Mapping Roads to America’s Revolution

1761-1769 surveyor’s compass and chain, the way early America was mapped

How did anyone find their way around before GPS and digital mapping software?  The painstaking task of making maps fell to surveyors walking the land with compasses and chains, expert draftsmen, masterful engravers, and printmakers. If you wanted anything in color, you’d have to get out the watercolor set.

The show at the New-York Historical Society, Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence, on display through March 11, presents glorious examples of the art of mapmaking during America’s colonial days, the fight for independence, and the aftermath of the British defeat.

Although the show was originally mounted by the Boston Public Library with key holdings from the Leventhal Map Center, the NYHS show adds items from its own collection – a letter from George Washington just before the Battle of Brooklyn, a beautifully illustrated journal of a French officer aboard the French ship Hercule, and delightful illustrations of life in Lower Manhattan 35 years after the Declaration of Independence was read to the troops.

Local maps carved into a powder horn in 1775 by a British soldier occupying Boston.

Check out our Flickr album of some of our favorites from the show.

The first gallery showcases the two-part 1754 Peter Jefferson-Joshua Frye map, which was the go-to cartography for everyone in the Tidewater and the Blue Ridge frontier throughout the 18th century.  Yes, it was created by Tom’s father and reproduced over a dozen times by European mapmakers.

The show features engravings by Paul Revere, broadsides vilifying the Stamp Act, announcements of New York’s would-be Tea Party, maps made by both the British and Continentals (even one carved on a powder horn), including the stupendous, famed, gigantic Ratzer map of Lower Manhattan.

1781 hand-colored French engraving showing the French armada and celebrations following the British surrender at Yorktown.

The central gallery features battleground maps, including the New Jersey standoff at Monmouth and evidence of the French blockade that won the war at Yorktown. (Is that partying in the streets?)

The final gallery celebrates post-war America: the creative 1789 New York City business directory (complete with fold-out map of the town) and a curious 1784 proposal for ten additional western states, as named by Thomas Jefferson. Anyone want to homestead in Polypotamia?

Close up of French 1776 engraved hand-colored map of Boston harbor.

Following a successful run in Colonial Williamsburg, this show brings the art, logistics, design, and scope of the Revolution to grand, colorful life.

If you can’t get to the show in person, take time to go through the incredible website for the 2015 edition of this show in Boston, which walks you through maps of Boston, including the showdown between the Americans and British when the city was still practically an island in the bustling bay. And don’t forget to check out the interactive of the Jefferson-Frye map here, and compare what Virginia and DC looked like when rivers were roads with the interstates today.


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