A landmark in the mapping of Essex County, Massachusetts

John G[raves]. Hales, (mapmaker and publisher) / J[ohn Peter] v[an] N[ess] Throop (engraver), THE COUNTY OF ESSEX From ACTUAL Survey MADE BY JOHN G. HALES Engraved by J.V.N. Throop Boston June 19th 1825 [but 1826, see below].
Engraving. Varnished, segmented and mounted on linen as issued, now 24”h x 25 ½”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Varnish toned to a generally even honey hue, per usual, with small spots of discoloration, the segments lifting from linen just a bit in places. Linen on verso foxed, but not showing through to map. Very good for this map.


John G. Hales’ rare and important 1825 map of Essex County, Massachusetts. A great improvement on previous mapping of the county, the first separate map to focus on it, and only the second published map of any county in Massachusetts.

This wonderful map is based on original survey work conducted by Hales from about 1816 onwards. It contains a remarkable amount of information, a clear improvement on the coverage of the county on existing maps, most notably Osgood Carleton’s 1801 Map of Massachusetts Proper, the official state map. The relatively large scale of 1 inch to the mile enables Hales to provide great detail for both the natural and human geography, including topographical features (areas of elevation, waterways, marshes and swamps); town and country boundaries; the transportation network (roads, turnpikes and even a short stretch of the Middlesex Canal); the locations of meeting houses, churches, and manufacturing establishments (with separate symbols for “Woollen Factories”, “Cotton Factories”, “Iron Works” and “Mills”); and even individual private dwellings, with the homes of eminent persons given particular notice.

Publication of the map
Hales announced proposals for the publication of this map in April 1825.

“A Map of the County of Essex, drawn by John G. Hales, from an actual survey made for the purpose by him. It is on a scale of three quarters of an inch to a mile, and represents all the public roads, streams, hills, marshes, &c. It is engraved by one of the first artists and will be finished in the best style. It will be published in three or four weeks, and proposals for subscription are just issued. The survey is very complete, and if this undertaking meets with adequate encouragement, Mr. Hales will proceed in publishing similar Maps of the other counties. From a long and intimate acquaintance with every part of the County of Essex, we have no hesitation in saying that this is the best Map we have ever seen of any part of Massachusetts.” (Boston Commercial Gazette, vol. 67, issue 34, page 2, for April 4, 1825).

A subsequent announcement noted that a travelling subscription agent was in Salem, the editor commenting,

“We have seen a specimen of the map, which is well engraved, and, so far as our knowledge extends, accurately drawn: and those more intimately acquainted with every part of the county pronounce the survey to be very complete. Such a map is much wanted, and we hope the undertaking will meet with the encouragement it deserves.” (Salem Gazette, Vol. III, issue 29, page 2 for April 12, 1825).

Despite Hales’ promise of imminent publication, the map only appeared a year later, when the Salem mapsellers, “Whittle & Lawrence” (Henry Whipple and Abel Lawrence) offered it for sale:

“County of Essex. JUST published and for sale by WHIPPLE & LAWRENCE, A Map of the County of Essex — from actual surveys made by J. G. Hales — price 2,50.” (Essex Register, vol. XXVI, issue 41, page 3, May 22, 1826)

John Groves Hales (1785?-1832)
Relative to the significance of his cartographic output, there is surprisingly little published information available on Hales’ life and work.  The most commonly cited biography is scandalously brief and dismissive:

“[Hales] 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.”  (John G. Hales, Maps of the Street Lines of Boston, (William Whitemore, ed.), 1894)

Based on an inspection of many Hales maps, contemporary newspapers, tantalizing references in government records, and other documents, a far more interesting story can be assembled.

Hales began his career as a civil engineer in England in the late early 19th century, later describing himself as employed on the resurvey of England by the Ordnance Survey, the government’s official mapping agency staffed by military engineers, occasioned by the threat of invasion by Napoleon.  From his Survey of Boston and Vicinity, a small volume published in 1821, we learn that during these early years he developed expertise in the enclosure of salt marshes to create arable land: “in the years 1803 and 1806 the author of this [work] was engaged as engineer in the enclosure of a similar tract [i.e., similar to areas around Boston] in the county of Somerset, England, which was enclosed and divided among the proprietors under the authority of parliament.” (p. 141).

Hales immigrated to America around 1810 and probably spent time in Nova Scotia before settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  In 1812 and 1813 he produced a number of estate plans for residents of that town, and in 1813 he published a Map of the Compact Part of the Town of Portsmouth and A Map of Upper and Lower Canada, with Part of the United States adjoining; Comprising the Present Seat of War.  He moved to Boston soon thereafter, and in 1816 he published his monumental Map of Boston in the State of Massachusetts, the largest-scale map of the city to date.  Both the Portsmouth and Boston maps were landmarks, being by far the largest-scale and most detailed maps of those towns yet issued, showing property lines and building footprints and even employing varied shading to differentiate the building materials used.  Hales also appears to have contributed to Philip Carrigain’s official map of New Hampshire (1816), as a June 18, 1818 entry in the Journal of the state’s House of Representatives records compensation to Hales as a line item in a disbursement made to Carrigain.

In 1815, Hales began the detailed surveys on which his Map of Boston and Vicinity (1819) is based, the proposals recording his partnership with George Jefferys, son of the great English mapmaker and publisher Thomas Jefferys, Senior. This partnership, and others Hales entered into, were remarkably short-lived, which speaks to the difficulties of raising funding to support their ambitious survey program.

Then in mid-1819 he was commissioned by the Selectmen of Boston to conduct “an accurate survey of all the public streets, squares and alleys,” which was executed at a scale vastly exceeding his earlier work.  The manuscripts of this survey were only published in 1894 in Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston.

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 placed among the first rank of New England mapmakers.

This important map of Essex County is evidently an off-shoot of his most ambitious project, a new survey of the state of Massachusetts.

Plans for a new map of Massachusetts
As he worked on the surveys for the Map of Boston and Vicinity, Hales decided to extend his reach and produce a new map of the state, with the intent of superseding Osgood Carleton’s out-dated Map of Massachusetts Proper (1801). As early as 1816, in conjunction with his partner Alexander Parris, the famous architect, Hales petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, recorded in the minutes of the session held on November 29, 1816,

“Petitions — … John G. Hales, and A. Parris, respecting a new Map of the State, founded on actual survey of the whole face of the country, delineating every road, and house thereon, and shewing with accuracy the course of every stream, and the elevation and fall of the whole superfices; after the manner of the European military maps …” (Boston Columbian Centinel, issue 3407, page 2, for November 30, 1816). 

A subsequent announcement of his plans, describing a map very similar in format and content to the Map of Boston and Vicinity, appeared in 1820,

“MAP OF MASSACHUSETTS, FROM ACTUAL SURVEY, THE public are respectfully informed that JOHN G. HALES, Topographer and Civil Engineer, is now engaged in making Surveys for a New Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on which will be accurately delineated the Turnpike and Public Roads, all the Rivers, Riverlets and Streams, Lakes, Ponds, Islands, Harbors, Towns, Villages, Churches and places of public worship, Mills and Manufactories, Mountains and Hills, (with their summit heights,) Country Seats and Farm Houses, also the quality of the Soil, describing the Marshes, Meadows, Woodlands, &c. with every important object that can be noted on a liberal Scale, upon which it will be constructed. The Surveys hath already occupied more than two years, are now in a considerable state of forwardness, and with a liberal patronage, the whole shall be completed and the Engraving finished in a period short of three years to come. Those who wish to have the name of their Farm or Country Seat inserted on the Map are requested to intimate the same in writing, as soon as convenient, free from expense to the author. Copies of Towns, Counties, or any section of a Country within this Commonwealth may be obtained on a scale suitable to the applicant. Farms and Estates Surveyed and Planned in a superior style, (and if taken in the routine of his general Surveys,) for a small compensation. Specimens of the work may be seen at the office of the publisher” (Boston Commercial Gazette, vol. 54, issue 45, page 3 for June 26, 1819)

His petition to the state legislature for financial support some time in 1820 or early 1821 was received sympathetically:

“…on examining the plans submitted for their inspection by the petitioner, they [the legislative committee appointed to evaluate Hales’ petition] find that he has surveyed and laid down about sixty towns in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Middlesex, and Essex, that they 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.


“They further report that…. An improved Map of the State of Massachusetts, is highly necessary for many purposes of wise Legislation…” (committee report, as reprinted in the Columbian Centinel for March 7, 1821, p. 1)

Sympathy did not translate to backing, however, and due to fiscal constraints—the country was in the middle of a financial crisis that had begun with the Panic of 1819—the legislature chose not to support the project. Indeed, Hales was still petitioning the legislature for support in making a state map in 1832, shortly before his death.

This is perhaps just as well, for in 1823 Hales was convicted of forgery and sentenced to ten days solitary confinement and then three years’ imprisonment–hard labor–in the County Gaol, but the judge while recognizing his guilt, took account of his previous “fair” character “was induced, under the circumstances of his case, to exercise the discretion which is authorised by the act of 1818, Ch. 123, in so far mitigating the punishment, as not to require the sentence to be performed in the State Prison.” (Boston Independent Chronicle, Vol. LVII, issue 4406, page 2, July 19, 1823).

Despite being sentenced to three years confinement, Hale found a way to survey and publish The County of Essex from Actual Survey (1825-1826), which in scale and content is a natural complement to the Map of Boston and Its Vicinity.  In view of the Legislature’s reluctance, one imagines that the Essex County map was an attempt to salvage something from the ashes of the Massachusetts mapping project.

Then, in 1829 and 1830, when the Massachusetts legislature passed enabling legislation to produce a new state map, and despite his demonstrated experience, Hales was not tapped for the trigonometric survey. However, in 1830-1831, presumably based on the strength of his earlier work, at least forty-five 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, and several of these surveys were selected for publication by Pendleton’s Lithography in Boston and are held in major institutional collections as well as appearing occasionally on the private market.

Garver, Surveying the Shore, p. 61, plate 27. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 275. OCLC is a bit of a mess for this map, but entries 52841401 et al give fewer than ten institutional holdings for the map. A few sources include some limited, largely repetitive biographical information on Hales:  The first effort was William H. Whitmore’s preface to the reprinting of Hales’ manuscripts in Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston.  Peveril Meigs gives a somewhat meatier biography in his “John G. Hales, Boston, Geographer and Surveyor, 1785-1832,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 129 (1975), pp. 23-29.  I built on these in his “Surveyor, mapmaker, forger: The career of John Groves Hales (ca. 1785-1832),” which appeared in the 2009 Newsletter of the Boston Map Society.  This article, and the present biography, make extensive use of contemporary newspapers, and government publications accessed through Readex’s on-line Archive of Americana, provided some new background and not previously used by other Hales biographers.