For its combination of importance, beauty and rarity, Pelham’s Plan of Boston is the most desirable printed map of the Revolution in New England and the most desirable map of Boston ever printed. In excellent condition and with provenance in the same family for two centuries, the example here offered can hardly be improved upon.
Following the events at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 General Gage’s army and its Loyalist supporters were besieged in Boston by a makeshift but very large American force. Among the Loyalists was Henry Pelham (1749-1806), son of well-known mezzotint artist Peter Pelham and the half-brother of painter John Singleton Copley. A professional artist himself, trained at least in part by Copley, Pelham’s many surviving letters reveal him to be an intelligent, compassionate man, deeply loyal to friends, family and the idea of the British Empire.
“We may [one day] look back to those Days of Felicity and Peace which we enjoyed under the fostering Care and indulgent Protection of Britain, and contemplate ourselves as having once been the happiest people in the Empire; and on this View I am sure every unprejudiced Person will execrate those distructive Schems, and that unbounded Ambition whi[c]h from the pinacle of Ease has plunged us into the depths of Distress and Ruin.” (letter to Copley, August 19, 1775)
Pelham’s career was dealt a body blow by the collapse of the local economy, caused by the closure of the Port of Boston in retaliation for the Tea Party and then to the siege of 1775-76: “As for myself I dont know what to say. this last Maneuvour [i.e., Lexington and Concord] has entirely stopp’d all my business, and annialated all my Property, the fruits of 4 or 5 years Labor.” (letter to Pelham’s uncle John Singleton, May 16, 1775)
With his portraiture business moribund, he seems to have undertaken mapmaking as a source of income. His first project was a plan of Charlestown depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill and the fortifications built thereafter by the British, along with an accompanying view of the town. He hoped to send the draft to Copley in the Summer of 1775 for publication in London.
“I have not now a single day’s business. But to fill up time I have begun a survey of Charlestown, for which I have permission from Gen’l Gage and Gen’l Howe, who were polite eno to grant me a general Pass directed to all Officers commanding Guards for going to and returning from Charlestown. Gen’l How[e], to assist me in the labori[o]us part of Measuring, has kindly put a Sarjant and his Men under my Comm[an]d. This plan when finished will give a good Idea of the late battle and I propose sending Home a Coppy to be engraved, together with a View of it as it appears in its present Ruins, with the encampment on the Hills behind it.” (letter to Susanna Copley, July 23, 1775)
Alas for Pelham, some time in August General Gage asked him to withhold the Charlestown plan from publication, “as it would not be altogether proper to publish a plan of Charlestown in its present state, as it would furnish those without with a knowledge of the fortification[s] erected there.” (letter to Copley, August 19, 1775)
Circumstances must have changed, however, for early in 1776 Pelham wrote to Copley that he would soon be sending “a plan of Boston and Charlestown which I have been surveying with the Country for three or four miles round this town in this plan I lay down all the works which are erec[t]ed to confine the Troops and Torrys to the narrow limits we now range in.” (January 27, 1776) General Gage’s support has already been described, but it is entirely unclear just how Pelham obtained permission to survey the Rebel-held areas of Cambridge, Brookline, Roxbury &c. That aside, his letters make clear that the process was painful in the extreme:
“I don’t think if I had Liberty I could find the way to Cambridge, tho I am so well acqua[i]nted with the Road. not a Hillock 6 feet High but What is entrench’d, not a pass where a man could go but what is defended by Cannon; fences pulled down, houses removed, Woods grubbed up, Fields cut into trenches and molded into Ramparts, are but a part of the Changes the country has gone thro. Nor has Boston been free from the Effects of War. An hundred places you might be brought to and you not know where you were. I doubt if you would know the town at all. Charlestown I am sure you would not. There not a Tree, not an house, not even so much as a stick of wood as large as your hand remains. The very Hills seem to have altered ther form. In Boston almost all the fences: a great Number of wooden Houses, perhaps 150, have been pull’d down to serve for fewel . Dr. Byles’, Dr. Cooper’s, Dr. Ma[t]hew’s Meeting Houses turned into Barracks. Dr. Sewells’ into a Riding School, Fanuel Hall into a Theatre. The old North pulled down and burnt. Every rising fortified.” (letter to Copley, January 27, 1776)
Whether Pelham did in fact send the manuscript to Copley or carried it with him when he left Boston in March is unclear. Either way, A Plan of Boston in New England was reproduced in aquatint by Francis Jukes and published in London on June 2, 1777. The result is one of the most stunning cartographic documents of the Revolution.
Pelham’s plan takes in not only the Shawmut Peninsula but Charlestown, Cambridge, Brookline, Roxbury, Dorchester and parts of other towns. The plan carefully depicts the street plans of Boston, Charlestown and Cambridge-in fact, it is one of the very few plans of either of the latter two towns printed during the Revolution. A legend at the base of the map uses an alphabetical key to identify 16 important locations within Boston itself, including the State House, Governors House, and Faneuil Hall. The North-at-right orientation is unusual, and the vertical layout coupled with the tonal variations cause the surrounding areas somehow to loom threateningly over Boston proper… perhaps an echo of Pelham’s own experiences during the siege.
The great historical value of the plan comes from its careful depiction of the many fortifications thrown up in and around Boston in 1775-76. Clearly shown is the ring of batteries with interlocking fields of fire emplaced by the Americans around the city, strengthened by a number of forts placed on advantageous high points. Most interesting perhaps are the “new works” shown on Dorchester Heights. Put in place overnight on March 4-5, 1776, these gave the Americans artillery command of the sea approaches to Boston and completed the isolation of the city. On March 17 the British and their American sympathizers-Pelham seemingly included-evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
While much credit is due to Pelham’s artistry, the map’s visual appeal is greatly enhanced by Jukes’ use of the aquatint process. For this technique, the plate is covered with a granular ground or resin and “bitten” with acid as in an etching. The image is produced by protecting certain areas of the plate from the acid with an impervious varnish, by multiple bitings to produce different degrees of darkness, and by the use of several different resins with different grains.
The method permitted Jukes an immense range of tonal variation, which contrasts pleasingly with the line-engraved elements and imparts to the map an unusual degree of texture and depth.
Rarity and provenance
The example offered here has resided in the same family for two centuries or more and must be considered a hitherto unknown impression. The recto bears the ownership inscription of “Ephraim Eliot,” a prominent Boston druggist in the 19th century and a direct-line ancestor of the recent owner, who possesses a number of other Elliot artifacts. The verso bears the inscription of George Russell Lincoln, another family ancestor. A letter from the present owner describing the discovery and family history of the map will be provided on request.
Stokes and Haskell cite “fewer than a dozen known impressions” of the map, a figure roughly consistent with this writer’s findings:
- WorldCat lists examples at the Cornell and Library of Congress.
- Boston Engineering Department adds complete examples at the British Museum, Harvard, the Essex Institute (now the Peabody Essex Museum), and the Edward Bangs collection (current location unknown). Also mentioned are partial copies (i.e., top or bottom sheet only) at other locations.
- Examples also reside at the American Antiquarian Society, Boston Public Library, New York Public Library, and Norman Leventhal Collection in Boston, and Yale University (this last example has been listed as missing).
- There is anecdotal evidence of a copy in very poor condition sold at Sotheby’s in the 1990s, but we have not been able to verify this.
The map is in excellent condition for a wall map of its era. There is some occasional light creasing particularly toward the edges, as well as a few vertical abrasions in the lower area of the map produced by the nail heads on the lower roller. The title block has some very small, black paint stains, apparently offset from the upper roller. The top of the map has been reinforced on the verso with old linen, the silk edging is mostly gone, and damaged finials on the bottom rail have been replaced with finials of the same vintage.
The letters quoted in this article are cited from Letters & Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, reissued in 1970 by Kennedy Graphics, Inc. The map is described in the following sources: Boston Engineering Department, List of Maps of Boston, p. 53; Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Boston Prints and Printmakers, pp. 52-56; Krieger and Cobb, Mapping Boston, p. 185; Nebenzahl, Battle Plans of the American Revolution, #20; Phillips, List of Maps of America, p. 151; Stokes and Haskell, American Historical Prints, p. 28; Winsor, Memorial History of Boston, III:ii.
Excellent for its type (see detail below)