During the Revolutionary War, printed maps provided the public with the only pictorial representation of battles being fought in the American colonies. Through a powerful combination of text and image, maps conveyed precise details of battles and the geographic settings in which they took place. The majority of battle maps were printed in London where the printing trade was well-established. Printers in the colonies lacked the expertise, equipment, and supplies needed to produce maps.
The process of creating a printed map began when a trained military surveyor drew a map of a battle in North America and sent it to London. A trans-Atlantic journey took an average of seven weeks at the time. Once the hand-drawn map arrived in London, an engraver would transfer it as a reverse image onto a copper plate using tracing paper and a wax coating on the plate. Metal tools were used to scratch every last detail—text and images—into the plate. Maps were printed by inking the plate and rolling it on a sheet of damp paper through a hand-operated press. This took time and considerable physical exertion.
The demand for battle maps of the American Revolution was so great that, despite the time, cost, and effort required to produce them, London publishers profited from their sale. Because the timeliness of a map was a key selling point, publishers made a point of noting the map’s date—year, month, and day—on the map.
In Robert Sayer and John Bennett’s The Seat of War in New England by an American Volunteer (London, 1775), the battle of Bunker Hill is depicted in detail while also being placed within the larger context of military operations in Massachusetts between April and June 1775. Troop movements and engagements are represented through text descriptions, hand coloring, and drawings of troops, transport vehicles, and buildings.
Long before the advent of Google Maps, this printed map offers three distinct views: overview (similar to the Google Maps default view) of Massachusetts; aerial view (like Google Satellite View) of the harbor; and an up close and personal “you are there” view of the Battle of Bunker Hill (like Google Street View).
This map, printed on September 2, 1775, less than three months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, is one of the first battle maps to be printed during the Revolutionary War.
Another example of a conspicuously dated map is William Faden’s A Plan of the Entrance of Chesapeak Bay, with James and York Rivers (London, 1781). This highly detailed map shows how effectively the allied forces of the Americans and the French used land and sea positions to defeat the British at Yorktown. On land, the French Army is pictured surrounding the British Army at Gloucester; across the river the American Army surrounds the British at Yorktown. French ships occupy both rivers and also block access to them from the bay. Beyond the identification of a few British ships on the York River—Bonetta, Guadaloupe, and Charon—it is difficult to see a British presence.
The map was printed in London, less than six weeks after the British surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. It is the first printed map of the Yorktown battle. Such a quick turnaround suggests the map was already well into production and Faden hurried to finish it after news of the surrender reached London on November 25, 1781. Faden’s map is dated the very next day: November 26, 1781.
The Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War, but it was not until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 that the war ended officially and a new nation, the United States of America, was recognized by the British government. Following the signing of a preliminary treaty agreement at the end of November 1782, the publishing firm of Sayer and Bennett, operating with a “this just in” mentality, issued A New and Correct Map of North America, with the West India Islands Divided According to the Preliminary Articles of Peace, Signed at Versailles, 20 Jan. 1783.
They based their map on one that Emanuel Bowen had made to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the French & Indian War—in 1763—to which they added a note at the top describing how to color the map according to the “Preliminaries Signed at Versailles Jan 20th 1783.”
They made no changes to the bottom half of the map and, in their eagerness to print and sell the map as quickly as possible, they left the entire text of the articles of the 1763 treaty on the top half of the map.
This post is by Nina Nazionale, Director of Library Operations & Curator of Printed Collections, and curator of Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence, an exhibition on view at the New-York Historical Society through March 11, 2018. All of the maps featured here are on view in the exhibition, which was originally organized by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. Through a digital partnership, high resolution images of the maps are available online at collections.leventhalmap.org.