A rare chart of Narragansett Bay, published for use by the French Navy during the American Revolution.
This large, detailed and attractive chart provides soundings and other hydrographic data throughout Narragansett Bay. It also gives much detail of shoreline and inland topography, roads and structures, and even property boundaries, with particular attention given to Aquidneck Island. The chart is derived from J.F.W. des Barres’ 1776 Chart of the Harbour of Rhode Island and Narraganset Bay, which in turn was based on surveys made by Charles Blaskowitz on behalf of the Board of Trade in the early 1770s.
At the head of the chart is a small-but-detailed plan of Newport, based on one originally published in 1777 by William Faden, who also used Blaskowitz as his source. Dozens of quays jut into the harbour along the length of Thames Street, evidence that up until the Revolution this was one of colonial America’s leading ports. Every street is shown, with an apparent attempt to depict each individual dwelling and block of buildings, while a legend identifies 18 landmarks including numerous churches and the now-famous Truro Synagogue.
Between 1775 and 1777 the French provided modest and mostly informal support for the American Revolution, in the form of shipments of supplies and the voluntary service in the Continental Army of officers such as Lafayette and L’Enfant. In February 1778, however, she formally recognized the United States, and the two nations entered into a military and commercial alliance.
The first French military venture during the War was an August 1778 attack by American General John Sullivan and Admiral d’Estaing on Aquidneck Island (“Rhode Island” on the chart), which had been seized by the British in 1776. Hindered by poor coordination the attack failed miserably, and the British held the region until abandoning it in October, 1779. In July 1780 the Comte de Rochambeau, the new French commander in North America, established his headquarters at Newport.
In support of his nation’s military interests in North America, Paris mapmaker and publisher George Louis Le Rouge set out to create a set of sea charts for use by the French Navy. His 1778 Pilote Americain Septentrionale drew heavily upon the work of British publications, utilizing in particular the charts of the North American Pilot, published in 1776 by Sayer & Bennett in London, as well as material issued by Des Barres and Faden. The charts were modified with French nomenclature and sailing directions and improved where better information was available. This chart of Narragansett Bay from the Pilote was almost likely one of the primary charts utilized by the French during the 1778 attack on Narragansett Bay and again after the 1780 occupation by Rochambeau.
Because it was produced for use at sea, few examples of the Pilote Americain Septentrionale have survived, and the individual maps from this atlas appear infrequently on the market. The last complete copy of the atlas to appear at auction was sold at Sothebys in 1948.
Chapin, Check List of Maps of Rhode Island, #37. Nebenzahl, A Bibliography of Printed Battle Plans of the American Revolution, #37 (the chart) and 37a (the inset plan). Sellers and Van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, #1000.