MHS News

Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection on View at the MHS

The MHS map collection—one of the Society’s most diverse and interesting—includes landmarks of map publishing.

Thomas Johnston’s 1754 plan of the Kennebec and Sagadahoc riversAs the MHS approaches its 225th anniversary, Terra Firma celebrates the beginnings of one of its most diverse and interesting collections. Among the maps on display are landmarks of map publishing that include the first published map of New England, the first map of Massachusetts published in America, and a unique copy of the earliest separate map of Vermont, as well as maps of important battles and maps and atlases from the United States and beyond. The exhibition is on display at the Society through 9 January 2016, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Started with gifts of six manuscript maps from James Freeman and three (two published, one manuscript) from Thomas Wallcut, the MHS map collection grew quickly, with 130 maps and seven atlas volumes listed in the Society’s 1811 Catalogue of the Books, Pamphlets, Newspapers, Maps, Charts, Manuscripts, &c. Today, the map collection numbers more than 2,000 separate maps and more than 100 atlases. 

While maps of New England and its six states represented the lion’s share of the collection in 1811, the Society's founders widely collected maps—both printed and manuscript—that allow researchers to track the development, progress, and history of the United States. Each map provides a unique look at the concerns of the mapmaker and his time—from the isolated and far flung settlements of John Foster’s 1677 map of New England to the looming threat of French fortifications in
in Maine to the scientific and statistical knowledge displayed in Lewis Evans’s maps of Pennsylvania and the middle colonies.

Several rare examples of early battle maps are on display, the earliest being Philip Durell’s 1740 Plan of the Harbour, Town, and Forts of Porto Bello, and a 1746 map of the fortifications of Louisbourg. Detailed and important maps of Revolutionary War battles were donated to the collection by early members. Sebastian Bauman’s elegant map of the Battle of Yorktown was drawn in the days immediately following the decisive American victory and provides a vivid account of the battle.

Although most the early collection was acquired by gift, the MHS took up a subscription to purchase the monumental Atlantic Neptune in 1796. Begun in 1763 by Swiss cartographer Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, if was hailed as “the most splendid collection of charts, plans, and views ever published.” Several plates are on display including Chart of New York Harbour, Plan of the posts of York & Gloucester, and South Carolina to East Florida; Plan of the Siege of Savannah.The Society's initial map collecting efforts were far from provincial. Members provided early printed maps from all corners of the globe. Featured maps display the range of the mapmaker’s art from the finely engraved city plan of Hamburg to the views of English seaports surrounding the New Map of England & Wales to the on-the-scene reportage of William Frazer's Correct Ground Plan of the Dreadful Fire at Radcliff.

The Atlas du Voyage de La Pérouse is a remarkable pictorial record of the doomed voyage of Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. A veteran of the Seven Years' War and American Revolution, La Pérouse was appointed by Louis XVI to lead an expedition that would chart previously unknown waters and provide the basis for future voyages of discovery. Encountering members of the British fleet at Botony Bay, Australia, he sent his journals, charts, and letters back to Europe by a returning British ship, a decision that proved fortuitous. He set sail from Australia in March 1788 and was never seen again. In addition to detailed maps and charts, the volume includes wonderfully evocative engravings. The atlas is on display along with a slide show highlighting a selection of the engravings. 

Published: Friday, 2 October, 2015, 10:00 AM