James Stevens’ landmark 1832 Topographical Map of the State of Rhode Island

Engraving, 42”h x 26”w plus margins, wash and outline color retouched. Mounted on modern replacement linen. Some cracking and discoloration, areas of restoration in margins.

The first official map of Rhode Island, published in 1832 by James Stevens and a vast improvement over previous maps of the state as well as a landmark in American mapmaking.

After the Revolution the individual states needed to produce accurate and useful maps of their territories. Such maps were necessary for monitoring and stimulating settlement, commerce, and development of transportation networks, as well as for delineating public lands available for sale. With a weak Federal government unable to provide support and themselves short on cash, states had to come up with creative models for funding these labor-intensive projects. With one glaring exception, by 1816 all New England states had been mapped, Vermont in 1796, Massachusetts (and Maine) in 1801, Connecticut in 1812, and New Hampshire in 1816.

For reasons unclear, no similar effort was attempted in Rhode Island until 1821, when New York mapmaker Amos Lay set out to map the state. Despite modest encouragement from the General Assembly, Lay soon abandoned the project as financially unworkable and sold his interest to Ariel Van Horn, Principal of the Westerly Academy. Horn in turn entered into a partnership with “topographer and civil engineer” James Stevens, with each having a half interest in the project. At this time the General Assembly formally acknowledged Horn and Stevens’ assumption of the project and committed to paying them sixty dollars upon satisfactory completion of the map. Horn however failed to deliver on his commitments, and Stevens terminated the partnership and took the entire project on himself. (Providence Patriot, Oct. 24, 1829, p. 2)

The survey was based on a triangulation of the state, following the most advanced practices of the time.

“[Stevens] appears to have pursued the same course as that followed by the Topographical Engineers, which is the establishment of a Base Line between two noted and favorable objects, and on this line forming a Triangle, each of whose sides are made the basis of other triangles, and so on throughout the survey–these forming a system of Triangles, angular points of which serve as points of verification for all objects included within their areas; so that the least error in the position of an object in any triangle, would be shown by the lines drawn from the angles and directed towards this object, intersecting in more points than one.” (Providence Patriot, Oct. 24, 1829, p. 2)

This was the first time this procedure had been employed on a map of any state, and it was soon followed in Massachusetts, where Stevens was hired to assist Simeon Borden in producing what became the Topographical Map of the State of Massachusetts (1844).

Stevens expended more than $2000 of his own money on his surveys and repeatedly implored the Rhode Island Assembly for financial support. The state’s finances being no sounder at the time than they are today, rather than funding the project outright the Assembly in 1829 authorized a lottery:

“On Wednesday, July 14 will be drawn in this town the Rhode Island state map lottery scheme got up for the purpose of publishing a correct and authentic map of Rhode Island projected by Mr. Stevens under the authority of the state. At this period, when Rhode Island is assuming an important station among the members of the confederacy, every citizen must feel an honest pride at having her geographical lines and resources made known.” (Providence Patriot, July 14, 1830, p. 3)

Stevens was allowed to draw up to $2000 from the lottery proceeds, in return for which he was to supply the State with 100 copies of the map by June 15, 1830.

The project seems to have hit many snags. Some time in 1829 Stevens stopped work for a time after being threatened with a lawsuit by creditors of his former partner Ariel Van Horn. Then in March of 1831 his papers were stolen from a coach in Boston, with the loss of material crucial to the Rhode Island map:

“We noticed the other day the loss sustained by major James Stevens of Newport in Boston his trunk having been stolen from the stage. We regret to learn that among his valuable papers which the thief destroyed, was the manuscript map of Rhode Island, upon which he is devoted such assiduous attention. Fortunately the map had been entirely traced upon the copperplate, except the names of places, & c. These Major Stevens had collected with great care; and his business to Boston was, in part, to have them traced on the plate, which would then be complete to give the impression. Mr. Stevens is allowed by act of the Gen. assembly, until July next, to complete the publication of his map. He will now have to collect all the names of places, &c. which have been lost. To aid in this very desirable object he has forwarded to us several proof impressions of the map, without names of places, &c. which he is desirous of having filled up.” (Providence Patriot, March 14, 1831, p. 4)

It is worth noting that a few impressions were pulled from the plate around this time, sans place names and other details. One of these is held by the National Archives and Records Administration and may be viewed here.

The theft appears to have delayed the project significantly, which likely explains why the map bears a copyright date of 1831 but was not published until the following year.

The map
Executed at the scale of 1 ½ miles to the inch, the map is far more detailed than any previous depiction of Rhode Island. In 1829, when it was still a work in progress, Stevens had promised that

“The topography of the map will define the hills and valleys, the swamps and marshes, the forests, meadow and cultivated lands. The map will show the places first settled by our ancestors; the Indian settlements, and the places where the principal battles were fought with the natives, together with the most remarkable places connected with the history of the first settlement of the state; and will also show the position of all the forts and readouts thrown up by the Americans, and by the British troops during the Revolutionary war, together with the fortifications and other public works proposed by the military engineers, and now constructing by the United States.– The scale from which the map is drafted is sufficiently large to show all the sinuosities of the shores, the meandering of the Rivers, the Turnpike roads, Post roads, and all those generally traveled, and will show every turn in the roads, the intersection of the crossroads, and very distinctly even the streets in the towns, and all the forts, bridges, canals, factories, mills, taverns, and places of public worship throughout the whole state.” (Providence Patriot, October 24, 1829, p. 2)

Stevens was true to his word, and the map is a trove of detail about the state’s natural and human geography.

One feature not mentioned by Stevens is the rather extensive hydrographic data in Narragansett Bay, primarily soundings but also occasional notes of navigational hazards such as Brenton’s Reef off Newport. The source of this information is not known, but could not have been the Wadsworth Navy surveys, which were only conducted in 1832. Ristow suggests it was adapted from the work of the United States Coast Survey (p. 100), which he claims had completed surveys of Narragansett Bay by 1830. This assertion should be discounted, however, as the Coast Survey was inactive between 1818 and 1830, and prior to that time its work had been confined to the New York area.

Sale of the plate, and Stevens v. Cady
In 1846 Stevens was forced to sell the copper plate for his map to pay off a court judgment. The plate was purchased by Isaac Cady, who had it revised by Samuel Cushing and Henry F. Walling and then reissued it under his own imprint (This is incidentally the earliest known publication bearing the name of Walling, who went on to become America’s leading mapmaker of the third quarter of the 19th century.) Stevens sued, arguing that ownership of the plate did not entail ownership of the copyright and that by implication Cady’s printing of the map was an act of intellectual piracy. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Stevens. This is said to have been the first copyright infringement suit in the United States to involve a map.

Both editions of the map are rare, with the second edition particularly so. I am aware of seven examples of the first edition in institutional collections, plus two or three in private collections. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds the only example of the 1846 edition known to this writer. Antique Map Price Record lists but one example (of the 1831 edition) offered for sale in the past quarter century.

Chapin, Maps of Rhode Island, #65, citing the Rhode Island Historical Society example. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 745. Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, pp. 99-100. As of September 2020, OCLC #173190362 lists examples at Boston Public, Harvard, and the Massachusetts State Library. Additional holdings at the Rhode Island Historical Society, Naval War Collee Museum (Newport) and Library of Congress, with others in private collections.


Conserved, with varnish removed, color retouched, and linen replaced. Some cracks and a couple of small losses to blank areas visible, but by far the nicest example of Stevens' map this writer has seen on the market.