A fine and scarce Revolutionary War-era chart of the waters from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod’s Nauset Harbor. From The Atlantic Neptune, the finest 18th-century atlas of North American waters.
The chart covers Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay, the Elizabeth Islands, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod as far “out” as Nauset Harbor. The region is depicted with immense care, including both the surrounding waters as well as a great deal of the natural and human topography, the latter often extending several miles inland. The hydrographic data includes soundings, shoals, rocks and other hazards, with particular attention given to the dangerous waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. The terrestrial data includes inland waterways, roads, residences and even a few tiny windmills on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The chart was constructed from at least three different surveys, conducted a few years apart. The first surveys, which yielded the topographical outlines, were conducted in 1774: Under the supervision of Samuel Holland, Surveyor of the Northern District of North America, George Sproule surveyed Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while Charles Blaskowitz surveyed the mainland from Cape Cod to Narragansett Bay. Back in London, in 1776 or 1777 J.F.W. Des Barres hurried their work into print, for use by British navigators during the American Revolution (See below for more on Holland and Des Barres.) Early states of the chart lacked soundings or any other hydrographic data and are best thought of as outline maps of the coast of southern New England.
After the Revolution broke out, Admiral Richard Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in North America, ordered his captains to “collec[t]… material intelligence and mak[e] useful discoveries… of the pilotage and navigation on the most inaccessible coasts within the limits of your station.” Along these lines, some time in 1776-1778, Commander John Knight—who previously had worked under Samuel Holland—was assigned to survey the waters from New York Harbor to Nantucket Shoals. (Johnson, p. 242) In 1778 Knight summarized his surveys on a manuscript chart titled Buzzards Bay and Shoals of Nantucket, which is now held by the Library of Congress. Des Barres had Knight’s hydrographic data incorporated later states of the chart of the chart offered here, turning it from a mere outline map to a chart useful for navigation.
Offered here is the final recorded state of the chart, bearing a publication date of Nov. 1, 1781. With few exceptions—such as Paul Pinkham’s 1791 Chart of Nantucket Shoals—its accuracy and detail were not exceeded until well into the 19th century.
J.F.W. Des Barres and The Atlantic Neptune
The chart was issued both separately and in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of charts and views of North American waters used by British navigators throughout of the Revolution. The charts were of an extraordinarily high quality, remained the standard for decades, and were often copied and reissued by American and European engravers and publishers.
Though the Neptune is indelibly associated with the name of J.F.W. Des Barres, its many New England charts were based on work overseen by Samuel Holland, a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War. After the war Holland had proposed “an accurate and just Survey… upon… a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. This was to be a “geodetic” survey following the most advanced methods then in use in Europe, but applied for the first time in North America: the locations of control points would be established by rigorous astronomical observation, intermediate areas pinpointed by triangulation, and details sketched in from direct observation.
Holland’s proposal was approved, 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. After several years’ work in the Canadian Maritimes, from 1770-1774 he focused on the New England coast, making his headquarters in Portsmouth. From there he sent out semi-autonomous survey teams, headed by his deputies Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler and Thomas Wright. All told, he probably had more than 50 men working under his direct supervision, in addition to the services of the sloop HMS Canceaux.
Holland’s finished surveys were sent to England, where Des Barres assumed responsibility for their publication. The demand for charts was high in those unsettled times, and Des Barres’ operation soon occupied two townhouses and 20 assistants in compiling, drafting and correcting the charts. While The Atlantic Neptune was usually made up to order and had no standard collation, it ultimately extended to five sections: Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence, the coast south of New York, and American coastal views.
This chart is very scarce on the market, and this is the first example I have handled in 20 years in the trade. OldMaps.com (aka the Antique Map Price Record) records only two examples on the market in over 30 years, most recently in 1998, and I am aware of only two others having changed hands, both more than a decade ago.
National Maritime Museum (UK) on-line catalogue of charts from the Atlantic Neptune, Henry Newton Stevens #85G (8th state of 8). Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, vol. 2 item 706 (vol. IV map 7 in the Streeter copy of the Neptune.) Sellers and van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, #989 (describing it incorrectly as the 7th state).
For background on Des Barres, Holland and the Atlantic Neptune, see above all Alexander Johnson’s The First Mapping of America and Stephen Hornsby’s Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. Also of value are 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.