John G. Hales’ superb and extremely rare map of Boston, depicting the town at the outset of its massive 19th-century expansion. “Not only the most accurate map of Boston yet produced but also the first to show all the buildings” and “an invaluable source of information about Federal-period Boston.” (Krieger & Cobb, p. 191)
Trained in England as a civil engineer, John G. Hales arrived in America in or around 1810. After working for a time in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and publishing a superb map of that town in 1813, he turned his attention to Boston. The resulting map, issued in 1814, is a landmark, superior in scale, accuracy, wealth of detail and visual impact to earlier maps of Boston by Bonner (1722), Faden (1775), Des Barres (1775), Pelham (1777), and Carleton (1796-7).
Hales’ map depicts the Shawmut Peninsula in its entirety, with in an inset of Boston Neck at a larger scale at lower right. In addition to the bounds of the town’s twelve wards and a detailed street plan—including a new street added in manuscript near the intersection of Court and Hanover–the map delineates property lines and attempts to depict every individual building in plan view. Other features of note are the dozens of named wharves along Boston Harbor, including Central Wharf added in manuscript just south of Long Wharf (Central Wharf was built in 1815-16 and is now the site of the Aquarium.) Early signs of the massive growth to come include the development of the Tremontane north of the Common, the recently-built Craigie’s Bridge (1807), Charles Bullfinch’s proposed plan for the filling in of the Mill Pond, and the widening of Boston Neck to accommodate Front Street and more than a dozen new wharves.
As on his map of Portsmouth, Hales here uses a variety of shadings to great effect. To begin with, three different shadings indicate places of worship, taverns and school houses. Of particular interest however are the two types of shading employed to differentiate brick or stone buildings from those constructed of wood. This strongly suggests that the map was produced for one of the insurance companies then active in Boston, which would make it one of the earliest American fire insurance maps. At any rate, this combination of features—the demarcation of lot lines, buildings shown in “footprint” view, and shading used to differentiate the purpose and building material of each structure—renders Hales’ map such a milestone in the mapping of Boston. No earlier map remotely approaches his work in conveying so much information with such visual economy.
The map is ornamented at upper right by a very fine cartouche drawn by artist John Ritto Penniman (1782-1841), featuring a scene of a crowded harbor, with coins spilling from a horn of plenty in the foreground, surrounded by nets, anchors and other nautical equipment. The “Explanation” at lower left is surrounded by drapery and topped by a Native American figure adopted from the Massachusetts’ state seal. In all, the map’s large size and fine engraving, the profusion of fine residences and public edifices, the large wharves crowded along the shoreline, and the noble cartouche all convey the impression of a thriving seaport town. In reality, Boston’s seaborne commerce had been in decline for years, due first to Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807-08 and then to the British blockade during the War of 1812.
Hales’ construction of the map and its publication history are obscure. Though the title asserts that the town was “surveyed by J. G. Hales,” he seems to have been in Portsmouth for much or all of 1813… indeed he does not appear in The Boston Directory until 1818. It is hard to see how we would have had sufficient time to conduct field surveys of Boston, much less have the map engraved and published by the end of 1814. More likely he compiled the map from existing records, augmented by ad hoc surveys of his own.
I have found no evidence whatsoever that sheds light on the circumstances of the map’s publication: The map itself bears no publisher’s imprint or dedication, I have found no advertisements or other mentions of it in Boston newspapers of the time, and town records for 1814 make mention neither of it nor of Hales. All this indicates that, as seems to have been the case with the Portsmouth map, Hales’ map of Boston was a private endeavor rather than a public commission. A likely possibility is that he had produced a similar map, now lost, on commission for one of the fire insurance companies then active in Boston, or perhaps even a foreign firm such as the Phoenix Assurance Company (In 1788 the latter issued the Ichnography of Charleston, South Carolina, the first fire insurance map of any city in the world.) On this hypothesis, in an attempt to further monetize his work, he could have adapted the map for a more general audience and arranged for its engraving and publication on his own account.
Provenance, rarity and references
This example of the map is being deaccessioned by a local historical society in Middlesex County, Massacchusetts. The map is extremely rare in any state, and I have been able to locate only eight other institutional holdings, including the American Antiquarian Society, Beinecke Library, Boston Athenaeum, Boston Engineering Department, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (Boston Public Library), Library of Congress, New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Peabody Essex Museum (The Peabody formerly had two copies, one of which has been lost.) I find no record of another having appeared on the antiquarian market, though Norman Leventhal purchased one some time prior to 1999 (This is now at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.)
Boston Engineering Department, List of Maps of Boston, p. 90, giving examples at Boston Engineering Department, Boston Public Library, Library of Congress, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Essex Institute (aka Peabody Essex Museum) and two private collections. Krieger and Cobb, Mapping Boston, pp. 120 and 191 (plate 32). Phillips, Maps of America, p. 154. Grim, “Fire Insurance Mapping” (unpublished manuscript for the History of Cartography Project, received June 2018), p. 2. Not in Antique Map Price Record orAmericana Exchange.
I know of three sources providing some limited, largely redundant biographical information on Hales: Richard M. Candee, ed., Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection, pp. 30-31. Peveril Meigs, “ John G. Hales Boston Geographer and Surveyor, 1785-1832,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 129 (1975); pp. 23-29. William H. Whitmore, “Preface,” Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston. Michael Buehler incorporates and builds on these in his “Surveyor, mapmaker, forger: The career of John Groves Hales (ca. 1785-1832),” which appeared in the 2009 Newsletterof the Boston Map Society.
Addendum: An attempt at a biography of John G. Hales
Given the importance of his cartographic output, there is surprisingly little secondary information available on Hales’ life and work. A capsule biography in the preface of Hales’ Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston (1894, ed. By William Whitemore) writes that he
“appears in the Boston Directory for the first time in 1818, though he published his map of Boston in 1814. From one of his few surviving contemporaries it is learned that he was an Englishman, duly educated in his employment, that he was a rapid, possibly a hasty, workman, and that his business career was not always satisfactory. He died in Boston of apoplexy, May 20th, 1832, aged 47 years, and was buried in St. Matthews Church (Episcopal) in South Boston.”
Hales’ merits a far more thorough and sympathetic treatment, and I take the liberty of reprinting with mostly minor changes a biography I wrote for the 2009 Newsletterof the Boston Map Society.
Hales seems to have begun his career as a civil engineer in England in the late 18thor early 19thcentury, and according to one brief biography was involved in the enclosure of Somerset marshland from 1803-06. He must have emigrated to North America by 1810 or so and probably spent time in Nova Scotia before settling in Portsmouth. In 1812 and 1813 he produced a number of estate plans for Portsmouth residents, and in 1813 he issued A Map of Upper and Lower Canada, with part of the United States ajoining; comprising the present Seat of War. Soon thereafter he seems to have moved to Boston, and in 1814 he published the monumental Map of Boston in the State of Massachusetts. As with the Portsmouth map this was by far the most detailed map of Boston to date, showing property lines and building footprints and employing varied shading to indicate building construction. For all its merits the map seems not to have been a commercial success, as today it is extremely rare.
In 1819 Hales published—with John Melish, no less!—his Map of Boston and Vicinity,the most important map of his career. The map covers the region encompassing Beverly to the northeast, Scituate to the southeast, and Natick, East Sudbury &c. to the west. The large scale of 1 inch to the mile (1:63,360) enabled Hales to provide great detail of both the natural and human geography, including topographical features, town and county boundaries, the transportation network, and the locations of meeting houses, churches, manufacturing establishments, and private dwellings.
This map was for its time and place a sophisticated piece of work. To produce it Hales conducted a trigonometric survey (also known as a “triangulation”), using careful measurements and calculations to establish a network of precisely-placed locations, which served as control points for placing the details of the natural and human landscape. (Boston Gazette (June 17, 1819), p. 4) The results were far more accurate than those yielded by traditional survey methods, and among other things included elevations calculated with considerable accuracy. Though these advanced methods had been in use in Europe for many years, and had been applied in the surveys of the American coast published in the Atlantic Neptune, this seems to have been the first time they were applied to a terrestrial map of New England.
A new map of Massachusetts?
Perhaps inspired by the success of the Map of Boston and Vicinity,Hales began work on a map of Massachusetts, also based on a trigonometric survey, with the hope of supplanting Osgood Carleton’s official-but-flawed 1801 Map of Massachusetts Proper. Given the magnitude of the endeavor, he petitioned the state legislature for financial support some time in 1820 or early 1821. The committee tasked to examine the petition was complementary to Hales and sympathetic to his proposal: “[We] are satisfied he possesses a thorough knowledge of his profession as a surveyor and draughtsman, and that the portion of the map he has already completed is very satisfactory and far superior to any plans of the same portion of our territory before executed.” (Columbian Centinel, March 7, 1821, p. 1) Sympathy did not translate to backing, however, and due to fiscal constraints the legislature chose not to support the project.
Hales persisted, attempting to finance his work by selling subscriptions to the planned map. (Boston Intelligencer & Evening Gazette, vol. 6 (June 24, 1820), p. 3) It was never completed, however, perhaps because in 1823 he was convicted for forgery of a promissory note (allegedly committed in 1820) and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. (Rhode Island American, July 25, 1823, p. 4) It is unclear how much time he served, for in 1825 he published The County of Essex from Actual Survey. This excellent map is a natural complement to the Map of Boston and Its Vicinity, and it seems likely that it was an attempt to salvage something from the ashes of the abortive state map.
Private surveying work
In addition to his large-area maps produced for public consumption, Hales also conducted surveys for corporate clients planning major infrastructure projects such as roads, canals and railways. The identity of these works remains largely unclear, but it is known that in 1821 he was hired by the Merrimac Manufacturing and Patucket Lock Companies to survey a large parcel of land in Chelmsford, Mass., with an eye toward constructing a canal and other works. This parcel was soon set off and incorporated as Lowell, the first planned industrial city in the United States. Hales’ A Plan of Sundry Farms etc. at Patucket in the Town of Chelmsford, may be viewed on the web site of the Normal B. Leventhal Map Center.
Hales also did work for private clients, including an 1812 survey of the Wentworth family estate in Portsmouth. Some years ago I handled an 1818 plan of the estate of Joseph Head at 61 Court Street, Boston. This too may be viewed on the Leventhal Center web site.
Town surveys by the dozen
In 1830 the Massachusetts legislature roused itself and set in motion the creation of a new official state map. This was to be essentially a three-stage process, marrying the high- and the low tech: First, each town was required to conduct a survey of its territory and submit a plan to the Secretary of State. Second, a trigonometric survey would establish a network of hundreds of triangulated points across the state (essentially a more advanced version of the survey proposed by Hales just a decade earlier). Finally, the local data in the individual town plans would be superimposed on the trigonometric survey to produce the new map.
Despite his demonstrated experience, Hales was not tapped for the trigonometric survey (The forgery conviction may have been an obstacle.) Presumably based on the strength of his earlier work, however, in 1830-31 at least 45 towns commissioned surveys from him, including for example Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Dedham, Lexington, and even Northampton and Wellfleet. Today his original manuscript maps from these surveys reside at the Massachusetts State Archives. In addition, some were printed by Pendleton’s Lithography in Boston and are held in major institutional collections as well as appearing occasionally on the private market.
John G. Hales died in May of 1832 at the age of 47—of “apoplexy,” according to Whitemore. He left behind him a body of work impressive for both its extent and its quality, though one wonders what else he might have achieved if his life had not been cut short. Nevertheless, for both his prolific output and his championing of advanced mapping methods he deserves to be considered among the great New England mapmakers.