Osgood Carleton’s 1798 Accurate Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Osgood Carleton, AN ACCURATE MAP of THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS Exclusive of the DISTRICT of MAINE Compiled pursuant to an ACT of the GENERAL COURT From Actual Surveys of the several Towns, &c.... Boston: Published and Sold by O. Carleton & J. Norman, [1798.]
Engraving on four sheets of laid paper joined, 36”h x 48”w at neat line plus margins, outline color. Residual soiling and discoloration throughout; numerous mended cracks and tears; substantial expert facsimile to northeast corner affecting much of Essex County and a bit of Middlesex; margins reconstructed; outline color retouched to style.

A great rarity, this seminal map by Osgood Carleton is by far the best 18th-century map of Massachusetts and one of the earliest officially-sponsored maps of an American state. With extensive expert restoration and priced accordingly, but all-but unobtainable in any condition.

The map’s large scale of six miles to the inch gave mapmaker Osgood Carleton ample opportunity to depict the state in great detail, depicting as per the subtitle “the boundary Lines of the Commonwealth, the Counties and Towns, the principal Roads, Rivers, Mountains, Mines, Islands, Rocks, Shoals, Channels, Lakes, Ponds, Falls, Mills, Manufactures & Public Buildings, with the true Latitude & Longitude, &c.” A such it is vastly more detailed than the last original mapping of the state, Braddock Mead’s 1755 Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England.

The map’s true significance is as a delineation of the human geography of Massachusetts, starting with county and township boundaries, including Berkshire and Norfolk Counties (est. 1761 and 1793 respectively) and dozens of towns established in the years since the publication of Mead’s map. Two numbers each town indicate the distances to Boston and to the county seat. The map also depicts meeting houses, court houses, schools, roads and so on, but is really remarkable for its treatment of the state’s industrial and other economic activity, using a variety of symbols to indicate the locations of no fewer than a dozen distinct forms of milling, manufacturing and resource extraction.

The large cartouche at lower left strikes a somewhat discordant note: While the map itself emphasizes the state’s manufacturing sector, the image here nods at fishing and trade. The title is framed by a rocky headland, itself surmounted by the state seal and adorned with fishing nets, an anchor, and the bales and barrels associated with maritime cargo.

Production of the map
The cost of financing the Revolutionary War, the ravages of that war, and the subsequent economic dislocation left the American states deep in debt, with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts no exception. With a weak Federal government unable to provide support and itself short on cash, the State had to come up with a creative model for funding the production of its first official maps, of Massachusetts proper and the District of Maine, then under Massachusetts control.

A solution was proposed in the mid-1790s by Boston mapmaker Osgood Carleton and adopted in 1794 by the legislature. The approach involved public-private and state-local collaboration in the following manner: Each town was required to conduct a survey at its own cost and submit a map to the Secretary of State. These surveys would then be compiled and where necessary reconciled to produce the Massachusetts and Maine maps. Enacting Carleton’s proposal, a 1794 Resolve of the General Court stated:

“that the inhabitants of the several towns and districts in the Commonwealth … take or cause to be taken … accurate plans of their respective towns or districts, upon a scale of two hundred rods to an inch, and upon a survey hereafter actually to be made, or that has actually been made, within seven years next preceding this time … And it is further resolved, that there be inserted … the breadth of rivers, the number and reputed magnitude of ponds, the falls of water, mountains, manufactories, mills, mines and minerals, and of what sort, iron-works and furnaces …” [Resolves of the Massachusetts General Court, 1794, Chap. 101 (26 June, 1794)]

Further instructions made clear that this was not to be simply a geographical survey, but a survey of the state’s cultural and economic resources:

“And be it further Resolved, that on each of said plans… the situation of houses for public worship, Court-Houses… shall be inserted….


“And it is further Resolved, That there be inserted… the breadth of rivers, the number and reputed magnitude of ponds, the falls of water, mountains, manufactories, mills, mines and minerals, and of what sort, iron-works and furnaces…” (Ibid.)

By 1796 a majority of towns had submitted their surveys. It was only in 1797, however, that a partnership of Carleton and Boston printer-publisher John Norman submitted a winning proposal to compile the maps of Massachusetts and Maine from the raw surveys, produce engravings, and publish the result. In return for providing 400 copies of each to the State, they were to receive a 14-year copyright to the maps.

Osgood Carleton (1741-1816) and John Norman (1748-1817)
Osgood Carleton was the first great American commercial mapmaker. He trained with the British Army, learning surveying from John Henry Bastide, chief British engineer at the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, before spending several years at sea. After service in the Revolutionary War, he settled in Boston, where he established himself as a surveyor, mapmaker and teacher of mathematics, surveying, navigation and astronomy.

From the 1780s to 1816 Carleton was at the center of map publishing in Boston. Much of his work was published in association with John Norman, an English-born engraver, mapmaker and publisher and his son, William (d. 1807). The partners put Boston firmly at the forefront of innovative American cartographic publishing in that period, producing wall-maps of the United States, Massachusetts, Maine and Boston; assisting in Mathew Clark’s A complete set of charts of the coast of America from Cape Breton to the entrance of the Gulph of Mexico (1790); and producing a sequence of sea-atlases, including John’s The American Pilot (1791) and William’s A pilot for the West-Indies (1795) and South-American Pilot (1803), as well as numerous single-sheet maps and charts and numbers of book illustrations.

As described above, the scheme adopted by the Commonwealth was for individual townships to produce maps of their district, to a uniform format, which Carleton would then edit into a single map. Alas, this system of “mapping by committee” was deeply flawed. While the selectmen of many townships co-operated, other townships failed to assist, and the maps that were supplied were of uneven quality. Indeed, at the request of the partners, the House of Representatives published a list of delinquent townships on March 3, 1798. Ultimately, Carleton was forced to include a note on both the Massachusetts and Maine maps, to the effect that “as the surveys of some towns were not so full as others, the roads and streams of those towns have been unavoidably discontinued.”

Another problem was the poor quality of Norman’s engraving. Errors and omissions aside, Norman had trouble integrating the immense amount of information and depicting it in a user-friendly manner. This is abundantly evident on the Massachusetts map, particularly in the western part of the state, where terrain features and place names are superimposed on one another to the point of illegibility. The Maine map had similar issues, particularly evident in the more densely-settled southern and coastal areas of the state.

Consequently, in June 1798 the legislature rejected Carleton and Norman’s first version and gave them seven months to make improvements: “It is expected in the Mean time they correct all the Error in said maps, and take out the many accidental strokes in the Plate; and also that they make Margins of the Rivers, Ponds, and Sea Coasts neater, and that the whole Plate be better Polished …” (Massachusetts Resolves, 1798, chap. 71. June 29, 1798). This second version was also rejected, and Carleton instructed to start anew.

It appears however that Norman had already run off 400 impressions of the original map—including the one offered here–before submitting proofs to the General Court for approval. Then, despite the promise that the subscription would be void if the map was rejected, he began distributing the map to subscribers, to the annoyance of the General Court, which issued announcements warning the public of the map’s failings.

Carleton re-drew both the Maine and Massachusetts maps, this time working under the supervision of agents appointed by the legislature. Likely also at the insistence of the legislature, Norman was no longer involved in the project, and the maps were engraved instead by Joseph Callender and Samuel Hill. The new editions were approved by the General Court and printed in 1801 in a run of 500 sets, with another run in 1802.

The rejection of the 1798 first editions, of the Maine and Massachusetts maps, coupled with the publication of the approved, and widely circulated, editions of 1801, means that examples of the first editions are of notable rarity. The last time a first edition of the Massachusetts map appeared on the antiquarian market was an example offered at a Skinner Auctions sale in 2005, and prior to that one was offered by High Ridge Books in 1992. The only other auction record dates to 1890! In all, I am aware of 20 examples in institutional and private collections, including the one offered here.

In all, a seminal, monumental and very rare map of Massachusetts, with a fascinating and significant publication history involving two of the greatest figures in early American mapmaking. 

McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #M798.1 (American Antiquarian Society, British Library, John Carter Brown Library, and New York Public Library). Wheat and Brun #214, incorrectly dating the map to 1795 (British Museum—prob. now at British Library, Clements Library, Library Company of Philadelphia). OCLC #166645676 (Boston Public Library, Clements Library), 556553270 (British Library), and 851929437 (Peabody Essex Museum, erroneously assigning a date of 1820). Here in the United States the map is also held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Library of Congress, Massachusetts Historical Society, Osher Map Library, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum (Lexington, MA), and State Library of Massachusetts. Another is held at the National Archives (Kew, England), and I am further aware of three examples in private collections, making a total of 20 known including that offered here. Not in Phillips, Maps or America or Rumsey Collection.

The following sources provided much background information: Bosse, “Osgood Carleton, Mathematical Practitioner of Boston,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, vol. 107 (1995), pp. 141-164. Danforth, “The First Official Maps of Maine and Massachusetts,” Imago Mundi 35 (1983): 37-57 and Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, pp. 89-94.