An early manuscript map of the New York City area, with provenance to one of the U.S. Navy’s first frigate captains

A MAP OF THE Harbour of NEW YORK by Survey. [New York, ca. 1735-1770s.]
Manuscript in iron gall ink and ochre and green watercolor on laid paper with “GR” water mark, 13 ½”h x 11”w at neat line plus margins. Pencil (probably later) coloring in the bodies of water. Central horizontal fold with small binding holes along the fold. Oxidation of the ink in the compass rose causing some cracking and loss, as illustrated. Otherwise very good.

An early manuscript map of what is now New York City, based closely on William Bradford’s New Map of the Harbour of New York, one of the great rarities of 18th-century American cartography.

Like the Bradford map, our manuscript depicts New York and northeastern New Jersey from roughly present-day Marlboro Township in the southwest, to Little Falls in the northwest, to Larchmont in the northeast, and Far Rockaway in the southeast. It includes extensive soundings for the harbor of New York, including dozens of soundings and stippled renderings of banks and shallows. The many place names, a mix of Native American, Dutch, and English reflecting the region’s recent history, demonstrate how European settlement, originally confined to Manhattan Island, had long since spilled over into the surrounding region.

Bradford’s map was advertised in The New-York Gazette of March 24-31, 1735:

“There is now Published a new Map of the harbour of New-York, from a late Survey, containing the Soundings and setting of the Tydes, and the bearings of the most remarkable Places, with the Proper Places for Anchoring [shown on the map by Roman numerals]. To be Sold by the Printer hereof.”

The map was for its time by far the best cartographic depiction of the area, and was not exceeded until charts issued by Des Barres, Ratzer and others in the 1770s. Sadly, the only known example resides today at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, having been purchased by Henry Huntington in 1911 along with the rest of the E.D. Church Library.

Comparison of the Bradford map and our manuscript
Though our manuscript is based closely on the Bradford, there are a number of interesting differences:

  • The title has been simplified on the manuscript.
  • Some place names have variant spellings, with “Schuiler’s Copper Mine” changed to “Scuylers” and “Brookland” to “Bramland”.
  • The manuscript adds a ferry at the south end of Staten Island.
  • The soundings on the manuscript have been simplified, and the manuscript includes a note that “The Figures are for the depths of water,” suggesting that it was drawn for someone unfamiliar with the conventions of navigation charts.
  • The manuscript omits the Roman numerals used to indicate anchorages on the Bradford map.
  • The Bradford map has a 5-mile scale, the manuscript a 15-mile scale.

Our manuscript also It is also worth noting that the manuscript has also been associated with John Carwitham’s A Plan of the Harbour of New York (circa 1735). While these maps do have strong similarities, close examination of the place names and soundings on the manuscript demonstrate that it is much more closely related to the Bradford.

Dating the manuscript
The manuscript can be roughly dated to between 1735 and probably not later than the 1770s. The terminus post quem can be determined from the publication of the printed William Bradford from which this map is clearly derived. On the other hand the manuscript was probably not executed later than the 1770s, when excellent charts and maps of the area were published by Des Barres, Ratzer and others, rendering earlier treatments obsolete.

The laid paper on which the map is drawn is watermarked with the coat of arms of either George II or George III and countermarked with a crowned GR. This is a fairly generic English watermark from the 18th century and does not enable us to tighten the map’s dating. However, the fact that the draftsman of the manuscript has changed the wording of the title from “New Map” and “Late Survey” to “Map” and “Survey” suggests that he was aware that the map was not hot off the press when he adapted it.

We acquired this map in October 2020 from the descendants of James Sever, 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 in February, 1781, during the Revolutionary War. Sever later transferred to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment and remained in the Continental Army until June 1784.

Sever was from a successful Massachusetts merchant family, and that background along with his military experience was enough 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 in fact 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 remarkable 18th-century survival, with a close but intriguing connection to William Bradford’s unobtainable New Map of the Harbour of New-York.

Church Catalogue, #920A. Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, Description of Plates, pp. 263-264.