This lovely map depicts the entire state of Rhode Island including Block Island off the southern coast. There is considerable detail of the natural geography, including lakes, rivers and streams; areas of elevation (particularly around Narragansett Bay); and hydrographic data both in the Bay and along the Atlantic coast. Political boundaries are shown, with state, county and township boundaries differentiated by varying widths of dotted line. There are also much information on the human geography, with roads indicated; minute street plans given for Providence, Bristol, Wickford and Newport; and many individual dwellings shown in suburban and rural areas.
As with all of the Ebeling-Sotzmann maps, Rhose Island is a fusion of the best available existing maps, likely obtained from one of Ebeling’s many American correspondents. That different sources were used is clear from the the varying levels of detail in different areas—quite minute in and around Narragansett Bay, but far less so in the western part of the State. At a minimum, close comparison confirms that Ebeling and Sotzmann borrowed heavily from both Charles Blaskowitz’ Topographical Chart of the Bay of Narragansett (1777) and Caleb Harris’ Map of the State of Rhode Island (1795). It is also possible that these correspondents supplied additional information not available on the source maps.
Ebeling, Sotzmann and the Erdbeschreibung
This map was intended for a planned atlas to accompany Christoph Daniel Ebeling’s Erdbeschreibung und Geschichte von Amerika, a magisterial study of the geography and history of the new United States. Ebeling (1741-1817) was a Hamburg academic with a general interest in free states, which interest lead him to a decades-long fascination with America and ultimately to conceive the Erdbeschreibung project. To this end he carried on a voluminous correspondence with leading Americans, who supplied him among other things with the most up-to-date American maps available. His map library eventually made its way back to America, where it was purchased by a Boston collector and eventually became the nucleus of the Harvard Map Collection.
To produce the maps Ebeling commissioned Daniel Friedrich Sotzmann (1754-1840), Geographer of the Berlin Academy. Ristow, summarizing the assessment of scholar Wolfgang Scharfe, describes Sotzmann as one “of the most distinguished cartographers in the German-speaking countries in the early years of the nineteenth century” (p. 177). The atlas was to contain 18 plates, including 16 of the individual states. Unfortunately neither the narrative nor the atlas were fully realized, perhaps because of Ebeling’s advancing years and (in his view) a lack of sufficiently accurate source material, particularly for the southern states and the newly-admitted states west of the Appalachians. In all, seven volumes of the Erdbeschreibung were issued between 1793 and 1816, while ten maps were completed: [I?] Vermont (though numbered XVI), 1796; II. New Hampshire, 1796; III. Massachusetts, undated; IV. Maine, 1798; V. Rhode Island, 1797; VI. Connecticut, 1796; VII. New York, 1799; VIII. New Jersey, 1797; IX. Pennsylvania, 1797; X. Maryland and Delaware, 1797. (According to William Coolidge Lane, in Letters of Christoph Daniel Ebeling…: “Apparently Virignia was never engraved. Later letters show that Ebeling found difficulty in getting the material.”) With the odd exceptions of the New Jersey and Rhode Island maps, all of these maps are now scarce, while some (such as Maryland) are extremely rare, and few institutions possess full sets.
Brown and Ristow differ considerably on Ebeling and Sotzmann’s respective roles in compiling the state maps, with Brown arguing for Ebeling as the prime mover and Ristow favoring Sotzmann. Whatever their relative contributions, they developed the state maps by sifting, compiling and reconciling the source maps in Ebeling’s collection with a highly critical eye. The result is a set of maps that, while in some sense derivative of American sources, were for a time—and in some cases a long time—the best available of their kind.
Chapin, Check List of Maps of Rhode Island, #56. McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #N797.1. Phillips, A List of Maps of America, p. 744. Rumsey 2746.004. Background on Sotzmann’s maps from Ralph H. Brown, “Early Maps of the United States: The Ebeling-Sotzmann Maps of the Northern Seaboard States,” in Geographical Review, vol. 30 no. 3 (Jul. 1940), pp. 471-479, and also Walter Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, pp.169-178.