, 1806, of which the only known example is at the New Hampshire State Library.

Phinehas Merrill (1767-1815)
A native of Stratham, Phinehas Merrill was a self-taught civil engineer and surveyor and also served his town in a number of official positions. The only other published maps bearing his name are A Plan of the Compact Part of the Town of Exeter and A Plan of the Town of Exeter, both published in 1802. The original copper printing plates for the Exeter maps are still held today at the Exeter Public Library.

Merrill’s most important cartographic contribution was as Philip Carrigain’s unheralded partner in producing the first official map of the State of New Hampshire. That map was painstakingly compiled from dozens of town surveys produced locally in fulfillment of an 1803 act of the State Legislature (Cobb’s New Hampshire Maps credits Merrill with eight of the town surveys, including Barrington, Bartlett, Exeter, Greenland, New Castle, Portsmouth, Rye and Stratham.) These were submitted to Carrigain and Merrill, who were responsible for reviewing the contributions, soliciting revisions as needed (which seems to have been more often than not), reconciling inconsistencies, and integrating them into a coherent map of the state. For reasons unclear, Merrill seems to have dropped out of the project some time in or around 1810. (Mevers and Stark, p. 83)

Sadly, Merrill died the year before the 1816 publication of the state map, and to Carrigain’s eternal discredit Merrill’s name appears nowhere on the document. An obituary in the New Hampshire Gazette offered this biographical sketch:

“DIED…. In Stratham… of a putrid fever, PHINEHAS MERRILL, Esq. aged 47. He possessed a mind active and comprehensive in uncommon degree. Having little advantage in his youth for education, he by his own industry and application, acquired what he possessed, and arose to usefulness and respect. Mr. M. taught a school in his native town for some years, and gave general satisfaction. He compiled and published an Arithmetic [The Scholar’s Guide to Arithmetic, 1st ed. 1793], much used and approved. He was generally employed in surveying or measuring lands and was esteemed an accurate and scientific surveyor. [His maps of Stratham and Exeter] are well received by the public, and believed to be correct. He greatly assisted Mr. Carrigain in adjusting the surveys or plans of the several towns in the state, preparatory for publishing a map of New-Hampshire, and by his industry the plan was nearly or quite compleated for the engraver. He with the aid of his brother, Eliphalet Merrill, contemplated to publish a Gazeteer of the towns, parishes, and locations of the State, and had collected many valuable materials for the work [A Gazeteer of the State of New Hampshire, published by Eliphalet in 1817]. He sustained for many years the office of a civil magistrate with fidelity and honor.” (New Hampshire Gazette, vol. LX no. 10 (Feb. 7, 1815), p. 3)

A rare and desirable early American town plan, with both great charm and considerable documentary value.

Benes, New England Prospect, #44 (New Hampshire Historical). Cobb, New Hampshire Maps to 1900, #66 (Dartmouth, New Hampshire Historical, Clements Library). As of September 2020 OCLC gives holdings at Clements, Dartmouth, Library of Congress, Massachusetts Historical, New Hampshire Historical, Osher Map Library, and University of Maine-Orono. Wheat and Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America, #184 (Clements, Yale). Another example is held by the Stratham Historical Society, and I am aware of two in private collections, making twelve known including that offered here. Not in Antique Map Price Record or Phillips, List of Maps of America (The Library of Congress example was purchased at Skinner Auctions in 1996, for a hammer price of $1400.)

Peter Benes’ New England Prospect (1981) dedicates several pages to Merrill’s life and work (pp. 43-47). Frank Mevers and Mica Stark, “The Making of the Carrigain Map of New Hampshire, 1803-1816” in Historical New Hampshire, vol. 52 no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1997), pp. 78-95 provides terrific background on Carrigain’s state map.