“The best and rarest of the old maps of Nantucket,” by Paul Pinkham

Capt. Paul Pinkham, A CHART of NANTUCKET SHOALS SURVEYED by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Boston: Published & Sold by J. Norman, No. 75, Newbury Street Feb. 16th, 1791 [but likely 1803].
Engraving, 20"h x 30 3/4"w at neat line plus margins, uncolored.

A rare and wonderful 18th-century chart of the waters around Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, drawn by Paul Pinkham, the keeper of the lighthouse at Nantucket’s Sandy Point. The chart appeared in John Norman’s American Pilot, one of the first sea atlases published in the United States, and is one of just two charts in that atlas to contain original material.

The waters off Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are some of the busiest and most treacherous in New England. Indeed, Paul Pinkham, the author of this chart, remarked on a later publication that this was “the most dangerous coast within the limits of the United States, and which we fear has been fatal to the lives of many.” 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 area had been charted in considerable detail by British hydrographic surveyors in the 1770s and a magnificent chart published in The Atlantic Neptune. For all its admirable qualities, however, it lacked detail for the inshore waters off Nantucket and at any rate was probably difficult for navigators to obtain. Further, by the 1790s it was likely significantly out of date due to the impact of the area’s powerful currents and storms on the coastline and sea floor.[3] Matthew Clark’s Chart of the Coast of New England (Boston, 1789) provided considerable detail for Nantucket waters, but its small scale, questionable accuracy and/or sheer scarcity seems to have have left Nantucket navigators dissatisfied. As Joseph Garver writes in Surveying the Shore,

“To ameliorate some of the hazards involved in negotiating the shoals, there were efforts afoot in the late eighteenth century to build more lighthouses and design more accurate charts. One of the prime movers in this respect was Peleg Coffin, president of the New England Marine Insurance Company and the island’s representative in the state legislature. He was instrumental in promoting construction of a lighthouse at Great Point (built in 1785), then in encouraging Paul Pinkham, a former whaleman and first keeper of the light, to chart the shoals from his advantageous perch in the wooden tower.” (p. 43)

A Chart of Nantucket Shoals
Offered here is an example of Pinkham’s chart, described by Nantucket bibliographer Everett Crosby as “The best and rarest of the old maps of Nantucket alone.” (Nantucket in Print, p. 223) It depicts Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in their entirety, along with the Elizabeth Islands and the southern reaches of Cape Cod. The hydrographic data include hundreds of soundings as well as notes about shoals, rips and other hazards, with important shipping channels indicated by dotted lines. As might be expected given the identity of the chart maker and the nature of his observations, particular attention is given to the complex waters of Nantucket Sound and the eastern approaches to Nantucket Island. The terrestrial data is rather limited, though towns and settlements are shown—including the Town of Nantucket in tiny plan view—as are roads and landmarks such as windmills and the Sandy Point Light. A note at upper left offers the testimony of nine Nantucket navigators as to the chart’s accuracy and utility, with the observation “as there never has yet been published an accurate chart of Nantucket Shoals,” a pointed dig at earlier charts.  Another note signed by Peleg Coffin also testifies to the chart’s excellence and suggests Coffin’s central role in its production.

A note below the imprint gives a price of one dollar, indicating that the chart was sold separately as well as being including in The American Pilot, which appeared in editions from 1791 through 1816 in editions published successively by John Norman, his brother William and finally Andrew Allen. Per Robert Ericson this is the third state of the chart, bearing the “J. Norman” imprint and probably appearing in the 1803 edition of the Pilot. The first state bore a “John Norman” imprint, while the second state appeared in William’s 1798 edition with the imprint changed to “Wm Norman” and the outlines of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket recut. A final, fourth state appeared with an “1812” date and the address changed.

Paul Pinkham and John Norman
According to Guthorn, Captain Paul Pinkham (1736-1799) was “a Nantucket Quaker shipmaster, ex-whaleman, and local pilot.” (United States Coastal Charts, p. 41) In 1784 Pinkham was named the first keeper of the new lighthouse at Sandy Point (now Great Point) on the northeastern tip of the island, at an annual salary of $166.66 (Apparently there was for many years no keeper’s house, so Pinkham had to commute several miles from his home at No. 8 Pine Street in Nantucket Town.) Using the wooden tower as a vantage point, he and Captain Alexander Coffin jointly compiled Directions To And From the Light-House on the North-east Point of Nantucket, probably printed in 1788. It was perhaps based on the success of that publication that Peleg Coffin encouraged Pinkam to draft the Chart of Nantucket Shoals offered here. In 1797 Edmund Blunt, publisher of the American Coast Pilot, issued another Pinkham chart, George’s Bank including Cape Cod, Nantucket and the Shoals Lying on their Coast…Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Pinkham held the post of lighthouse keeper until his death in 1799.

John Norman (1748-1817), an immigrant from England, was the most notable of Boston’s post-war engravers and publishers, if not for the quality of his work then for his involvement with some of the most important maps and charts of the day.  His first appearance in the historical record is 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 a1789 book of charts published by Matthew Clark, Osgood Carleton’s Accurate Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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. Like Clark, Norman borrowed extensively from existing sources such as The English Pilot. Fourth Book, The Atlantic Neptune, and Sayer & Bennett’s The North American Pilot. As discussed above, however, Pinkham’s Chart of Nantucket Shoals was entirely original.

In all a substantial rarity of early American chart making and an important artifact of Nantucket’s distinguished maritime history.

Crosby, Nantucket in Print, p. 223. Robert M. Ericson, “A Bibliography of The American Pilot,” state 3. Garver, Surveying the Shore, pp. 42-43 (illus.) Guthorn, United States Coastal Charts, pp. 40-41 (illus.) Phillips, Atlases, vol. 4 no. 4474a-chart 1. Wheat & Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, #210 (state I). For background on Pinkham, see Peter J. Guthorn, “Captain Paul Pinkham, Nantucket Hydrographer,” in The American Neptune, vol. XLIII, no. 1 (Jan. 1983).


Minor foxing and soiling, a few mends along edges, and signs of binding on verso, but very good.