1776 J.F.W. Des Barres chart of Newburyport to Cape Elizabeth

Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres (publisher) / [Samuel Holland, lead surveyor], [Untitled chart of coast from Newburyport, Mass. to Cape Elizabeth, Maine.] London; April 29, 1776.
Engraving and etching, 29.5"h x 41.5"w plus margins on two joined sheets, full wash color

A nice example of what was for its time the finest chart of the coasts of New Hampshire and southern Maine. It was issued in 1776 in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of the East Coast used by British captains during the Revolution. The charts were so respected that they remained in use for decades, often being copied and reissued by American and European engravers and publishers.

The present item depicts the New England coast line from Newbury Harbor to Cape Elizabeth as well as a surprising amount of inland detail not available on any other printed map of the time, including bodies of water, areas of elevation, roads and even individual structures.

Historical context
Though Des Barres was the compiler and publisher of The Atlantic Neptune and was himself responsible for the survey of Nova Scotia, others also played central roles in conducting the original surveys. One was Samuel Holland, who oversaw the survey of the New England coast on which the present chart was based. Holland was a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War (1756-63). Following their victory, the British were faced with the mammoth task of administering and developing thousands of square miles of newly-acquired territory, most of which had never been adequately mapped.

For example, the standard nautical atlas for colonial waters was The English Pilot. Fourth Book, first published in 1689 and reissued for over 100 years. Unfortunately, “reissued” does not necessarily imply “updated;” many English Pilot charts were issued unchanged for decades, even long after superior alternatives were available. This did little for trade in general or mariners in particular, but did reduce the publishers’ research and development costs down.

In response to this problem, Holland proposed “an accurate and just Survey upon a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. (Harley, p. 27) The survey would be based on geodetic controls: the locations of control points would be established by rigorous astronomical observation, and the intermediate areas pinpointed by means of triangulation. This followed the most advanced European practice, but would represent its first application in North America, and on a much grander scale than hitherto.

The Lord Commissioners approved Holland’s proposal, and in 1764 he was named Surveyor General of both the Province of Quebec and the Northern District of North America, from the Potomac to the border with Canada. Holland spent the next six years surveying Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and other areas in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then from 1770-1774 he focused on the survey of the New England and New York coasts.

Of course, Holland didn’t work alone. In fact, he was more on the order of a principal investigator, overseeing a number of semi-autonomous teams through five deputies: Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler and Thomas Wright. All told, Holland probably had more than 50 men working under his direct supervision at any given time.

Ultimately, the project required gathering and integrating four types of data: Astronomical observations to establish geodetic control points, topographical surveys by means of triangulation, hydrographical observations (soundings, etc.) conducted by the Royal Navy, and artists’ renderings of coastal profiles to be used in recognition views.

The Atlantic Neptune
Holland’s finished surveys were sent back to England, where in 1774 Des Barres assumed responsibility for their publication. Given the unsettled times, the demand for charts was enormous, and Des Barres’ operation quickly grew to fill two townhouses and employ 20 assistants in compiling, drafting and correcting the charts. While it was usually made up to order and therefore had no standard contents, The Atlantic Neptune ultimately extended to five sections: Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (based on the work of James Cook), the coast south of New York, and American coastal views.

Cobb, New Hampshire Maps, #42. Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, vol. 2 lot 706 (entry for The Atlantic Neptune, this chart listed as vol. 4 #23).

For background on Des Barres, Holland and the Atlantic Neptune, see Cumming, British Maps of Colonial America, pp.51-56; Harley et al., Mapping the American Revolutionary War, pp.25-8; and Machemer, “Headquartered at Piscataqua: Samuel Holland`s Coastal and Inland Surveys, 1770-1774,”Historical New Hampshire vol. 57 nos. 1 &2, pp.4-25.


This copy has a nice, clean appearance, particularly relative to the problems that often afflict Des Barres' large charts. There has been some professional conservation, including closure of several cracks and tears, restoration (with bit of facsimile) at mouth of Portsmouth Harbor, and backing for stability. A small-but-detectable "ridge" is present where the two constituent sheets are joined.