The capstone of the British mapping of northeastern North America

Jos[eph] F[rederick] W[allet] Des Barres Esqr.,The Coast of Nova Scotia, New England, NEW-YORK, JERSEY, The GULPH and RIVER of St. LAWRENCE. The ISLANDS of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, St. John, Antecosty, Sable & c. and SOUNDINGS thereof. [London:] I.F.W. Des Barres Esqr., Nov. 1, 1780 [but probably early-mid 1784].
Engraving with etched detail on two unjoined sheets of laid paper with “JB” watermark, if joined 32 ¼”h x 46”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Minor foxing, soiling and toning. Minor loss to upper-right margin of right sheet, affecting very small sections of neat line. Left sheet with small wormhole at upper right; a mended edge tear at bottom center, extending to the initial “A” in “Atlantic Ocean”; and two minor edge tears just to the right of the title. Docketed on verso in an early hand: “Nova Scotia American C[h]art” / “James Sever Nova Scotia &c.”

A rare, monumental and momentous general chart of northeastern North America, representing the capstone of British efforts to map the region after the end of the French and Indian War, and described as “by far the most accurate cartographic rendering of its subject made for many decades.” (Alex Johnson) This example separately published, probably in 1784, with provenance to James Sever, one of the U.S. Navy’s first cohort of frigate captains.

The chart depicts the complex coastline of the northeastern United States and Canadian Atlantic provinces, from Delaware Bay to Newfoundland. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of depth soundings are given, banks and shoals are indicated by stippling, and occasional notations indicate tidal flow and compass variation. One interesting feature is the use of circled depth soundings, which “denote that the Lead did not Strike Ground at that depth of Water.” The chart also includes a great deal of terrestrial information rarely seen on a navigation chart, including elevations indicated by shading, rivers systems, and a smattering of towns, villages and forts.

The chart constitutes the culmination of the most exhaustive British mapping project of the colonial era. It was compiled in London by Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, who integrated major surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and New England by Samuel Holland, a Dutch engineer working for the Board of Trade; and surveys of Nova Scotia by Des Barres and of Newfoundland by James Cook (not that Cook) and Michael Lane, all under authority of the Admiralty. The rendering of the St. Lawrence was probably based on surveys conducted by Holland and James Cook (that Cook, the future explorer), while working under the Admiralty in preparation for the capture of Quebec in 1759. The treatment of inland New England was probably based on surveys by Holland, his fellow engineer (and rival) John Montresor, Claude Joseph Sauthier, and other provincial and military surveyors. It was his unrivaled access to these surveys that allowed Des Barres to surpass all contemporary general charts in this fantastic summation of British cartographic knowledge of its holdings in northeastern North America.

“by 1778, Des Barres managed to achieve one of the principal cumulative objectives of Whitehall’s mapping programmes—the creation of an accurate general map of all of northeastern North America, from the southern tip of New Jersey to Labrador…. It would, overall, be by far the most accurate cartographic rendering of its subject made for many decades, and it is unfortunate that it did not receive the recognition that it deserved.” (Johnson, pp. 240-241)

Beyond the chart’s cartographic significance, it is worth noting that the quality of the draftsmanship and engraving is superb yet utilitarian, entirely legible even where the information is most dense, and without superfluous detail or flourishes.

Mapping the terms of the Treaty of Paris
According to Sellers & Van Ee this is the twelfth and final state of a chart first issued in 1777. To this final state Des Barres has added dashed-line borders between Nova Scotia and Quebec, and between the United States and British Canada. This international border was established by the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 and ratified by the United States on January 14, 1784 and Great Britain on April 9, 1784. Its depiction on this map is one of the most detailed and authoritative delineations on any map of the immediate post-Revolutionary War period.

At the headwaters of the Restigouche River, the international border splits, with one line continuing due south to the head of the St. Croix River and the other east-by-southeast to the head of Chaleur Bay. This border, along with the naming of the “Province of Nova Scotia” across all of the territory to the south, helps date the map to before August 16, 1784; for it was on that date that Nova Scotia was divided and New Brunswick was created.

One of the most important economic issues at the end of the Revolutionary War was the establishment of American and French fishing rights in Canadian waters. Before the war, cod had been the most lucrative trade good in New England, accounting for 35% of total export revenue. This was expected to continue after the War, and the Americans pushed hard for favorable treatment in the Treaty of Paris. The British acquiesced to the American demands, and likewise their concomitant treaty with the French also focused on post-war fishing rights.

It is not surprising then that Des Barres modified the chart to reflect its utility to fishermen. In addition to the borders discussed above, to this final state he has added a legend to the text panel under the scales at top center. They read as follows:

British Dominions                 Where the Subjects of France are
French                                     allowed to dry and cure Fish
American                                Where the Americans are allowed Do.

Though color has not been added to our example, these labels were clearly intended to be color-coded to delineate American and French fishing rights in the waters off Canada.

Des Barres most likely rushed this updated version to the press sometime between late 1783, after the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the founding of New Brunswick in August 1784. Thus, along with its other excellent qualities, it should be considered one of the first maps to reflect the momentous events at the conclusion of the American Revolution.

J.F.W. Des Barres and The Atlantic Neptune
Our chart was issued separately, but prior versions were issued from 1777 onward in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of North American waters used by British navigators throughout the American Revolution. In its most comprehensive form, the Neptune provided coverage from Newfoundland south and west to the Gulf of Mexico. 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.

The Atlantic Neptune is most frequently associated with Des Barres, who in the 1760s and early 1770s personally oversaw the survey of Nova Scotia that composes one of its volumes. He returned to London in 1773, where for over a decade he oversaw the compilation, engraving, printing and publication of the atlas. In all, the Neptune in its most complete form came to comprise more than 250 charts, maps and recognition views, many in multiple states and editions, along with numerous letterpress sheets of sailing directions.

However the Neptune was anything but the work of one man. Its many charts, the present chart in particular, were based on several separate surveying efforts, each in itself almost incredibly ambitious and at best loosely-coordinated with the others. Together they occupied the years 1759-1775 and the energies of dozens of talented surveyors and a supporting cast of hundreds.

Distinguished provenance
Until acquired by us, the chart had descended in the family of James Sever (1761-1845), Captain of the USS Congress, one of the famed first six frigates of the U.S. Navy. Captain Sever was born in 1761, attended Harvard, and upon graduation received an ensign’s commission in the 7th Massachusetts Regiment (February 1, 1781) during the Revolutionary War. Sever later transferred to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment and remained in the Continental Army until June 20, 1784.

Sever was from a successful Massachusetts merchant family, and that background along with his military experience sufficed for him to be named the superintendent of the USS Congress during its construction in 1795. In 1798, he became one of the first six post captains of the U.S. Navy. Sever served in the first foreign action of the U.S. Navy, when the Congress was involved in privateer hunting in the Caribbean and the U.S. intervention in the Haitian War of Knives. Sever had a relatively short career in the Navy and was dismissed during Jefferson’s purge of the officer corps in 1801.

In all, a lovely example, with fine provenance, of a rare capstone chart from the greatest survey undertaken in 18th-century North America.

McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #780.4. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich), Stevens Atlantic Neptune Collection, #HSN9I. Phillips, Atlases lists several examples in the Library of Congress’ many copies of the Neptune, including #1198 (vol. I chart 1). Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, #706 (entry for the Atlantic Neptune, with the chart present as vol. I chart 7). Sellers & Van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, #213 (12th state).

For background on Des Barres, Holland and the Atlantic Neptune, see above all Alex Johnson’s excellent The First Mapping of America,[2] as well as 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.