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Boston was the metropolis of Great Britain’s North American colonies, with the largest population and one of the busiest economies of any urban center through the 1750s. It was also the leading producer of printed maps, including major milestones such as the first map printed in the colonies, as well as the earliest city map, battle plan, and map engraved on copper.
This exhibition brings together, for the first time in decades, a majority of these maps “made in Boston” in the century before the American Revolution. As a group they are remarkable for their contributions to geographical knowledge and often unconventional style.
These maps also afford a unique perspective on the ambitions, anxieties and sense of identity of colonial Bostonians: pride in their flourishing city, the hazards of navigating New England’s coast, disputes over land ownership, and struggle with the native inhabitants and French for mastery of North America.
Mapping New England
From the earliest days of settlement, New England comprised several semi-autonomous colonies. Each had its own government and to some degree its own culture, and at times they competed fiercely. Yet they shared an identity as “New Englanders,” responsible for establishing a foothold in North America, where they would be free to enjoy both the rights of Englishmen and the freedoms and material wealth of the New World. This regional identity is evident from some of their earliest maps, which reveal their attempts to impose order on a vast, mysterious and often terrifying wilderness.
As the leading city of British North America, it was fitting that colonial Boston was the subject of several fine maps and views. The first was the “Bonner plan,” which appeared in 1722 and was the first city plan published in the Colonies. It was such a commercial success that it had but one competitor, a derivative and short-lived engraving published by William Burgis in 1728. Two magnificent views, reflecting very different interpretations of Boston’s position in the British Empire, were published by Burgis in 1725 and Paul Revere in 1768.
Southack arrived in Boston in the 1680s and was active for decades as a naval captain, privateer, navigator, diplomat, “fixer” and map maker. Most of this activity was in service of Massachusetts in particular and the British Empire in general, as it aimed to seize Canada from the French while preventing them and their native allies from ravaging New England’s coast. Southack was extremely well travelled, and was well acquainted with the waters between New York and Quebec. Exhibiting great durability and good fortune he lived to the age of 84, despite the rigors of his service.
Contest for Empire
Eighteenth-century North America was the scene of a global struggle for empire between France, Great Britain, Spain, and the tens of thousands of Native Americans who had survived the depredations and plagues of the 17th century. Bostonians were deeply involved in this conflict, fighting the French and their native allies as far afield as New York, Maine, Nova Scotia and the St. Lawrence. Displayed here are several maps reflecting Boston’s role in King George’s War (1744-48) and the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
Contest for Land
Carelessly-written land grants, primitive surveying instruments and methods, and sheer greed all contributed to boundary disputes, both within and between Britain’s North American colonies. These provided another important subject for Boston’s mapmakers, and several of the maps produced in the town documented land controversies. Featured here are examples relating to two such disputes: one between the “Plymouth Company” and “Brunswick Proprietors” over lands along the Maine coast, and another involving claimants to land around Elizabeth, New Jersey.