Mapping Massachusetts, 1600-1750

  • BOSTON, Massachusetts
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  • December 19, 2011

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Smith, New England, 1616-1635
Image Courtesy of Boston Rare Maps


The first century and a half of Massachusetts mapmaking saw a distinct shift in emphasis from piecing together the geography of eastern New England, to documenting the early years of settlement, and finally supporting Massachusetts’ aggressive territorial claims.  These historical maps, artifacts in their own right, tell a unique story of the evolution and development of one of the early United States’ most iconic regions.

BEFORE “Massachusetts”

In 1548 Giacomo Gastaldi issued Tierra Nueva, the first regional map of northeast North America. Gastaldi’s depiction of southern New England is based on Giovanni da Verrazano’s 1524 voyage along the East Coast, during which he sailed through Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds and rounded Cape Cod. Massachusetts is nowhere to be seen, as the coastline transitions directly from Narragansett Bay (“p. Refuge”) to Cape Breton (“Tierra de los breton”). Later 16th-century maps show a similarly truncated view of the region.

John Foster, New England, 1677
Image Courtesy of Boston Rare Maps

The first printed map to show clearly any part of Massachusetts was Marc Lescarbot’s “Figure de la Terre Nevve” (1609), which depicts Samuel Champlain’s findings in Nova Scotia and on the New England coast. Lescarbot includes Cape Cod—albeit in unrecognizable form--and names Stage Harbor in Chatham (“P. Fortune”) and Nauset Beach (“Malebarre”). It is possible that various coastal promontories and indentations just North of Cape Cod represent Plymouth Harbor, Boston Harbor and Cape Ann.

The first maps of specific Massachusetts locations were separate charts of Gloucester, Plymouth, Nauset and Stage Harbors issued by Champlain himself in 1613. These little charts show soundings, shore outlines and some terrestrial features and are surprisingly accurate considering the difficult circumstances under which they were produced.

The next milestone was John Smith’s New England (1616), based on his own explorations in Massachusetts Bay and along the Maine coast. This was the first printed map to depict a recognizable Massachusetts coastline, including Cape Ann, the Charles River, Boston and Plymouth Harbors, Cape Cod Bay and Cape Cod. Perhaps to encourage colonization, the map shows several nonexistent towns with English names such as “Bristow,” “Fawmouth,” “London,” “Oxford” and “Plimouth”. When revised and reissued in the 1620s however, it became the first printed map to show an actual Massachusetts town, namely the settlement at Plymouth.


In 1629 the Company of Massachusetts Bay obtained from Charles I a charter to the territory between the Merrimack and Charles Rivers. The “Great Migration” began the next year, and by 1640 the Colony’s population approached 20,000 persons.
The first map to use the name “Massachusetts” was Hessel Gerritsz’ “Nova Anglia, Novum et Virginia” (1630). Whether this refers to the new Colony or the Native American tribe inhabiting the Charles and Neponset River basins is unclear.
Though crudely executed, maps by two colonists give by far the best early depiction of Massachusetts’ interior geography and the new English towns. William Wood’s “The South part of New- England” (1634) shows eastern Massachusetts, including the complex coastal geography and the system of rivers emptying into Massachusetts Bay. His is also the first map to locate Boston, Cambridge (“New town”), Charlestown, Dorchester, Medford (“Meadford”), Roxbury, Saugus, Watertown and Weymouth (“Wessaguscus”). John Foster’s “A Map of New-England” (1677) depicts New England as far north as the White Mountains and just west of the Connecticut River.  Foster documents the expansion of the Massachusetts colony by locating dozens of towns, including the first appearances of many towns in what are now the western suburbs of Boston and along the Connecticut River.


For many years maps gave no indication of Massachusetts’ extent or its borders. The first to attempt to do so were John Seller’s “A Mapp of New England” and Robert Modern and William Berry’s “A Map of New England New Yorke New Jersey Mary-Land & Virginia...” (1676). Both were based on a manuscript map compiled in 1665 by one William Reed for the Massachusetts General Court.

The purpose of Reed’s map was to justify Massachusetts’ claim to much of what are now Maine and New Hampshire, based on an aggressive and legalistic reading of its 1629 Charter. In particular, the Charter granted the lands “... lying within the space of three English miles on the south part of the said Charles River, or of any, or every part thereof; ... and also, all those lands and hereditaments whatsoever, which lie, and be within the space of three English miles to the northward of the said river called ... Merrimack, or to the northward of any and every part thereof....”

When a 1652 expedition revealed that the Merrimack made a sharp northward turn and had its source in Lake Winnipesaukee, Massachusetts interpreted the Charter as implying a northern border along a line of latitude running through the Lake. This brought it into conflict with proprietors of lands in Maine and New Hampshire, and the Reed map was intended to bolster Massachusetts’ claim.

Though neither the Seller nor the Morden and Berry maps show an exact northern border, they clearly extend the Massachusetts Colony northward to or even beyond Lake Winnipesaukee. To the South, the border with the Plymouth Colony is shown on both maps as a concave curve extending from the North end of Plymouth Bay to a point below Springfield on the Connecticut River, which forms the western border.

John Foster’s 1677 “A Map of New-England”, also based on the Reed map, depicts a clear northern border with a bold line running East-West through Lake Winnipesaukee, complemented by one just south of the head of the Charles. The western border is left indeterminate, but clearly lies somewhere well beyond the Connecticut River.

Daniel Neal’s “A New Map of New England According to the Latest Observation” (1720) shows Massachusetts much nearer to its modern configuration. The northern boundary is shown at a line of latitude a point a few miles North of the Merrimack’s mouth. The colony is shown extending westward to roughly the present-day border along the Taconic Range. To the South, it now includes the territory of the Plymouth Colony, which had been annexed in 1691. The source of Neal’s map is not clear, however, as it predates by many years the various agreements that established Massachusetts’ boundaries with its neighbors.

The story of the mapping of Massachusetts extends well in to the late colonial and early statehood period and beyond, but its beginning extends back almost 500 years.  These early Massachusetts maps chronicled a tumultuous and hugely significant period of American history, and served as a benchmark for future development and expansion of the United States.


Boston Rare Maps specializes in rare and unusual antique and vintage maps depicting all periods of American history, including American historical prints, city views and a growing selection of illustrated broadsides.  They serve a wide variety of clients, including private collectors and institutional map collections, as well as those seeking just a few special pieces for themselves or as gifts to clients, friends or family.

Boston Rare Maps was founded in 2002 by Michael Buehler, a long-time collector of rare maps and historical ephemera.  He has developed a reputation for highly personalized client service and for offering rare and interesting material presented in a scholarly context. A specialist in the field, he is a regular public speaker and has published a number of articles in “The Portolan,” the journal of the Washington Map Society.  He has been a guest curator of two map exhibitions at Harvard University, including most recently "Toward a National Cartography: American Mapmaking, 1782-1800," which appeared in early 2011.

Joshua Payne
Fusco & Four
617 363-0405

Fusco & Four/Ventures, LLC
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About Fusco & Four/Ventures, LLC

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