Rare map of the Island of Nantucket by William Mitchell

William Mitchell (surveyor) / E[phraim] W. Bouve’s drawing & Lithography (printer), MAP OF THE ISLAND OF NANTUCKET, Including TUCKERNUCK. Surveyed by Wm. Mitchell. 1838. Boston, 1838.
Lithograph, 24”h x 34”w on a 24 1/2”h x 34 ½”w sheet, uncolored. Traces of old soiling and staining, expert repair and restoration to cracks, tears and losses, including but not limited to substantial reconstruction of margins. Lined on verso. Removed from original rollers, which can be remounted at purchaser's discretion.

Rare map of Nantucket by William Mitchell, described by Crosby as “the first large size map of local origin and of considerable accuracy” and one of the most sought-after maps of the island.

Drawn by Nantucket astronomer and mathematician William Mitchell (1791-1868), the map depicts the island’s complex coastline, major topographical features, roads, and residences. Landmarks include windmills, lighthouses, and a “contemplated breakwater” by Great Point. Also of interest are the enormous “Sheep Pens” near the south shore between Miacomet and Weweeder Ponds, evidence that though famed as a whaling community Nantucket at the time also had a vibrant pastoral economy. One puzzling feature is the “Marine Observatory” just west of Siasconset, about which I have found no information. A comparison with a modern map is well worth the time, as it demonstrates just how much the island has changed in 170 years: The long spit of land reaching past Tuckernuck Island to Smith’s Point no longer exists, the coastline of Great point is substantially altered, and development has established new communities at Surfside, Madaket and elsewhere.

Mitchell’s map is very rare: Neither Antique Map Record nor Rare Book Hub record any examples having appeared on the antiquarian market, though I have handled two in the past 16 years. I have located holdings at but six American institutions, including the American Philosophical Society, Harvard, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, Mariners’ Museum, Nantucket Historical Association (2 copies) and Princeton.

William Mitchell and his map
Though known primarily as the father of pioneering female astronomer Maria Mitchell, mapmaker William Mitchell (1791-1868) was himself highly accomplished and made significant contributions to the Nantucket community. Born on the Island, he original planned to study at Harvard but was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the War of 1812. Instead, he became a self-taught astronomer, mathematician and surveyor and spent his life in a mix of scientific pursuits, business activities, and public service. His many contributions included daily meteorological observations from 1827-1861; the founding in 1827 of the island’s first public school; the erection in 1840 of a pair of meridian stones in downtown Nantucket, still visible today; oversight of the rebuilding of the Athenaeum after the devastating Great Fire of 1846; astronomical observations for the U.S. Coast Survey, conducted in partnership with Maria and later incorporated into its chart From Monomoy and Nantucket Shoals to Muskeget Channel Mass.; and of course the Map of the Island of Nantucket offered here. Many of these activities seem to have been subsidized by his long-time “day job” as cashier of the Pacific Bank in Nantucket. He died in Poughkeepsie, New York, having moved there later in life to live under the care of Maria, who had been named Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.

A proposal for the map first appeared in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror for Feb. 2, 1834, signed by both Mitchell and William Coffin, who at that time was also in the process of publishing his Map of the Town of Nantucket. The map of the island was to be “on a scale sufficiently large to admit of locations of Farms, Farm-houses, Swamps, Roads together with the sites of Indian settlements and other localities connected with early history of the island” and “will cover an area of about four square feet, and will be furnished to subscribers at 1,75 in sheets, and 2,75 varnished and mounted with rollers.”

The map was a long time in the making, however. More than four years later the Inquirer and Mirror for September 12, 1838 ran an article announcing that the map “will probably be laid before the public by the expiration of the present year. Much of the delay appears to have been due to the map’s being a part-time project for Coffin and Mitchell, “who continued their examinations and drawings from time to time” since announcing the project in 1834. Two major “mishaps” further stalled the project, one being Coffin’s death in April of 1838, the other being the loss of the original subscription book! Apparently the book had been in the hands of one A. Bunker, “who had obtained an extensive list of patrons,” but it went missing after Bunker’s untimely death.

Despite the “mishaps,” the article goes on to give Mitchell and his map a strong endorsement:

“We need not enlarge upon the convenience, the utility and the importance of the proposed Map—these must be abundantly manifest to all who know aught of the spot which it is intended to describe.—We can say how ever, with the greatest confidence, from the known topographical skill and mathematical accuracy which have been employed thereon, that it will not only sustain and enhance the reputation of its originators and finisher, but prove of essential value to the present and many succeeding generations.”

Indeed, the map was sufficiently admired that Simeon Borden clearly borrowed from it for the Topographical Map of Massachusetts, the official state map published in 1844, and no other large-scale map of the island appeared until the Reverend Ewer map of 1869.

Crosby, Nantucket in Print, p. 224. Garver, Surveying the Shore, pp. 82-83 (illus.) As of September 2018: OCLC 57312739 (Harvard, Princeton) and 1037451147 (Boston Public Library). Background on Mitchell’s life from Garver; a brief biographical sketch in Stephen R. Doty, The History of Survey Weather Observing in Nantucket, Massachusetts, 1827-1970; and the entry for Mitchell in Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. IV.