Piscataqua Harbor New Hampshire from the Atlantic Neptune

[Based on surveys overseen by Samuel Holland], [Untitled chart of the coast line around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from The Atlantic Neptune.] London: J.F.W. Des Barres, January 1, 1779.
Engraving, 41”h x 29 ½”w plus margins. Later wash and spot color, probably over original color.

A lovely example of the first chart of Piscataqua Harbor and surroundings.

The chart was issued in 1779 in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of charts and views of the East Coast used by British captains through much of the Revolution. The charts of the Neptune were so respected that many remained the standard for decades, often being copied and reissued by American and European engravers and publishers.

The chart is centered on Piscataqua Harbor and depicts the coast between Hampton, New Hampshire and York, Maine, with coverage as far east as the Isle of Shoals. The complex geography and hydrography of the harbor are depicted with extreme care, as is the landscape extending one to two miles inland. The hydrographic data includes soundings, shoals, rocks and other hazards, particularly along the shipping channel into Portsmouth, while the terrestrial data includes topography, a street plan of Portsmouth, and land-ownership boundaries up and down the coast.

This impression corresponds with the third of three states described by Henry Stevens, with the engraved page number “9” at top left.

Samuel Holland and the Survey of the Northern District of North America
Though Des Barres was the compiler and publisher of The Atlantic Neptune and was himself responsible for a survey of Nova Scotia, others also played vital roles. The most important by far was Samuel Holland, a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War (1756-63). Following the British victory, through which they acquired control of much of North America, they were faced with the mammoth task of administering and developing half a continent, most of which had never been adequately mapped.

For example, the standard nautical atlas for colonial waters was The English Pilot. Fourth Book, first published in 1689 and reissued for over 100 years. Unfortunately, “reissued” does not necessarily imply “updated;” many English Pilot charts were issued unchanged for decades, even long after superior alternatives were available. This did little for trade in general or mariners in particular, but did reduce the publishers’ research and development costs.

In response to this problem, Holland proposed “an accurate and just Survey… upon… a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. (Harley, p. 27) The survey would be based on geodetic controls: the locations of control points would be established by rigorous astronomical observation, and the intermediate areas pinpointed by means of triangulation, with details filled in by direct observation. This followed the most advanced European practice, but would represent its first application in North America, and on a much grander scale than hitherto.

The Lord Commissioners approved Holland’s proposal, and in 1764 he was named Surveyor General of both the Province of Quebec and the Northern District of North America, from the Potomac to the border with Canada. Holland spent the next six years surveying Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and other areas in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then from 1770-1774 he focused on the survey of the New England coast, during which time he made his headquarters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. From there he sent out semi-autonomous survey teams, headed by his deputies Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler and Thomas Wright. All told, Holland probably had more than 50 men working under his direct supervision at any given time, in addition to the occasional services of the sloop Canceaux, which obtained much of his hydrographic data. Given his Portsmouth base, it seems likely that Holland himself was directly involved in the surveys that yielded this chart of Piscataqua Harbor and the surrounding coast.

During these years Holland developed a close relationship with John Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire from 1766-1775. Supported by funding obtained by Wentworth from the colonial legislature, from 1772-74 Holland also employed his men on a survey of the interior. This work, integrated with that of colonial surveyors and Holland’s own survey of the coast, was finally published in 1784 as A Topographical Map of the Province of New Hampshire.

The Atlantic Neptune
Holland’s finished surveys were sent back to England, where in 1774 Des Barres assumed responsibility for their publication. Given the unsettled times, the demand for charts was enormous, and Des Barres’ operation quickly grew to fill two townhouses and employ 20 assistants in compiling, drafting and correcting the charts. While it was usually made up to order and therefore had no standard contents, The Atlantic Neptune ultimately extended to five sections: Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (based on the work of James Cook), the coast south of New York, and American coastal views.

Cobb, New Hampshire Maps, #52. National Maritime Museum (UK) on-line catalogue of charts from the Atlantic Neptune, #HNS 106B. Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, vol. 2 item 706 (vol. IV map 24 in the Streeter copy of the Neptune.) Not in Sellers and van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies.

For background on Des Barres, Holland and the Atlantic Neptune, see above all Stephen Hornsby’s superb Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. Also of value are Cumming, British Maps of Colonial America, pp.51-56; Harley et al., Mapping the American Revolutionary War, pp.25-8; and Machemer, “Headquartered at Piscataqua: Samuel Holland’s Coastal and Inland Surveys, 1770-1774,” Historical New Hampshire vol. 57 nos. 1 &2, pp.4-25.


Two neatly mended edge tears at left extending just into image. Very good overall.