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Manuscript map of the 1787 fire of Boston, Massachusetts

Manuscript map of the 1787 fire of Boston, Massachusetts
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This manuscript map of Boston drawn by Jeremy Belknap accompanied a letter from Belknap to Ebenezer Hazard describing the extent of the 20 April 1787 fire in Boston, Mass. The map shows the location where the fire started and the area that was destroyed. If one were to look at a map of Boston today, the fire would have destroyed the area currently occupied by Tufts-New England Medical Center on Washington Street (in 1787, Orange Street) and the surrounding buildings.

A Brisk Spring Night

Near sunset on 20 April 1787, a fire broke out in a malt-house on Beach Street belonging to William Patten. Patten undoubtedly had his malt kiln fired up and, the weather being dry and a northeasterly wind blowing relatively hard, sparks and ashes were carried a great distance. It was said that if there had been no wind, the fire would have consumed only the malt-house and an adjacent outhouse. In his letter to Ebenezer Hazard, Jeremy Belknap wrote, "Had the town extended 10, 15, or 20 miles in that direction, and wooden houses in the way, dry as they then were, the fire would have been equally extensive." The fire wreaked havoc for approximately three hours, burning fifty-six dwelling houses, thirteen stores, eight barns, and Rev. Ebenezer Wright's Hollis Street Church, leaving eighty six families homeless and causing ?20,000 in property damage. Fortunately, however, no one was killed or injured. The following evening, John Quincy Adams heard the news and wrote in his diary, "I then heard of a terrible fire, which happened in Boston last night and consumed an hundred buildings among which three or four belonging to Mrs. Amory, the mother of an amiable classmate of mine, whose misfortune I peculiarly lament."

Belknap and Hazard, Kindred Spirits

Jeremy Belknap was born in Boston, Mass., in 1744, the eldest son of Joseph and Sarah (Byles) Belknap. He graduated from Harvard College in 1762 and for the next five years kept school in Milton, Mass., and later Portsmouth, N.H., before being ordained at the First Congregational Church of Dover, N.H. He married Ruth Eliot of Boston in 1767, and had six children with her. At the time of the 1787 Boston fire, Belknap had just returned to Boston to become the minister of the Church in Long Lane (the precursor of the Arlington Street Church). He was keenly interested in both learning and writing history and was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 1790 he drew up a plan for a manuscript repository and, with nine colleagues, founded the Massachusetts Historical Society on 24 January 1791. Belknap suffered a stroke on the morning of 20 June 1798 and died a few hours later.

Like Belknap, Ebenezer Hazard was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and an avid historian. Born in Philadelphia in 1744, Hazard served as postmaster-general from 1782-1789. During his term as surveyor-general of the post from 1777-1782, Hazard had traveled widely, collecting primary sources in American history as he traveled the countryside. His Historical Collections: Consisting of State Papers, and Other Authentic Documents Intended as Materials for a History of the United States of America was published in two volumes in 1792. Although Hazard planned to publish other volumes in the series, sales were poor and no more were published. Hazard died in Philadelphia in June of 1817.

Manuscript Maps at the MHS

Manuscript maps are unique records that often include detailed graphic information about events and places that otherwise would be lost to history. As in the case of the Belknap map of the 1787 Boston fire, many manuscript maps were made to accompany letters or reports. Manuscript maps provide the earliest information about unexplored territories; plans of attack during wartime; the bounds of colonial provinces and towns; travel information about rivers and highways; and the mundane matters of everyday life-many are surveys of the boundaries of personal landholdings. There are upwards of two hundred manuscript maps described in the MHS online catalog ABIGAIL and we add descriptions to ABIGAIL either as we acquire maps as part of manuscript collections or recatalog collections.

The bulk of the MHS collection of manuscript maps ranges in date from the mid-seventeenth century to the close of the nineteenth century. The geographical scope is equally wide-ranging, but is strongest for Massachusetts and New England.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bagrow, Leo. History of Cartography. Chicago, Ill.: Precedent Publishing, 1985.

Krieger, Alex and David Cobb with Amy Turner. Mapping Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Lawson, Russell M. The American Plutarch: Jeremy Belknap and the Historian's Dialogue with the Past. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.

Seasholes, Nancy S. Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Tucker, Louis Leonard. Clio's Consort: Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1990.