ArticleTwo digital collections from the Massachusetts Archives capture the micro-scaled geographies of Massachusetts towns in the Early Republic period
In May 1794, just over a decade after the end of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts General Court voted on a resolve that began with this preamble:
Whereas an accurate Map of this Commonwealth will tend to facilitate & promote such information and improvements as will be favourable to its growth and prosperity, and will otherwise be highly useful and important on many public and private occasions …
In order to produce this “highly useful and important” map—which it deemed “an object so desirable […] by which the reputation & interest of the Commonwealth will be advanced”—the legislature ordered every municipality to survey its own territory and submit an official town plan, “free of expense to the Commonwealth,” by June of 1795. Each town’s select board was instructed to “immediately” begin the mapping work upon receipt of the General Court’s order.
The order reflected the importance of geographic knowledge for governing the new nation, and the legislators made clear what sorts of detail they wanted to see reflected in the plans: the names and measurements of boundary features between towns, the location of public buildings like court houses and churches, as well as major roads and distances from Boston, “the Metropolis of the Commonwealth.” Neighboring towns were ordered to consult one another to ensure that they shared a common understanding of their mutual boundary lines.
Although some towns lagged behind the General Court’s orders, requiring the legislature to repeat the order a year later and stiffen the fines for noncompliance, eventually nearly every town in Massachusetts filed its survey (as well as many towns in what is now Maine, which was still part of Massachusetts in 1794). Filed away and barely touched for years, the collection, now housed at the Massachusetts Archives, was later digitized and added to Digital Commonwealth, the Massachusetts-wide federation of historic collections. And because our own Leventhal Center digital collections portal is built on top of Digital Commonwealth, you can now browse these 1794–1795 town plans in our map collections viewer.
The collection offers the best detailed maps that we have of the town-level geography of Massachusetts more than two centuries ago. The early United States had very few people who were trained in professional cartography, so most of the surveys were executed by locals with only a rudimentary working knowledge of mapmaking. Consequently, the collection of 403 plans contains a striking variety of visual techniques. There’s Nathaniel Fisher’s plan of Stoughton, covered in a tangle of notes from the survey party. There’s an almost modernist simplicity in the plan of Bernardston, with a simple line-in-circle compass rose and patterned hachures for high ground. There’s a charmingly naïve title cartouche in the plan of Cohasset, and an almost psychedelic range of wavy hills in the plan of Cheshire.
Two mapmakers stand out for having executed more surveys than any other. One is Ephraim Ballard, who completed the surveys for seven towns in western Massachusetts. Ballard played a key role in surveying the Kennebec Proprietors’ lands in Maine but is better known today as the husband of Martha Ballard, the subject of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s groundbreaking 1990 book A Midwife’s Tale. The other is Osgood Carleton, who also surveyed seven towns—including Boston. Carleton was the preeminent mapmaker in Massachusetts in the 1790s, and his works are well-represented across our digital collections. Carleton himself had been one of the people who suggested that the Commonwealth order the creation of these surveys, and he ultimately created the state-wide maps of Masaschuetts and Maine that compiled all of the information from each town’s submission.
The plans give an incredible window into how late eighteenth century residents of Massachusetts understood their local geographies. Many of the plans are highly simplified, little more than a tracework of jotted-down points around the towns’ outer boundaries and a few rough sketch lines showing roads and common buildings. Many of the others, however, vibrate with the sense of an embodied, relational geography from a period when cartographic standardization and the abstract precision of planar geometry did not yet predominate in most ordinary people’s conception of space. The plans are stuffed with all kinds of intriguing little details—the kinds of minute observations that reward many hours of study in the digital collections.
It wasn’t long before the young Commonwealth of Massachusetts realized that it had outgrown the accuracy of the 1794–1795 plans. So, in 1829, the General Court again ordered the towns to create new surveys and deliver them to the capital. This time, reflecting the zeal for discovery and exploitation that characterized the nineteenth century, the legislators were even more explicit about what they wanted the surveyors to record, including:
… bridges; ferries; falls; ponds; shores; harbors; islands; mountains; hills; mills and manufactories; mines and minerals, and of what kind; iron works and furnaces; meadows (salt and fresh); and wood land …
These 1830 plans were also later digitized by the Massachusetts Archives, and they too are viewable in our digital collection. Compared to the series made 35 years earlier, the 1830 plans show just how far science, engineering, and printing had come in the first few decades of the new nation’s development. No longer consisting primarily of rough field sketches, many of these plans look much more like what we today expect to find in official cartography. (Though they are not without their vernacular curiosities—like Aaron Bliss’s terrifically vibrant multicolored survey of Monson that would almost fit in to a twentieth century gallery of modern art.) And this later series also captures the names of a new generation of mapmakers, like John Hales, who was not only responsible for 41 town plans but also succeeded Carleton as Boston’s most influential mapmaker of the time.
Take a look at your town in 1794 and 1830—what do you see? The welter of detail in this collection is an invitation to browse, to zoom in, to spend time randomly walking through the local geography of two centuries ago. When you find something that catches your eye (and you surely will), let us know!
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