Filson’s “Kentucke”, “a monument of American map-making from the nation’s earliest period” (Nebenzahl)

John Filson /Henry D. Pursell (engraver) / T[enoor] Rook (printer), This Map of KENTUCKE, Drawn from actual Observations, is inscribed with the most perfect respect, to the Honorable the Congress of the United States of America; and to his George Washington late Commander in Chief of their Army. By their Humble Servant, John Filson. Philadelphia: John Filson, 1784 [but 1785?]
Engraving, 19 ½”h x 17 ¾”w at neat line plus margins, sheet size 24”h x 19”w. Surface cleaned, leaving minor soiling and staining. Minor wrinkles and creases, and a few minor edge tears not touching printed area. Verso with strips of linen applied to upper and lower edges, the linen docketed by an early hand in ink “Kentucke J.n Filson’s” in four places, and with two, more recent applied paper labels, both with “Map of Kentucky – 1784” in type.


Filson’s map of Kentucky, one of the great rarities of early Kentucky and Virginia cartography, and rightly described by Nebenzahl as “a monument of American map-making from the nation’s earliest period.” With superlative provenance to an important Southern religious community.

Filson prepared the map to illustrate his seminal work, THE DISCOVERY, SETTLEMENT And present State of KENTUCKE, published in Wilmington, Delaware in 1784. The title page bears the notice “The Whole illustrated by a new and accurate MAP of Kentucke and the Country adjoining, drawn from actual Surveys …”. However, few extant copies of the book include the map, and it was frequently advertised and sold separately.[1] In any event the example of the map offered here was certainly sold as a separate, as it bears no folds or other signs of having been bound.

Filson’s work is credited as the first reliable account, textual and cartographic, of the strategic frontier territory south of the Ohio River (Nebenzahl). The region then belonged to Virginia, which had ceded its claims north and west of the Ohio in 1784 but retained vast claims south of the Ohio and west to the Mississippi until Kentucky gained statehood in 1792. Appended to the Discovery is the first account of the exploits of Daniel Boone, which is widely thought to have been inspiration for the modern “myth” surrounding him.

This Map of Kentucke
The map is roughly centered on Lexington, where Filson based himself, and covers a region bounded by the Ohio River in the north and the Cumberland River in the south, and from the longitude of the Great Sandy Creek (noted as “321 Miles below Fort Pitt”) west to just beyond the Ohio River. The focus is on Kentucky’s three original counties of Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln… thus, most of the eastern half of present-day state of Kentucky.

The map is the first to concentrate on this region and marks a very great advance over earlier, smaller-scale maps as well as over other maps issued in the immediate, post-Revolutionary period. Nebenzahl describes the map crisply and places it in this broader cartographic context:

“The most significant published maps encompassing the area had been those by John Mitchell and Lewis Evans in 1755, Thomas Pownall in 1776, and Thomas Hutchins in 1778. Filson’s delineation is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. He includes symbols representing ‘Stations or Fort. Salt Springs & Licks. Towns. Dwelling-houses and Mills. Wigwams (Indian villages). Roads; some Clear’d, others not.” Among the towns are ‘Harrod’s Town’, (Harrodsburg, established in 1774 by Filson’s friend), the first permanent settlement in Kentucky. Also indicated are Daniel Boon’s home, southeast of Lexington, his ‘Station on the road between Lexington and Louisville, and his establishments at ‘Boon’s Creek’ on the road from Cumberland Gap. Important maps of the United States by Abel Buell and William McMurray appeared the same year as Filson’s ‘Kentucke.’ Neither, however, portrayed the accuracy and detail that Filson, residing in Lexington and concentrating on the areas of Kentucky’s first three counties, provided.” (“The Filson map re-examined”, The Map Collector, no. 56 (Autumn 1991), p.40)

In keeping with Filson’s promotional objectives, both text and map emphasise the fertility of the country. In this regard, one slightly puzzling feature of the map is the repeated mention of “Fine Cane, “Abundance of Cane”, and the like. This, it turns out, is a reference to any of three similar species of the genus Arundinaria, North America’s only native variety of bamboo, which grew in dense thickets in Kentucky’s fertile bottomlands but is now found only in tiny patches. According to Filson’s Discovery, cane provided excellent forage for cattle, who “feed, and grow fat” on it (p. 19). I’m not qualified to judge, but one theory has it that the name “Kentucky” arose from the region’s abundance of cane.

The European settlement of Kentucky began in 1775, after the Transylvania Company gained from the Cherokee questionable title to millions of acres in what would later become central Kentucky and northern Tennessee. The Company immediately commissioned Daniel Boone to cut a trail to Kentucky via the Cumberland Gap. This trail became one of the preferred land routes into Kentucky and is shown as a dotted line on the far southeast quadrant of the map. Also in 1775 Boone established the fortified village of Boonesborough (“Boonsburg” on the map) on the south bank of the Kentucky River at its junction with Otter Creek. This was one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachians.

Settlement was curtailed by the Revolutionary War, due in part to the chaotic and insecure situation on the western frontier. Indeed, the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the last land battles of the Revolutionary War, was fought on August 19, 1782 on the north bank of Kentucky’s Licking River (marked on the map as “bloody battle fought here”). There a force of American militia, with Boone one of the commanders, was comprehensively defeated by a combined force of British and their native American allies… though peace negotiations had already begun in Paris in April of that year.

At the end of the war, attention again turned westward. The Federal and state governments were impoverished and sought to profit from land sales and granting bounty-land warrants to compensate discharged veterans and promote settlement on unsettled lands. The Continental Congress passed the Ordinance of 1784, which provided for the creation of new territories west of the Appalachians, with the possibility of accession to statehood once their populations reached a certain level (This was followed in 1785 by another Ordinance, which provided for the surveying and sale of Western lands.) The Land Office for the Virginia Military District opened near Louisville in July 1784 to handle warrants.[2] Filson’s map has the comment against the lower border, “Land reserved for the Virginia Troops; extending to the | Carolina Line, which runs parrallel [sic] with the bottom of this Map. in 36 N. Lat.”

Indeed, Filson was one of the earliest purchasers of land in Kentucky, acquiring 13,500 acres near Lexington (founded in 1782), hoping to move into land speculation. He settled in Lexington, working first as a surveyor and then as a school-teacher, but continuing in surveying as a side hustle. Thus, his Discovery, Settlement, And present State of Kentucke paints a picture of Kentucky as an unspoiled paradise ripe for settlement, an implicit promotion of his own land-speculation ventures.

The text is also significant for the forward-thinking emphasis Filson places on the relationship of Kentucky to the Mississippi River, particularly the downriver city of New Orleans, suggesting that the future of Kentucky lay looking to the South and West, rather than to the East.

John Filson
Filson (1747-1788) was born in Pennsylvania. He served with the Pennsylvania militia in the Revolutionary War and was captured by the British at the Battle of Fort Washington during the 1776 New York campaign. After the war he relocated to Lexington, in the then-western Virginia county of Fayette, where he worked as a land surveyor and compiled his book and map. Filson worked remarkably quickly, in that the map and book were completed within about a year. Evidently, he relied heavily on the assistance of several settlers, as acknowledged on the map, crediting among others Daniel Boone and Harrodsburg founder James Harrod as principal sources.

In 1784, Filson travelled to Wilmington, Delaware to arrange publication with James Adams. The map was engraved in Philadelphia by Henry D. Pursell (1750-1791), a little-known figure, who had an itinerant career as an engraver in New York, Philadelphia, and finally Charleston, South Carolina, where he died.

In August 1784, Filson announced in the Pennsylvania Packet that his book and map were “preparing in the press”,[3] and on October 22nd he announced publication.[4] Both announcements clearly stated that the book was to be “illustrated by a new and accurate map of Kentucke”, but as mentioned previously very few copies of the book are known to have the map. Indeed, per RareBookHub, the last copy of the book to appear at auction with the map was the Robert Hoe copy, which sold at Anderson Galleries in 1921 (George D. Smith Sale, Part Seven, May 9, 1921). The book has since appeared at auction no fewer than 21 times, always lacking the map.

The first edition of 1500 copies of the book, sold relatively quickly, though sadly there is no record of the number of maps run off the press. Filson continued to work on revising and improving the map and text, even writing George Washington on Dec. 4, 1784 seeking his endorsement for a second edition of the book. However, in a Jan. 6, 1785 reply Washington seems to have declined to offer such an endorsement, and these plans came to naught.

In 1788 Filson bought a share in an 800-acre parcel on the north bank of the Ohio across from the mouth of the Licking River—this locale is shown on this map, just below the table of “Explanation” at top. He laid out a town, awkwardly named “Losantiville”, but disappeared later that year while on a surveying expedition along the Great Miami River, after it was attacked by a party of Shawnees. The site of Losantiville was sold on to other parties and eventually became the nucleus of modern-day Cincinnati.

Carto-bibliography, census, and provenance
The map, despite being available for a relatively short period is recorded in no fewer than ten states. This sequence was developed in Wheat & Brun’s Maps and Charts Published in America Before 1800 and then expanded by dealer Kenneth Nebenzahl, who in 1991 announced the discovery of an unrecorded first state. The Library of Congress purchased that example from Nebenzahl in 2000 for $90,000, and I am unaware of any other examples, of any state, to have appeared on the market since then.

These ten states must have appeared with some rapidity as states 1 to 4 are each recorded in a single example, state 5 is known in two examples, state 6 in seven, state 7 in four, states 8 and 9 each in one, and state 10 in six (including this example). The later states have only very minor geographical amendments; this 10th adds an Indian trail, denoted by a dashed line, which extends almost due south from the mouth of the “Sciotha R” to join the “Warrior’s Path” below the county label “LINCOLN”. Other examples of the 10th state are held by the Filson Club (Louisville, KY), Harvard Map Collection, John Carter Brown Library, New York Historical Society, and University of Pittsburgh (Darlington Memorial Library).

The provenance of this example is superlative, as it was recently de-accessioned by the Moravian Archives Southern Province in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I quote from a short study recently completed by Sabrina Garity, Assistant Archivist at the Archives.

“Until it was acquired by Boston Rare Maps, this map was held by the Moravian Archives Southern Province in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This Archive was first mentioned in Church records in 1762 and contains documents, maps, books, and papers of the Moravian towns of Bethabara, Bethania, and Salem in what was then known as the Wachovia Tract in North Carolina, with the first town, Bethabara, established in 1753. This map, like many others in the MASP Collection, was owned not by an individual but by the town and made accessible to the community of Salem, and any travelers using Salem as a stop on their journey, but also would have been used in the extensive geography lessons taught at the Salem Boys School as well as the Salem Girls School….


“Frederic William Marshall, the Chief Administrator of the Wachovia settlement, was well versed in surveying and cartography, and there is much evidence of his own personal pursuit of mapmaking. The Map of Kentucke was purchased on September 29th, 1787, by Marshall and is listed under the town expenses in the ledger… and day books… —one which lists the specific date and one which details the other purchases made under the “Sundry Account to Bethlehem Administration.” In both ledgers, the price is listed as 8 Shillings paid in cash. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was the other major Moravian Settlement at this time and many goods were traded back and forth between the two regions.”

A very great rarity and one of the most important American maps of the immediate post-Revolutionary era, offered here in lovely original condition and with remarkable provenance.

The Church Catalogue, vol. V no. 1202 (the book and the map). English Short-Title Catalogue, #W20217 (This records 32 examples of the book, but it is unclear how many contain the map.) Jillson, Willard Rouse, Early Kentucky Maps (1673-1825) Part 2, p. 32. Nebenzahl, Kenneth, “The Filson Map Re-Examined”, The Map Collector, no. 56 (Autumn 1991), pp. 40-45. Sabin, Dictionary of Books Relating to America, #24336. Wheat & Brun, Maps And Charts Published In America Before 1800, #639 (state 10).

[1] Beginning in August 1785–when the first edition of the book had likely sold out–through September 1787, advertisements appear just for the map, with the Philadelphia publisher Joseph Crukshank the most frequent advertiser.


[3] “Is now preparing for the Press, and will be published by the first of October next, in large Octavo, stitched in blue Paper, A TOPOGRAPHICAL HISTORY and MAP of the present State of KENTUCKE, the Western Territory of Virginia: containing an Account of the Discovery and Settlement of that favoured Region, and the Natural History thereof … The whole illustriated <sic> by a new and accurate Map of Kentucke, and part of the country adjoining, placed in the history; printed for the curious and interested, and will be of public utility. Hopeing this Performance will merit acceptance and encouragement, the Author expects it will be patronized by Gentlemen previous to its publication” (Pennsylvania Packet, issue 1736, August 7, 1784, p. 3)

[4] “THIS DAY IS PUBLISHED, (Price One Dollar and a Half) And to be sold by DUNLAP & CLAYPOOLE, Philadelphia, and JAMES ADAMS, in Wilmington, THE Discovery, Settlement, and present State of KENTUCKY … The whole illustrated by a new and accurate map of Kentucke, and part of the Indian territory adjoining, drawn from actual observations, by John Filson” (Pennsylvania Packet, issue 1782, October 22, 1784, p. 3)