John Norman’s The American Pilot : A monument of early American cartography

John Norman, THE AMERICAN PILOT CONTAINING THE NAVIGATION of the Sea Coast of NORTH AMERICA, from the Streights of Belle-Isle to Cayenne. Including the Island and Banks of Newfoundland, the West-India Islands, and all the islands on the coast.Boston: Printed and Sold by Wm. Norman at his office No. 75 Newbury Street[,] MDCCXCIIII.
Folio (22”h x 18”w). Broadside on front paste-down, title, 5pp sailing directions, and 11 engraved charts, of which 7 printed on multiple sheets and folding. Text and charts cleaned and with minor mends and minor residual foxing and soiling. Expertly rebound to style in half calf over boards. Ownership inscription on title of Daniel Anthony Junior, possibly the son of Providence, RI surveyor Daniel Anthony (1740-1824).


The 1794 edition of John and William Norman’s famed American Pilot, including important charts of Nantucket by Pinkham and of the Carolinas by Dunbibin. One of the first atlases to be published in the United States, and only the third complete copy on the market since the Streeter sale in the mid 1960s.

Good charts of local waters were hard to come by in post-Revolutionary America. The main options available to navigators were British publications, including The English Pilot. The Fourth Book, by this time dangerously outdated, and The Atlantic Neptune and North American Pilot, both expensive and hard to come by.  The first American to step into this void was Bartholomew Burges of Boston, who began preparation of a sea atlas, published in 1790 by Matthew Clark of Boston as A Complete Set of Charts of the Coast of America.

Clark’s work was not a sustained commercial success and is today almost unobtainably rare. One handicap was the awkward design of the charts, which made them particularly difficult to use when bound in a volume. Perhaps more significant was the emergence of competition: On January 1, 1790 John Norman, Clark’s engraver, printer and primary retailer, placed a notice in the Boston Gazette stating he was currently engraving new charts of all the coast of America on a large scale. Clark must have been apoplectic, but Norman was in fact realizing a long-held goal. In 1785 he had sent the Massachusetts legislature

“…a proposal for printing a ‘Correct Set of Compleat Maps’ depicting the coast from the Banks of Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, ‘Coincident and perfectly agreeing with the late Surveys made at the Expence of the British Government’, a reference to the work of J. F. W. Des Barres, Samuel Holland and others published as the Atlantic Neptune. The proposal claimed that ‘these Drafts will be Published on different Scales with a View to promote their usefulness, and with Printed Directions and observations for the use of Mariners, by which the Navigation of the Extensive Sea Coast may be carried on with infinitely less risque’.” (Bosse, p. 24, citing “Petition of John Norman, John Coles, Hector McNeil and Benjamin Gould.” House Unenacted Petition no. 1836, 7 November 1785 (Boston, Massachusetts Archives))

The American Pilot
Norman issued at least a few of the charts separately at first, but in 1791 he assembled and published them as The American Pilot. Norman’s Pilot marked a substantial advance, in that many of his charts were at a much larger scale than Clark’s and generally had a more user-friendly format. Further, whereas Clarks work was almost entirely derivative of British antecedents, Norman included two important charts of American origin, Paul Pinkham’s Chart of Nantucket Shoals and Daniel Dunbibin’s Chart of the Coast of America from Cape Hateras to Cape Roman from the Actual Surveys.

These factors no doubt contributed to the great success of The American Pilot. Likely of greater consequence was Norman’s status as an established engraver, printer, publisher and retailer with strong connections to Osgood Carleton and other members of Boston’s scientific community. Following the first edition he reissued the work in 1792 and 1794; after which his son William brought out further editions in 1794, 1795, 1798, 1801, and 1803. John reassumed control after William’s early death in 1807 and brought out editions in 1810 and 1812, then sold the work to Andrew Allen, who published a final edition in 1816. Despite the long publication history, the Pilot is one of the rarest of all early American atlases: As of July 2019 I am aware of fewer than 20 complete copies of all editions.

Offered here is a 1794 edition of the Pilot bearing the William Norman imprint. The preliminaries include a title, four pages of sailing directions, and a spectacular broadside on the front paste down promoting atlases and maps offered for sale at Norman’s shop at 75 Newbury Street. The eleven charts together provide coverage, at various scales and interrupted in places, from Surinam on the northern coast of South America north to the waters around Newfoundland. Of particular note are the aforementioned charts of Nantucket by Pinkham and the Carolina coast by Dunbibin; as well as the huge and intricate Chart From New York to Timber Island including Nantucket Shoals, covering New York and southern New England and present here in its most complete form on seven sheets; and the four-sheet Chart of the Bay of Chesapeak Including Delaware Bay, which appears for the first time in this edition. This chart is a close copy of a chart that appeared in The Atlantic Neptune, with the interesting additions of Washington, DC and “President Washingtons,” i.e., his Mount Vernon plantation.

The full list of charts is as follows:

  1. A Chart of Nantucket Shoals. Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Double page. Wheat & Brun 210, 1st state of 3.
  2. [Untitled chart of Surinam River area.] Single page. Wheat & Brun 707, 1st state, later states have three sheets.
  3. A New General Chart of the West Indies… Four sheets, folding. Wheat & Brun 688, 2nd state of 2.
  4. A Chart of South Carolina and Georgia. Single page. Wheat & Brun 600, 1st state of 3.)
  5. Chart of the Coast of America from Cape Hateras to Cape Roman from the Actual Surveys of Dl. Dunbibin Esqr. Double page. Wheat & Brun 580, 3rd state of 5?
  6. A New and Accurate Chart of the Bay of Chesapeak Including Delaware Bay…Four sheets, folding. Wheat & Brun 310, 1st state of 2.
  7. Chart From New York to Timber Island including Nantucket Shoals… Seven sheets, folding. Wheat & Brun 157, state 2.
  8. [Untitled chart of Maine coast from Wood Island to Good Harbour.] Double page. Wheat & Brun 166, 1st state of 2.
  9. [Untitled chart of the Bay of Fundy.] Single page. Wheat & Brun 98, 1st state of 2.
  10. [Untitled chart of Gulf of St. Lawrence and Strait of Belle Isle.] Single page. Wheat & Brun 99, 1st state of 2.
  11. Charts of the Banks of Newfoundland. Wheat & Brun 106, 3rd state of 3.

In all, one of the great monuments of early American cartography, and one of the rarest of early American atlases.

John and William Norman
John Norman was born in England around 1748 and probably apprenticed with London printer William Faden, father of the great engraver and publisher of the same name.  He moved to America in the early 1770s and first appears there in a May 11, 1774 Pennsylvania Journal advert offering his services as an “Architect and Landscape Engraver.”  In 1781 he moved to Boston, where he operated at several addresses as an engraver and publisher. His son William took increasing control of the firm from 1794 on, and full control from about 1798 until his early death in 1807,whereupon John returned to trade.  He died in Boston in 1817.

The work of John Norman almost entirely lacks the refinement of even middling European engraving of the time, but it often has a kind of crude power, and his entrepreneurial energy involved him in some of the most interesting and important American maps and atlases published in the late 18th century. In addition to The American Pilot,these included among others An Accurate Map of the Four New England States (1785); Clark’s Complete Set of Charts of the Coast of America (1789); and Osgood Carleton’s seminal maps of the United States (1791), and Maine and Massachusetts (both ca. 1797).

Norman also produced numerous non-cartographic engravings, particularly in his earlier years in Boston.  Among these were portraits for Murray’s Impartial History of the War in America (1781), illustrations for the Boston Magazine (1783-84), and architectural images in the important work The Town and Country Builders Assistant (1786). 

Publisher William Norman (f. 1794-1807) was the son of John Norman. His name first appears in 1794 as publisher of The American Pilot, and before his early death in 1807 he published other important cartographic works such as A Pilot for the West-Indies (1795), Osgood Carleton’s Accurate Plan of the Town of Boston (1797), and Carleton’s Plan of the River Mississippi (1800), to name a few.

Census of The American Pilot
I am aware of 20 copies in institutional collections, of which at least 4 are incomplete; and 3 in private hands, including the example offered here.  Two other incomplete copies sold at auction in 2008 and 2009, and I believe these to have been broken up and the charts sold individually.

1791: 13 charts. Harvard, Huntington Library (the latter lacking Pinkham’s Chart of Nantucket Shoals)

1792: 11 charts. Library of Congress, Clements Library (latter lacking one map but with another not called for in Phillips)

1794 (John Norman): 11 charts. Boston Public Library (i.e., Leventhal Map Center), John Carter Brown Library, Library of Congress. Another sold at James Julia on Feb. 1, 2008 for $408,250 and now in the collection of William Berkley.

1794 (William Norman): 11 charts. Beinecke Library, plus the present copy.

1795: A worn, disbound and incomplete copy sold at Bloomsbury Auctions on Nov. 19, 2009. Current location not known, though likely broken up and the charts sold individually.

1798: 11 charts. Boston Public Library (i.e., Leventhal Map Center, containing 7 disbound charts), Library of Congress, Peabody Essex Museum (10 charts only). Another, formerly the Streeter copy, in a private New England collection.

1801: 12 charts. John Carter Brown, Phillips (MA) Academy.

1803: 11 charts. Allegheny College, American Antiquarian Society, Clements Library, Library of Congress, Peabody Essex Museum. Another, with just 7 charts, sold at James Julia in August 2008 for $97,750 and was subsequently broken up.

1810: 11 charts. Sold to the trade at Swann Galleries on Dec. 5, 2017 for $68,750. This was subsequently restored, offered on the antiquarian market for $180,000, and apparently sold some time in 2019.

1812: 10 charts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

1816: 11 charts. Boston Public Library (i.e., Leventhal Map Center).

Guthorn, United States Coastal Charts, pp. 40-41 (illus.) Phillips, Atlases, vol. 4 no. 4474a (J. Norman, 1792 ed.) and 4475 (J. Norman, 1794 ed.) Streeter I:78 (W. Norman, 1798 ed.) Wheat & Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, R-329 (our edition) Sabin 55497 (W. Norman, 1798 ed.) For background see David Bosse, “Matthew Clark and the Beginnings of Chart Publishing in the United States,” Imago Mundi 63:1 (2011), pp. 22-38. A second source treating states of the individual charts is Robert M. Ericson, “A Bibliography of The American Pilot,”an unpublished college-level thesis, though I don’t trust it as highly as Wheat & Brun. However, Ericson conducted a census locating 17 examples of the The American Pilot, and he provides a detailed list of the contents of each.