A most important 1819 map of the Greater Boston area by John G. Hales. Though little known today, Hales deserves a place among the first rank of early American surveyors and map makers.
Hales’ wonderful map depicts the region encompassing Beverly to the northeast, Scituate to the southeast, and Natick, East Sudbury &c. to the west—over 720 square miles in all. The relatively large scale of 1 inch to the mile enables Hales to provide great detail for both the natural and human geography, including topographical features (hills with their elevations, marshes, waterways and woodlands); town and country boundaries; the transportation network (roads, turnpikes and the Middlesex Canal); and the locations of meeting houses, churches, manufacturing establishments, and even individual private dwellings, with the homes of eminent persons given particular notice.
This map was for its time and place a sophisticated piece of work: an advertisement in the June 7, 1819 Boston Gazette tells us that “every Road and River is regularly laid down from lineal Measure, on a Scale of one mile to the inch ; the angles mathematically protracted ; the summit height of the principal Hills ascertained from Trigonometrical observation…” (p. 4). Previous maps of New England and its parts (with the exception of the charts in The Atlantic Neptune) had been based on metes and bounds surveys, in which a compass and measuring chain or rod were used to run a continuous line along the boundary or other line to be surveyed, with details filled in by observation. Such surveys required little instrumentation or training, but were notoriously liable to inaccuracies introduced by human error, irregularities of terrain, &c.
Hales made a great leap forward by conducting a “trigonometric survey” (or “triangulation”) of the Boston area, which entailed more instrumentation and at least some mathematics, but in return offered far greater accuracy. To this writer’s knowledge he was the first American to attempt a systematic survey of this sort over a large area, though it had been standard practice among European surveyors for a century.
Though Boston proper had been well mapped over the years—including a very large map by Hales himself issued in 1814—this is the first large-scale map of the greater Boston area. The only earlier maps of the area that remotely approached Hales accomplishment were the charts of Boston Bay and Boston Harbor issued in des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune in the 1770s. The Neptune charts were in some places arguably more detailed than Hales’ map and likely employed superior instruments and methods. However, their coverage extended in most places only a few miles inland, just a fraction of that achieved by Hales.
John G. Hales
Relative to the significance of his cartographic output, there is surprisingly little secondary information available on Hales’ life and work. The most commonly cited biography is scandalously brief and dismissive:
“[Hales] appears in the Boston Directory for the first time in 1818, though he published his map of Boston in 1814. From one of his few surviving contemporaries it is learned that he was an Englishman, duly educated in his employment, that he was a rapid, possibly a hasty, workman, and that his business career was not always satisfactory. He died in Boston of apoplexy, May 20th, 1832, aged 47 years, and was buried in St. Matthews Church (Episcopal) in South Boston.” (John G. Hales, Maps of the Street Lines of Boston, (William Whitemore, ed.), 1894)
Based on an inspection of many Hales maps, contemporary newspapers, government records and other documents, a far more interesting and substantial story can be assembled.
Hales began his career as a civil engineer in England in the late 18th or early 19th century. From his Survey of Boston and Vicinity, a small volume published in 1821, we learn that during these early years he developed expertise in the enclosure of salt marshes to create arable land: “in the years 1803 and 1806 the author of this [work] was engaged as engineer in the enclosure of a similar tract [i.e., similar to areas around Boston] in the county of Somerset, England, which was enclosed and divided among the proprietors under the authority of parliament.” (p. 141)
Hales immigrated to America around 1810 and probably spent time in Nova Scotia before settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1812 and 1813 he produced a number of estate plans for residents of that town, and in 1813 he published a Map of the Compact Part of the Town of Portsmouth and A Map of Upper and Lower Canada, with Part of the United States Adjoining; Comprising the Present Seat of War. He moved to Boston soon thereafter, and in 1814 he published his monumental Map of Boston in the State of Massachusetts, the largest-scale map of the city to date. Both the Portsmouth and Boston maps were landmarks, being by far the largest-scale and most detailed maps of those towns yet issued, showing property lines and building footprints and even employing varied shading to differentiate the building materials used. Hales also appears to have contributed to Philip Carrigain’s official map of New Hampshire (1816), as a June 18, 1818 entry in the Journal of the state’s House of Representatives records compensation to Hales as a line item in a disbursement made to Carrigain.
Some time thereafter, Hales began the detailed surveys on which our Map of Boston and Vicinity (1819) is based. Then in mid-1819 he was commissioned by the Selectmen of Boston to conduct “an accurate survey of all the public streets, squares and alleys,” which was executed at a scale vastly exceeding his earlier work. The manuscripts of this survey were only published in 1894 in Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston.
A new map of Massachusetts?
Apparently encouraged by the success of the Map of Boston and Vicinity, Hales decided to extend his reach and produce a new map of the state, with the hope of supplanting Osgood Carleton’s highly imperfect Map of Massachusetts Proper (1801). An announcement of his plans, describing a map very similar in format and content to the Map of Boston and Vicinity, appeared in the June 26, 1820 Boston Gazette. His petition to the state legislature for financial support some time in 1820 or early 1821 was received sympathetically:
“…on examining the plans submitted for their inspection by the petitioner, they [the legislative committee appointed to evaluate Hales’ petition] find that he has surveyed and laid down about sixty towns in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Middlesex, and Essex, that they are satisfied he possesses a thorough knowledge of his profession as a surveyor and draughtsman, and that the portion of the map he has already completed is very satisfactory and far superior to any plans of the same portion of our territory before executed.
“They further report that…. An improved Map of the State of Massachusetts, is highly necessary for many purposes of wise Legislation…” (committee report, as reprinted in the Columbian Centinel for March 7, 1821, p. 1)
Sympathy did not translate to backing, however, and due to fiscal constraints—the country was in the middle of a financial crisis that had begun with the Panic of 1819—the legislature chose not to support the project.
This is perhaps just as well, for in 1823 Hales was convicted of forgery and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, though it is unclear how much time he served. (Rhode Island American, July 25, 1823, p. 4) One way or another, however, he found a way to publish The County of Essex from Actual Survey (1825), which in scale and content is a natural complement to the Map of Boston and Its Vicinity offered here. One imagines that the Essex County map was an attempt to salvage something from the ashes of the Massachusetts mapping project.
In 1829 and 1830 the Massachusetts legislature passed enabling legislation to produce a new state map to replace the Carleton map of 1801. This was to be essentially a three-stage process: First, each town was required to conduct a survey of its territory and submit a plan to the Secretary of State. Second, a statewide “trigonometric” survey would be conducted, in which astronomical observations and hyper-rigorous methods were used to establish a baseline from which could be developed a network of some 500 triangulated reference points across the state. (In its use of geodetic controls, this model should be seen as a much more advanced version of the “trigonometric” methods used by Hales more than a decade earlier.) Finally, the local data in the individual town plans would be reconciled with the trigonometric survey to produce the official state map.
Despite his demonstrated experience, Hales was not tapped for the trigonometric survey (His rap sheet may have been an obstacle.) Presumably based on the strength of his earlier work, however, in 1830-31 at least 45 towns commissioned surveys from him, including for example Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Dedham, Lexington, and even Northampton and Wellfleet. Today his original manuscript maps from these surveys reside at the Massachusetts State Archives. In addition, some were printed by Pendleton’s Lithography in Boston and are held in major institutional collections as well as appearing occasionally on the private market.
John G. Hales died in May of 1832 at the age of 47—of “apoplexy,” according to Whitemore. He left behind him a body of work impressive for both its extent and its quality, though one wonders what else he might have achieved if his life had not been cut short. Nevertheless, for both his prolific output and his championing of advanced mapping methods he deserves to be placed among the first rank of New England mapmakers.
Boston Engineering Department, Checklist of Maps of Boston, p. 95 (the 1820 edition, though not differentiating the two known states issued that year); Garver, Surveying the Shore, pp. 58-59 (pl. 26) (1819 edition); Phillips, A List of Maps of America, p. 155 (catching only the 1833 edition).
A few sources include some limited, largely repetitive biographical information on John G. Hales: The first effort was William H. Whitmore’s preface to the reprinting of Hales’ manuscripts in Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston. Peveril Meigs gives a somewhat meatier biography in his “ John G. Hales, Boston, Geographer and Surveyor, 1785-1832, ” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 129 (1975), pp. 23-29. I built on these in his “Surveyor, mapmaker, forger: The career of John Groves Hales (ca. 1785-1832),” which appeared in the 2009 Newsletter of the Boston Map Society. This article, and the present biography, make extensive use of contemporary newspapers and government publications accessed through Readex’ on-line Archive of Americana provided some new background and not previously used by other Hales biographers.