Chart of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound, from The Atlantic Neptune

J[oseph] F[rederick] W[allet] Des Barres (publisher) / [Samuel Holland, lead surveyor], [untitled chart of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound] , [London]; November 1, 1781.
Line engraving and etching on two sheets joined, 41.25"h x 29.25"w in all, original full wash color

This chart from Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune was the most accurate contemporary chart of the region and remained so for the better part of 50 years. For their blend of accuracy and visual appeal, the charts of the Neptune have probably never been surpassed.

The chart depicts the Buzzards Bay, Vineyard Sound and the surrounding land areas, including the Elizabeth Islands and the eastern half of Martha’s Vineyard. Extensive soundings are given as are numerous navigational aids and hazards. It also provides a great deal of terrestrial detail not available on any other printed map of the time, including roads, structures, and even property boundaries. A variety of symbols are employed to differentiate shoals, tidal zones, dunes, wetlands &c.

This example matches the final state of the chart identified by both Stevens and the National Martime Museum, with the publication date altered from April 5, 1776 to November 1, 1781.

Historical context
Joseph Des Barres now receives the lion’s share of credit for the achievement of the Atlantic Neptune. In truth, he himself was responsible for the hydrographic survey of Nova Scotia that fills the first volume of the Neptune. And as compiler and publisher he was responsible for the extraordinary artistic quality of its charts and views.

However, many others played critical roles in conducting the original surveys. The most important was Samuel Holland, 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.

…we find ourselves under the greatest difficulties arising from the want of exact surveys of those countries, many parts of which have never been surveyed at all, and others so imperfectly that the charts and maps thereof are not to be depended on.

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 keep 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. The survey would be based on geodetic controls-that is, with the locations of control points 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. 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. 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. It is not clear who conducted the surveys covered in the present chart, but it was probably either Blaskowitz or Sproule.

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.

National Maritime Museum (UK) on-line catalogue of charts from The Atlantic Neptune, #HNS 88F (state 8); Stevens, Catalog of the Henry Newton Stevens Collection of the Atlantic Neptune, III:197-198 (state 6).

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.


Very light offset throughout, streak of watercolor in lower center, and occasional marginal tears, else clean and sound. About as good as one sees in charts from the Neptune.