Researching Massachusetts History? There’s a Map for That.

By Heather Wilson, Library Assistant

My colleague LJ wrote a recent blog post on doing historical research during the pandemic. With so many archives and libraries closed, digitized materials are more precious to researchers than ever, and LJ’s post inspired me to write one on digitized historical maps and atlases that researchers can pore over (and zoom in on) from the comfort of their own computers.

On the MHS Online Resources page, you can find digitized maps in our collections by clicking on the “Subject/Era/Medium” tab and then choosing the “maps” button under the “Medium” column. (Here’s a shortcut.) Below, I share a few 18th century maps of Boston to highlight examples of just some of the different types of information the maps convey. There’s so much to explore, but I hope this will whet your appetite!

A plan of the Town of Boston
“A Plan of the Town of Boston.” London: Published by Thomas Jefferys, 1774.

The Maps of the French and Indian War exhibit includes a 1774 map of New Hampshire and Hudson River, with inset map of Boston. As would be expected, the inset of the town of Boston (seen above) identifies the various streets, wharves, and batteries within the city. Its inclusion of the Liberty Tree on the Common adds important context and speaks to the revolutionary era in which the map was made. The atlas also provides geographical information on the city’s twelve wards, each of which had its own “Company of Foot,” and lists the years in which fires destroyed different parts of the city.

Hand drawn map by Jeremy Belknap
Manuscript map of the 1787 fire of Boston, Mass., by Jeremy Belknap, 23 April 1787

In 1787, Jeremy Belknap, who later founded the MHS, included a hand drawn map in a letter he wrote to Ebenezer Howard, describing the extent of a fire that engulfed the city on the night of April 20. Belknap depicts where the fire began and what got destroyed. Though most of the buildings on the map are rendered simply as rectangles, Belknap, a minister, drew a nearby church in recognizable detail. He also labeled homes of a few of the neighbors–perhaps these people were familiar to his correspondent, and helped him place the fire’s setting? Like most of the fires recorded on the 1774 map of the city, Boston’s many wooden structures enabled the rapid spread of this 1787 fire, too.

To get an understanding of just how many of the city’s structures were constructed of wood, I recommend looking at Clough’s Oversize 1798 Atlas in the Massachusetts Maps digital collection. Samuel Chester Clough (1873-1949) was a draftsman for the Boston Edison Company and Boston Navy Yard. Based on years of research into various city records, Clough reconstructed topographical maps of 17th- and 18th-century Boston. His Oversize 1798 Atlas contains 12 plates that depict the city and its property owners, based on the Direct Tax Census of 1798. (To learn more about Clough’s work, see the collection guide to his research materials.)

Long Wharf
Detail of Clough’s Atlas 1798 Property Owners of the Town of Boston, Manuscript maps by Samuel Chester Clough, circa 1900?

Plate 1 of Clough’s Atlas depicts Long Wharf, much longer then than it is today, and the many bustling businesses located on it. The buildings in pink were made of brick, but those in yellow were all made of wood. Though fire was an ever present danger, Long Wharf and the many merchants located on it connected 18th century Boston to the larger Atlantic world.

Plate 2 of the atlas, also on the coast and depicting part of the North End, similarly details property owners and building materials in that neighborhood. It also includes a nod to the indigenous people otherwise missing from the atlas. At the top of the plate, next to property owned by H.H. Williams, there is a label that reads “Winnisimet Ferry.”

Winnisimmet Ferry
Winnisimmet Ferry

The Winnisimmet Ferry connected Boston to Chelsea, an area which had previously been known as “Winnisimmet.” Like many place names in the Commonwealth, “Winnisimmet” is indigenous. The word, approximately meaning “good spring nearby,” comes from the Massachusett Tribal Nation, whose people at that time spoke an Algonquin dialect. The Massachusett people had used and inhabited the area long before English settler colonists arrived and violently displaced them, and this one place name on Clough’s 1798 map is a testament to that. You can learn more about the Massachusett Tribe–past and present–on their tribal website.

Interested in comparing Long Wharf, the North End, or any other part of Boston depicted in Clough’s 1798 Atlas to the present day? With the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s (BPDA) Historical Map tools it’s easy to do! The BPDA partnered with Mapjunction on a project entitled Atlases by Neighborhood, which allows researchers to overlay historical maps — including Clough’s two Atlases — with more modern ones. It’s a really fun way to see how the shoreline, streets, and neighborhoods have changed over time. The site provides a tutorial and shows you all of the tools you can use as you navigate. I hope you spend some time with it, and with the many digitized maps on the MHS website; every time I look at one I always seem to notice something new!


    Very interesting and useful, especially the Clough maps.

    Do you know whether Clough created those maps as part of his work for Edison and the Navy Yard, or on his own?

    Thanks for your question. We do not believe that these maps were compiled as part of Clough’s work for either Edison or the Navy Yard. It seems to have been a side project/life’s passion. Certainly his profession as a draftsman served him well and he may have come across some of the source material that he used while working his “real job” at either Edison or the Navy Yard. If you haven’t done so already, take a look at the Clough collection guide on our website:

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