Osgood Carleton’s 1798 Accurate Map of the District of Maine

Osgood Carleton, AN ACCURATE MAP, of The DISTRICT OF MAINE Being Part of the Commonwealth of MASSACHUSETTS: Compiled pursuant to an Act of the GENERAL COURT, From Actual Surveys of the several Towns &c. TAKEN BY THEIR ORDER: Exhibiting, the boundary Lines of the District the Counties and Towns, the principal Roads, Rivers, Mountains, Mines, Islands, Rocks, Shoals, Channels, Lakes, Ponds, Falls, Mills, Manufactures, and Public Buildings, with the Latitudes and Longitudes &c. Boston: Published and Sold by O. Carleton & J. Norman, [1798.]
Engraving on four sheets joined, 54 ½”h x 38 5/8”w at neat line plus margins, original outline color retouched. Gently toned, with reinstatement to losses, primarily at joints and margins. Lined on verso. Very good appearance overall.

A great rarity, Osgood Carleton’s Accurate Map of the District of Maine is among the most desirable early Maine maps, the most detailed to appear in the eighteenth century, and one of the earliest maps sponsored by an American state.

Carleton’s map depicts the then-District of Maine at a scale of six miles to the inch. The large scale gives the mapmaker ample opportunity to depict the District in great detail, notably its heavily-indented southern coastline and complex system of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. A consequence of the nature of the survey work from which the map was compiled, greater emphasis is placed on the southern part of the District, while the uninhabited and mountainous areas to the north are largely a blank canvas.

The map’s greatest contribution is its delineation of the human geography of Maine: the settled townships with their boundaries, meeting houses, court houses, schools, roads and so on, but also the industrial activity, the extensive key highlighting symbols for grist mills, saw mills, iron works, iron ore deposits and fulling mills. There is also a nod to attempts to promote new settlement in the region, with dozens of new townships shown, recently surveyed by the State of Massachusetts but as yet neither granted nor sold.

The large cartouche emphasizes the maritime aspects of the District’s maritime economy, with the title block framed by foliate elements, anchors, and what appears to be a large oyster shell. The whole is surmounted by an eagle, with a harbour scene in the background.

Per Thompson, this is the second of two identified states of the map. The most obvious addition is the insertion of “THE EASTERN BOUNDARY of the UNITED STATES” and “PART OF NEW BRUNSWICK” to the upper-right sheet.

Maine as a work in progress
As shown on this map, at the turn of the 19th century Maine was very much a work in progress. Most obviously, at the time it had not achieved statehood and remained a “District” of Massachusetts. Further, much of its territory—particularly that north of 45 degrees–was all but unexplored and on the map is depicted as a vast, largely uncharted tract. This lack of knowledge is also evident at the Maine-Quebec boundary, shown imprecisely as a line of highlands running south of and parallel to the St. Lawrence.

The “work in progress” character of Maine in this period is also evident in the patterns of land ownership. With Massachusetts burdened by debt and perpetually short of money, in the post-Revolutionary years Maine lands were seen by the State as a cash cow, to be sold off as quickly as possible to raise funds and provide new opportunities for economic development. The first major attempt was a 1786 plan to sell by lottery 50 townships in Washington and Hancock Counties. After this came to little, Philadelphia financier William Bingham then stepped in and purchased almost 1,000,000 acres of the unsold land and another 1,000,000 acres in the western part of the District, both of which purchases are shown on the map. Other townships were sold scattershot, while quite a few were granted outright to educational institutions, with many such grants also indicated on the map

For all this activity, however, North of roughly 44˚30′ dozens of townships are shown on the map as unclaimed. Further, it appears that most of the townships that had changed hands had not yet benefitted from development. For example not a single road is shown in the millions of acres sold to Bingham. Only the coastal towns from Penobscot Bay south and the southern tiers of York, Cumberland, Lincoln and Hancock Counties show significant signs of activity such as investment in roads, bridges, meeting houses, and industrial establishments.

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. One early measure the Commonwealth adopted to address the problem was to sell off the vast tracts of undeveloped lands in the District of Maine. But the early land auctions were not a success, not least because the state lacked a detailed map of the District. With a relatively weak Federal government unable to provide support and itself short on cash, the State had to come up with creative models for funding these labor intensive projects.

The Massachusetts model was proposed in the mid-1790s by Boston mapmaker Osgood Carleton and enacted by the General Court (the State legislature). This 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 town plan to the Secretary of State. Under state auspices, the surveys would then be compiled and where necessary reconciled to produce maps of Massachusetts proper and the District of Maine. 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 summing up of the cultural and economic resources of the state:

“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 would receive a 14-year copyright to the maps.

Osgood Carleton, John Norman and the production of the map
Osgood Carleton (1741-1816) 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.

Carleton was at the center of map publishing in Boston from the 1780s to 1816. Much of his work was published in association with John Norman (1748-1817), 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 bookplates.

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 those maps supplied were of uneven quality. At the request of the partners, the House of Representatives published a list of delinquent townships on 3rd March 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. In 1798 the General Court 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 again.

It appears however that Norman had already run off 400 impressions of the rejected 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 subscribers that the map had been rejected.

Carleton re-drew the maps, this time working under the supervision of agents appointed by the General Court. Perhaps 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 They were approved by the General Court, and printed in 1801 in a run of 500 sets, with another run in 1802.

The fact that the General Court rejected the 1798 first edition, coupled with the publication of the approved, and widely circulated, edition of 1801, means that the first edition offered here is of notable rarity. The last one to appear on the antiquarian market was an example offered in the 2003 Thompson sale (lot 101). I find holdings in 20 American institutions:

State 1: American Antiquarian Society (two examples, one with substantial loss); Harvard; Maine State Library; Massachusetts Historical Society.


State 2: British Library (two examples); Library of Congress; New York Public Library; John Carter Brown Library; Clements Library; New York Historical Society; University of Southern Maine, Osher Map Library.


State not known: Boston Public Library; Bowdoin College, Library; Huntington Library; Library Company of Philadelphia.

In all, a rare and most important map of Maine, with a fascinating and significant publication history involving two of the greatest figures in early American mapmaking.

McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #Me798.1 (not mentioning two states). Thompson, Important Maine Maps &c, #101 (2nd state). Thompson, Printed Maps of the District of Maine, #4 (2nd state). Wheat and Brun #170 (incorrectly dating the map to 1795 and not mentioning two states). The following two works provided much background information: Danforth, “The First Official Maps of Maine and Massachusetts,” Imago Mundi 35 (1983): 37-57 and Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, pp. 89-94.