The single most important 18th-century chart of Narragansett Bay, prepared by Charles Blaskowitz for the use of the British Navy during the American Revolution.
“…it is certain that the British, after occupying Newport at the end of 1776, used this map for their operations in this pivotal area. The detail shown is remarkable, including even the names of farmers on their land locations.” (Nebenzahl)
Boasting substantial port towns and the superb harbor at Newport, Narragansett Bay played a prominent role in the lead-up to the Revolution and during the War itself. In 1772, the British Navy essentially blockaded Narragansett Bay, in order to enforce customs duties on incoming vessels. After months of antagonizing the city’s merchants, the much-hated customs schooner HMSGaspee was burned by patriots and its captain badly injured in what is today remembered as “The Gaspee Incident.” In May 1776, Rhode Island became the first Colony to declare its independence, but in late 1776 the colony was seized by Admiral Parker as a Winter base for the British fleet. In the Summer of 1778, the British repelled a combined land and sea attack by American General John Sullivan and French Admiral d’Estaing. In July 1780, after the British evacuated the town in order to consolidate their forces in New York, the Comte de Rochambeau made Newport the base for his French expeditionary force. It was from there that he marched his army in the Fall of 1781 to join Washington at the decisive Battle at Yorktown.
Published in mid-1777, this Chart of the Bay of Narraganset would thus have been received eagerly by British navigators and their civilian and military leaders. The chart is somewhat unusual, in that the excellent hydrographic data for Narragansett Bay is complemented by a detailed depiction of the adjacent shoreline, in places extending well inland. Topography is shown by means of hachuring; Providence, Newport, Bristol and other towns are shown in tiny plan view; and in the country side individual farms and field boundaries are indicated. On the shore, impressive detail is depicted, with individual farms named and elegant hachuring showing elevations. Eight shore batteries, most protecting the approaches to the vital harbor at Newport, are shown via lettered references, with a key at upper right detailing the numbers and types of cannons at each emplacement. At right center is a list of the “Principal Farms in Rhode Island,” along with a brief description of the region. A large and well-designed dedication to Lord Percy appears just below.
Charles Blaskowitz and the Survey of the Northern District of North America
Chart maker Blaskowitz (ca. 1743-1823) arrived in America in the early 1760s, where he began surveying work in upstate New York and along the St. Lawrence River. In March 1764 he was assigned to the Survey of the Northern District of North America, commanded 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 to the Board of Trade “an accurate and just Survey… upon… a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. (Harley, p. 27) 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, extending 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, New Hampshire. From there he sent out semi-autonomous survey teams, headed by his deputies, among them Charles Blaskowitz. One of Blaskowitz’ first assignments was a 1764 survey of Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay, to assess the suitability of Newport as a naval base. He and his team returned in 1774 to conduct a more systematic survey of the entire Bay.
Blaskowitz’ surveys formed the basis for two charts issued in London, one published by J.F.W. Des Barres in The Atlantic Neptune (1776) and the other by William Faden. Offered here is the Faden chart, a much more accomplished production, on a larger sheet and more elaborately engraved (and according to Mary Pedley, costing two and a half times as much as the Des Barres edition). Faden sold the chart separately, and it is also found bound into some copies of his North American Atlas. Blaskowitz’ work was also pirated in Paris by George Louis le Rouge and issued on a reduced scale in 1778 and again by Sartine in 1780.
Nebenzahl, Atlas of the American Revolution, map #16. Nebenzahl, Bibliography of Printed Battle Plans of the American Revolution, #34.