Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts from the Atlantic Neptune

[Thomas Wheeler, under supervision of Samuel Holland,] [Untitled chart of Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts.] [London: J.F.W. Des Barres, 177-?]
Engraving and etching on laid paper with “BATES” watermark, 25 ¾”h x 19”w at neat line plus margins, original color retouched.

A landmark in the mapping of Massachusetts, being the first large-scale chart of Plymouth Bay and environs.

This chart depicts the waters of Plymouth Bay, with its distinctive geography marked by two long barrier beaches. The hydrographic data includes tidal data and soundings along the channels into Plymouth and the Jones and Duxbury Rivers. The landscape is depicted as far as two miles inland in places, including the topography, roads, and residences up and down the coast between Plymouth and Duxbury, as well as a tiny plan of Plymouth itself showing roads and wharves.

The chart was based on surveys made in 1774 by a team overseen by Thomas Wheeler, one of several deputies working under the supervision of Samuel Holland, Surveyor General of the Northern District of North America (more on which below). It was issued both separately and in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of charts and views of North American waters used by British navigators through much of the Revolution. The charts were generally of a very high quality and far outstripped anything that had appeared in print previously. Many remained the standard for decades, and were often copied and reissued by American and European engravers and publishers.

Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and The Atlantic Neptune
Though the Neptune is indelibly associated with the name of publisher J.F.W. Des Barres, its many New England charts were based on surveys overseen by Samuel Holland, a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War. After the War Holland had proposed to the Board of Trade “an accurate and just Survey… upon… a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. (Harley, p. 27) This was to be a “geodetic” survey following the most advanced methods then in use in Europe, but applied for the first time in North America: the locations of control points would be established by rigorous astronomical observation, intermediate areas pinpointed by triangulation, and details sketched in from direct observation.

Holland’s proposal was approved, and in 1764 he was named Surveyor General of both the Province of Quebec and the Northern District of North America, extending from the Potomac to the border with Canada. After several years’ work in the Canadian Maritimes, from 1770-1774 he focused on the New England coast, making 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, he probably had more than 50 men working under his direct supervision, in addition to the services of the sloop HMS Canceaux under Commander Mowatt. Ironically, the Canceaux, still under Mowatt, was the flagship of the squadron that laid waste to Falmouth just a few years later.

Holland’s finished surveys were sent to England, where Des Barres assumed responsibility for their publication. The demand for charts was high in those unsettled times, and Des Barres’ operation soon occupied two townhouses and employ 20 assistants in compiling, drafting and correcting the charts. While The Atlantic Neptune was usually made up to order and had no standard collation, it 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.

National Maritime Museum (UK) on-line catalogue of charts from the Atlantic Neptune, HNS93. Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, vol. 2 item 706 (vol. IV map 14 in the Streeter copy of the Neptune.) Sellers and van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, #960.

For background on Des Barres, Holland and the Atlantic Neptune, see above all Alex Johnson’s superb The First Mapping of America, as well as Stephen Hornsby’s 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.


Mended 2 ¼” vertical tear at center right, but very good.