Manipulation and Revolution: Characteristics of 18th Century Boston Chorographies

The collection of Boston chorographies provide evidence for a compelling narrative regarding mapmakers’ approaches to the city because of the variety of possible viewpoints as well as the disruption caused by the Revolutionary War. Boston’s unique location on the Shawmut Peninsula gives the cartographer unparalleled access to multiple locations both to look on and out from the city. In the early 18th century, this aspect of Boston is exaggerated by the use of manipulated space by the authors too. They utilize the variety of “real” viewpoints while also creating their own new views. Later, the Revolutionary War itself laid fertile ground for the comparison between the works of soon-to-be American printers and British ones. John Carwitham’s 1730 view of Boston sits at the relative beginning of this story with many other similar views of Boston Harbor. These 18th century views of the harbor are central to early depiction of Boston, but are subverted by the Revolutionary War, after which later works continue to move away from the traditional representations of the city.

The early 18th century views of Boston focus on viewing it from the harbor and utilize manipulated space to create these views. The first view of the collection, William Burgis’s A North East View of the Great Town of Boston claims to view Boston from Noodles Island. The view is not only plausible, as the drawing cartographer sitting in the foreground seems to suggest, but also accurately relates to the position of Boston and Charlestown. Not only can you see both settlements, but Boston’s Fort Hill and the Long Wharf are situated to the far left of the map. Burgis’s customers soon “wanted a decidedly different view,” though that situated Boston more centrally (Muller, 48). The creation of this view forced a manipulation of the original view:  “an effect Burgis achieved by eliminating landmasses from the foreground, positioning the horizon nearer to the top of the frame, and dramatically foreshortening Long Wharf, so that it thrusts precipitously down and to the right” (Muller, 49). This change created the raised view used by Carwitham and later cartographers. The central focus becomes the ships and harbor, wharves, and Fort Hill.

Later cartographers continue to exaggerate the manipulation of space, and even the reality of Boston life. A 1738 painting by John Smibert utilizes Noodles’ Island, like Burgis’ original map did, to look at Boston. However, he elevates the land mass, excludes Charlestown, and pushes Fort Hill and the Long Wharf to the center. He also includes three figures, including two Native Americans, surveying the city in the foreground. James Turner similarly includes vignettes of indigenous peoples hunting and gathering on an unnamed landmass in the foreground of his view of Boston. Since the 1730s, even Bostonians had understood the local Native American population on the Shawmut to have been wiped out by disease according to a Boston News Letter from 1738 (Thwing 7). Cartographers still continue to include them prominently on their imagined islands. In this way, the manipulation of space bled into manipulations of the Boston experience.

As tensions rose between Bostonians and the British government, the view exemplified by Carwitham’s work took on more political tones. Paul Revere’s works focusing on this growing conflict at first seem titled like any other map: “A prospective view of the town of Boston, the capital of New-England,” but reveal underlying tensions “and the landing of troops in the year 1768!” The 1768 black and white copy, as well as the colorful version from 1770, each substitute the labeling of Boston churches for the labeling of specific British ships in the harbor. When drawing the Revolutionary War, colonial artists focus on representing the conflict instead of Boston as a whole. “View of the attack on Bunker's Hill, with the burning of Charles Town” and “A Correct View of the Late Battle at Charlestown” each depart from the traditional southeast view. The first map magnifies Charlestown and the attack itself from the southeast, while the “correct view” looks across towards the battle and destruction of Charlestown and past it into the Atlantic. Efforts to represent the conflict change both the content the artists represent and the perspectives they employ.

Perspectives from British cartographers continued to look at Boston from the southeast, cementing the view as one associated with British dominion from the east. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the Royal Navy commissioned a series of navigational charts for the Atlantic Seaboard which would become the Atlantic Neptune. Created primarily by J. F. W. Des Barres, the atlas and the surveying behind it helped establish “a system of long-distance control exercised by the British government and scientific community over surveyors, soldiers, and seamen operating thousands of miles from home” and “laid the foundations for much of the systematic scientific surveying of Britain's colonial possessions and thus a significant part of the modern world” (Hornsby 118, 212). While the Atlantic Neptune “established new standards of accuracy for charts of North American waters and was called by a contemporary writer 'one of the most remarkable products of human industry that has ever been given to the world through the arts of printing and engraving” (Bosse, 23), it still primarily used views of Boston from the east to represent the city. These two trends can be seen from the illustrations “A view of Boston” and “Boston, seen between Castle Williams and Governor's Island,” which both observe Boston from the east, but at a lower point with more accurate scale and perspective. For example, compare Des Barres’ chorography from near Castle Williams to “A View of the City Boston the Capital of New England,” which details Boston as far more visible and detailed from the same location. 

British cartographers do not entirely restrict themselves to the southeastern perspective, though, and hint at the trends in post-revolutionary Boston mapmaking. Two works, “A View of the Harbor of Boston from Fort Hill” and “A View of the country round Boston taken from Beacon hill,” illustrate the additional viewpoints available within Boston. However, they focus less on attempting to represent Boston itself and more on the surrounding area and the harbor. The landscape scene “A View of Boston Taken on the Road to Dorchester” (1776) compiled as part of the Atlantic Neptune foreshadows the new ways to view Boston that develop in the post-revolutionary environment. Boston’s maritime prowess is still visible, but gone is the intense focus on the waterfront and wharves.

After the Revolutionary War, the dominance of the southeastern view waned in continuation of the trends the war introduced. The new artists after the revolution “now used an inland vantage point, planting their viewer firmly on American soil.” “View of the city of Boston from Breeds Hill in Charlestown” (1791) illustrates Muller’s point as it functions more as a landscape even as it focuses on the city of Boston, unlike earlier British even if they were not from the southeast. Nevertheless, it still emphasizes the pastoral elements surrounding the city with its foreground just as the view from Dorchester Neck did. A possible conclusion to draw from this transition is stated by Muller: “Thus the elevated view from a point east of Boston was meaningful for Bostonians during those years they defined themselves in relationship to—and loyal to—lands in the east. In other words, Burgis’s southeast view was meaningful to Bostonians when Bostonians were British” (Muller, 51). In essence, the southeastern vantage point so typified in Carwitham’s view of Boston faded in the late 18th century because of its inextricable association with British dominion over Boston.


Works Cited

Hornsby, S. J. (2011). Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.W.F. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune, McGill-Queen's University Press.

Muller, K. "Navigation, Vision, and Empire: Eighteenth-Century Engraved Views of Boston in a British Atlantic Context." The Colonial Society of Massachusetts 82: 46-68.'

Thwing, A. H. (1920). The Crooked & Narrow Streets of the Town of Boston 1630-1822. Boston, Marshall Jones Company.

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