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Map of Massachusetts Proper. Compiled from Actual Surveys made by Order of the General Court and under the inspection of Agents of their appointment.

Map of Massachusetts Proper. Compiled from Actual Surveys made by Order of the General Court and under the inspection of Agents of their appointment.
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

In January 1795, the Massachusetts Historical Society applied to the General Court of Massachusetts "for the exclusive power of compiling a map, for the benefit of the Society, from the returns which may be made of plans in this State, ordered by the Legislature." (Footnote 1)

The genesis of the first official map of the state was in 1791 when Osgood Carleton, one of the first professional mapmakers in America, suggested a regional map of southern New England based on town surveys. The Historical Society helped persuade the Massachusetts General Court to pass a state mapping law in 1794 which required all towns in the state, including the District of Maine, to produce town surveys on a standard scale of 3300 feet to an inch by 1 June 1795, for use in producing an official map. Many of these detailed manuscript plans survive in the Massachusetts State Archives. (Footnote 2)

For reasons that do not appear in surviving records, after a long delay, the General Court rejected the proposal by the Historical Society to publish a state map in favor of competitive bids from Boston commercial mapmakers. Osgood Carleton, one of the most active American mapmakers of the post-Revolutionary period, made the winning proposal in 1797. Born at Nottingham, New Hampshire, Carleton saw brief service as an artillerist in the British Army during the French and Indian War and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolution. Along with Richard Gridley, another early Boston mapmakers whose work is included in this catalogue (see no. 40), he was one of the few Americans trained in military engineering and mapmaking. After the Revolution, Carleton opened a school for navigation, mathematics, and cartography on Oliver's Dock in Boston. There he published navigation and mathematics textbooks as well as maps of Boston, Massachusetts, the District of Maine, New Hampshire, the United States, nautical charts, and a marine atlas. (Footnote 3)

While the Historical Society was not the sponsoring agency for the map, it did remain intimately involved in the publication. In 1795, Carleton had drawn a map of Maine to accompany James Sullivan's History of the District of Maine. Sullivan, then attorney general of Massachusetts, was also the first president of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Society loaned manuscript maps from its own files to Carleton, and members of the Society served on the committee that inspected the engraved plates John Norman made for the map.

After many delays, the engraved plates for the official map were inspected by the state committee and judged unsatisfactory. Carleton and Norman took their rejected printing plates and from them published commercial maps of Massachusetts and the District of Maine. A new team of engravers and a new publisher took the information Carleton had re-compiled from the town surveys, after his original effort had been rejected. The official map was re-engraved by Joseph Callender and Samuel Hill and published by Benjamin and Josiah Loring in 1801. The 1801 edition was paid for by the state and distributed to the towns. A second edition was published at state expense in 1802 for the use of court officials, members of the legislature, and schools located in the commonwealth.

In 1800, while work on the map was still underway, a committee of members of the Historical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences petitioned the legislature for the printing plates for the maps, for the use of the two societies. In 1801, the legislature granted a fourteen-year copyright, after copies were struck off for official use. The Society and the Academy were to share proceeds from ownership, but there is no evidence that either organization ever profited from the arrangement or retained the engraved plates. (Footnote 4)

Mapmaking has been described as the art that became a science. The Map of Massachusetts Proper was published at a time when geographical data was increasingly available to cartographers. At the same time, in its final Form, it represents the work of some of the most skillful Boston engravers and printers of the day. Since 1801, the Society has withdrawn from the mapmaking business in favor of map collecting. In the library of the Society are more than 5,000 early maps, nautical charts, city plans, views, and atlases, both manuscript and published, as well as a large number of modern maps, facsimiles, and redrawings to support research in American history.


1. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 1st ser. Vol. 1 (1791-1835): 81.
2. Danforth, Susan L. "The First Official Maps of Maine and Massachusetts." Imago Mundi 35. (1983), pp. 37-39.
3. Ristow, Walter W. American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1985, pp. 68-70.
4. Danforth, Susan L. "The First Official Maps of Maine and Massachusetts." Imago Mundi 35. (1983), pp. 42-44.