Early 19th-century American manuscript map of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream

Anonymous, CHART of the ATLANTIC OCEAN. No place, no date [but likely American ca. 1810.]
Manuscript in ink and watercolor on wove paper, 15 1/2h x 24 ¾”w at sheet edge. Old folds, old paper tape repairs to folds on verso, with moderate corresponding stains bleeding through to recto; small losses along folds, a few small losses to lower left corner, and a few small surface losses along lower right edge.

A most unusual manuscript map of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream, based on a map in Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator but with interesting additions.

The map depicts the East Coast of North America, the Caribbean, Central America, the West Coast of Africa, the coasts of northern Spain and France, and of course the North Atlantic Ocean. Aside from the large and colorful compass rose, the most prominent feature is the Gulf Stream, shown flowing from its origins in the Gulf of Mexico and dissipating off the African coast.

The scope of coverage, the choice of details shown, spelling, and scattered bits of historical information set forth in the map, and its provenance to a Philadelphia private collection all suggest it was executed by an American early in the nineteenth century. We date the map to circa 1810-1822, based upon the inclusion of both Chatham Light on Cape Cod, which was completed in 1808, and West Florida, which in 1822 was merged with East Florida to form a single Territory.

Identifying the source
The most likely prototype for the manuscript is the map in Nathaniel Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802, with a second edition in 1807 and others thereafter. The rendering on our map is far larger and rather “loose,” to put it generously, but the treatment of the Gulf Stream, the choice and labeling of the symbols for “setting of the current” and “the trade wind,” and the similarity and rendering of the place names all indicate a very close connection. For example, the placement and shape (angle and curvature) of “North [/] South Carolina”, “Caribee Islands”, and “Bahama or Lucayos” are all strongly reminiscent of Bowditch’s work.

While the Bowditch map likely served as the base, the present manuscript includes numerous additional details and some clues about its maker. The densest cluster of added place names is the North American coast, where for example our mapmaker has introduced “Poge” (i.e., Cape Poge on Martha’s Vineyard), “New Haven”, “Perth Amboy,” and “C. Roman” (Cape Roman off North Carolina), as well as the lighthouses as Chatham on Cape Cod and at Cape Henry, Virginia. Also of interest are the odd locations of “Providence” (Rhode Island) and “Stag Harbour” (the latter well to the south of Philadelphia!), although otherwise the mapmaker seems to have known the Eastern Seaboard reasonably well.

The Caribbean also has far more place names than Bowditch’s work, indicating the author’s familiarity with the region. The Mosquito Coast, for example, has some highly-specific place names, including for example “Bluefields,” a settlement started by Dutch pirates. Likewise, Bermuda features far more prominently and includes “Wreck Hill” and “Georges Town,” as well as a note reading “Best Lat to run for Bermudas 32° 81.”

All of these details, and others, allow for a couple of hypotheses and at least one conclusion. The inclusion of lighthouses, the note regarding the best latitude to run to Bermuda, and another note regarding extreme shoals near Cape Hatteras all suggest the mapmaker was a mariner or perhaps more likely a merchant or educated man with some sailing experience. This is however pure hypothesis; frankly, the mapmaker could also have been a schoolgirl or –boy copying the Bowditch map but adding from other sources.

On other matters we can be on firmer ground: The use of Bowditch as a source and the numerous additions on the East Coast suggest the mapmaker was almost certainly an American. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the inclusion of Chatham Light and “West Florida” allow us to date the map to 1808-1822 with some confidence.

In all, an appealing American manuscript map, raising interesting questions about the circumstances of its creation.

Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company of Arrowsic, Maine.