John Norman’s 1791 Chart from New York to Timber Island

[John Norman, engraver], CHART FROM NEW YORK TO TIMBER ISLAND Including NANTUCKET SHOALS From the latest SURVEYS. [Boston: John Norman, 1791 or later.]
Engraving and etching on two sheets joined, printed area 16 1/8”h x20 ¼”w, uncolored.

A rare American chart of the waters off Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Chart from New York to Timber Island Including Nantucket Shoals was engraved and first published in 1791 by John Norman, Boston’s most notable post-war map engraver.  It is usually found in Norman’s American Pilot, one of the earliest atlases published in America, where it is joined with four, five or six other sheets to form a single large chart of the New England coast. This sheet is however untrimmed and was apparently a proof, issued separately or perhaps remaindered.

The chart depicts the complex stretch of coast from Chatham and Monomoy on Cape Cod south and west to the entrance of Narragansett Bay. These waters are some of the busiest and most treacherous in New England. Before the advent of advanced charts and navigation aids these waters represented a particular threat to the region’s economy, dependent as it was on fishing and trade. Nantucket in particular suffered, as its economy was heavily reliant on whaling—with some 150 vessels for a population of just 4500!–and accessing its main harbor on the north shore required passage through particularly difficult shoals.

The chart depicts the complex coastal topography is depicted in considerable detail, including hundreds of islands and islets, rocks and shoals, numerous depth soundings, and safe channels through the area’s dangerous waters. There is relatively little inland detail other than the names of some towns and the lighthouse at Nantucket’s Sandy Point. The title cartouche includes a certification from Osgood Carleton, Boston “teacher of navigation” and noted mapmaker, to the effect that “I have carefully examined this chart and find it to agree with Holland’s surveys. The shoals are well authenticated by Br[itis]h pilots.”

“Holland’s surveys” is a reference to Samuel Holland, former Surveyor General of the Northern District of North America. From 1765-75 Holland had overseen an ambitious hydrographic survey of the New England coast under the auspices of the Board of Trade, the results of which were later published by J.F.W. Des Barres in The Atlantic Neptune. The odd thing is that a comparison of Chart from New York to Timber Island with those in The Atlantic Neptune reveals no particular resemblance. Indeed, the closest resemblance—though still in many places rather loose—is to A Chart of Nantucket Shoals, which also appeared in Norman’s American Pilot. That chart, one of the few truly original works in the atlas, was based on surveys taken from Nantucket’s Sandy Point Light by keeper Paul Pinkham.

This chart bears a title, imprint, and continuous neatline and graticule, all hallmarks of a separate publication. However, as mentioned earlier, the title Chart from New York to Timber Island reveals its other role as the title sheet of a much larger, multi-sheet chart covering most of the New England coast. This first appeared in five sheets in the 1791 edition of the American Pilot and over time expanded to include two additional sheets covering Long Island and George’s Bank.

John Norman and The American Pilot
John Norman (1748-1817) first appears in the historical record in an announcement in the May 11, 1774 Pennsylvania Journal offering his services as an “Architect and Landscape Engraver.”  In 1781 he moved to Boston, where one of his first endeavors was engraving maps and portraits for the American edition of the Reverend Murray’s Impartial History of the War in America.  Later in his career he was involved in important cartographic projects such as An Accurate Map of the Four New England States (1785), a1789 book of charts published by Matthew Clark, and Osgood Carleton’s Accurate Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1797).

After completing the engraving for Clark’s landmark 1789 chart book, Norman began to issue his own charts and in 1791 advertised The American Pilot. This work, reissued a number of times over the next two decades, contained between nine and twelve charts depicting the coast from Maine to Georgia, including the one offered here. Though Norman lived until 1817, editions of the American Pilot issued from 1794-1803 bore the imprint of William Norman, thought to be his son. In 1810 the “John Norman” imprint reappears, followed by that of Andrew Allen in the final, 1816 edition of the Pilot.

In all, a rare and desirable chart of the southern New England coast and a substantial rarity of early American mapmaking.

Robert M. Ericson, “A Bibliography of The American Pilot,” state II. Phillips, Atlases, vol. 4 no. 4474a.7 and 4475.7. Wheat & Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, #151.


Moderate foxing, considerable restoration including facsimile to a few letters in title, lower graticule and neat line and areas of side and lower margins.