A rare, informative and charming map of Exeter, New Hampshire by important regional surveyor Phinehas Merrill.
Merrill’s plan depicts the center of the ancient town of Exeter (incorporated 1638), situated at the head of the Exeter River in southeastern New Hampshire. The town has a distinguished history as one of the oldest towns in the state, the state capital during the American Revolution, the birthplace and home of Declaration signer John Gilman, and an early manufacturing center.
The town’s boundaries are shown, including the bearing and length of each segment, as are roads and bridges, bodies of water, and meadow- and woodland. Superimposed on this framework are the location and names of dozens of land owners as well as mills, schools, taverns and other landmarks. The many dwellings are depicted in tiny profile, with what seems to be an attempt to indicate their orientation to the road. Numerical notations along the roads indicate distances from the meeting house.
It is tempting to class the plan as a wonderful albeit diminutive piece of folk art, but this would be misleading: Phinehas Merrill was a serious surveyor, and for its time and place the plan represented a considerable undertaking. This is demonstrated by the use of a consistent scale (160 rods:inch), the boundary coordinates, the distances given along the roads, and the richness and density of the land ownership data.
The plan is rare, and I know of but seven examples at American institutions. Peter Benes’ New England Prospect illustrates a 2nd edition (p. 45 fig. 45), bearing some additions and a date of May 17th, 1806, of which the only known example is at the New Hampshire State Library.
Phinehas Merrill (1767-1815)
It is tempting to class the plan as a work of folk art, but map maker Merrill was a serious surveyor, though relatively few of his cartographic productions are extant. A native of Stratham, he was a self-taught civil engineer and surveyor and also served his town in a number of official positions. The only other published maps bearing his name are A Plan of the Town of Stratham (1793) and A Plan of the Compact Part of the Town of Exeter (1802). The latter is a companion to the larger-scale plan offered here and depicts the entire town at 1”:160 rods (1:31,680). The original copper printing plates for the Exeter plans are still held today at the Exeter Public Library.
Merrill’s most important cartographic contribution was as Philip Carrigain’s unheralded partner in producing the first official map of the State of New Hampshire. That map was painstakingly compiled from dozens of town surveys produced locally in fulfillment of an 1803 act of the State Legislature (Merrill himself seems to have been responsible for at least eight of the town surveys, including Barrington, Bartlett, Exeter, Greenland, New Castle, Portsmouth, Rye and Stratham.) These were submitted to Carrigain and Merrill, who were responsible for reviewing the contributions, soliciting revisions as needed (which seems to have been more often than not), reconciling inconsistencies, and integrating them into a coherent map of the state. For reasons unclear, Merrill seems to have dropped out of the project some time in or around 1810. (Mevers and Stark, p. 83)
Sadly, Merrill died the year before the 1816 publication of the state map, and to Carrigain’s eternal discredit Merrill’s name appears nowhere on the document (though, oddly, it is on the manuscript). An obituary in the New Hampshire Gazette offered this biographical sketch:
“DIED…. In Stratham… of a putrid fever, PHINEHAS MERRILL, Esq. aged 47. He possessed a mind active and comprehensive in uncommon degree. Having little advantage in his youth for education, he by his own industry and application, acquired what he possessed, and arose to usefulness and respect. Mr. M. taught a school in his native town for some years, and gave general satisfaction. He compiled and published an Arithmetic [The Scholar’s Guide to Arithmetic, 1st ed. 1793], much used and approved. He was generally employed in surveying or measuring lands and was esteemed an accurate and scientific surveyor. [His maps of Stratham and Exeter] are well received by the public, and believed to be correct. He greatly assisted Mr. Carrigain in adjusting the surveys or plans of the several towns in the state, preparatory for publishing a map of New-Hampshire, and by his industry the plan was nearly or quite compleated for the engraver. He with the aid of his brother, Eliphalet Merrill, contemplated to publish a Gazeteer of the towns, parishes, and locations of the State, and had collected many valuable materials for the work [A Gazeteer of the State of New Hampshire, published by Eliphalet in 1817]. He sustained for many years the office of a civil magistrate with fidelity and honor.” (New Hampshire Gazette, vol. LX no. 10 (Feb. 7, 1815), p. 3.)
Engraver Aaron Merrill Peasley was born in Rockingham, New Hampshire; his mother Hannah Peasley neé Merrill, may have been a relation of the mapmaker. He was trained in the tool and die trade, became a button maker, and occasionally engraved maps and charts, including both Phinehas Merrill maps of Exeter and some charts for Blunt’s American Coasting Pilot. He was working in Newburyport, Mass. no later than 1804, when—like so many contemporary engravers!—he was arrested there for counterfeiting. He lived with his family in Boston from at least 1810-23, later moving to Dayton, Ohio in 1826-27, where he died in 1837.
A rare and desirable early American town plan, with both great charm and considerable documentary value.
Benes, New England Prospect, p. 45. Cobb, New Hampshire Maps to 1900, #84 (Dartmouth, Library of Congress, New Hampshire Historical, New York Historical). As of June 2022 OCLC gives holdings at the Clements Library (#945093976) and the Phillips-Exeter Academy (#1052133368). Another is held by the Exeter Historical Society, which as mentioned above also has the original printing plate. Not in Antique Map Price Record, Rare Book Hub or Phillips, List of Maps of America (though as mentioned above, the Library of Congress does hold an example). Stauffer, American Engravers, #1186.
Peter Benes’ New England Prospect (1981) dedicates several pages to Merrill’s life and work (pp. 43-47). Frank Mevers and Mica Stark, “The Making of the Carrigain Map of New Hampshire, 1803-1816” in Historical New Hampshire, vol. 52 no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1997), pp. 78-95 provides terrific background on Carrigain’s state map.