1775 Breaking News: The First Published Map of the Revolutionary War

Guest author Allison K. Lange is an assistant professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, was an AAS AHPCS Fellow in 2011-2012, and helped curate the Leventhal Map Center’s “We Are One” exhibition. Lange received her PhD in American history from Brandeis University. Currently she is completing a manuscript on the visual culture of the woman’s rights and woman suffrage movements in the United States. Her work has appeared in Imprint and The Atlantic. She also works with the National Women’s History Museum. Learn more about her research at allisonklange.com.

We see wars unfold on live video alongside satellite maps, but our eighteenth-century counterparts had to wait. Maps had to be drawn, engraved, and printed before they were sold to those who could afford them. The American Antiquarian Society houses the first battle map of the Revolutionary War, which gives us a glimpse into the way people learned about the war from afar. I. De Costa’s A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston depicts the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. De Costa’s map is the only one to feature the marches of the British forces and battle sites.

I. De Costa A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston, and the Country Adjacent with the Road from Boston to Concord Shewing the Place of the Late Engagement between the King’s Troops & the Provincials. London, 1775. Engraving, hand colored 15 x 19.5 inches, on sheet 19 x 23.5 inches. American Antiquarian Society.

I. De Costa
“A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston, and the Country Adjacent with the Road from Boston to Concord Shewing the Place of the Late Engagement between the King’s Troops & the Provincials.”
London, 1775. Engraving, hand colored 15 x 19.5 inches, on sheet 19 x 23.5 inches.
American Antiquarian Society.

A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston was published in London on July 29, 1775, three months after the battles. Little is known about the mapmaker. He may have witnessed the skirmishes and sent his manuscript across the Atlantic to London engraver C. Hall. Or, De Costa could have drawn the original map in London using information from the battle and an existing survey of the area. He dedicated his plan to Richard Whitworth, a Member of Parliament from 1768 to 1780, who was likely his patron.

Detail of the De Costa map showing the placement and movement of troops.

Detail of the De Costa map showing the placement and movement of troops.

Unlike most of the era’s battle maps, De Costa’s is a pictorial map. He illustrated the progression of troops using human figures rather than rectilinear blocks. Small groups of soldiers represent the British troops’ march to Concord and back. They fire at their opponents, and the wounded figures fall to the ground. De Costa represented encampments with tents and cannons and showed specific British ships, labeled in his key, in the Boston harbor.

De Costa’s pictorial map was unusual, but not unprecedented. In 1756, Massachusetts mapmaker Samuel Blodget created a pictorial map of a battle in the French and Indian War entitled A Prospective View of the Battle Fought near Lake George. The left section situates Lake George on the Lake Champlain corridor, while the other two show the battle’s progression. The numbers correspond to an accompanying pamphlet with detailed explanations for each point of interest.

Samuel Blodget (1724-1807) A Prospective View of the Battle Fought near Lake George. London, 1756. Engraving, hand colored, 10.5 x 20.5 inches. Courtesy of Richard H. Brown.

Samuel Blodget (1724-1807)
“A Prospective View of the Battle Fought near Lake George.”
London, 1756. Engraving, hand colored, 10.5 x 20.5 inches.
Courtesy of Richard H. Brown.

Thomas Hyde Page (1746-1821) A Plan of the Action at Bunkers Hill, on the 17th of June 1775. London, 1778. Engraving, hand colored, 19.75 x 17.25 inches. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Thomas Hyde Page (1746-1821)
“A Plan of the Action at Bunkers Hill, on the 17th of June 1775.”
London, 1778. Engraving, hand colored, 19.75 x 17.25 inches.
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

These pictorial maps differ from battle maps like this 1778 map of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thomas Hyde Page used thin rectilinear blocks to represent troops and lines to show their movement. In De Costa’s map, everything occurs at the same time: the British troops march west, fire, and return to Boston. Page, in contrast, conveyed time’s passage by adding a leaf that can be lifted to show later troop positions.

De Costa’s map offered Londoners the earliest glimpse of the rebellion across the Atlantic. A map like this would have helped politicians, like Richard Whitworth, and military strategists make better understanding of the uprising in the colonies.

You can see the American Antiquarian Society’s copy of De Costa’s map on display in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center’s exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the tumultuous events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from De Costa’s plan to early maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center’s own collection and those of twenty partners, including the British Library and Library of Congress. Visit zoominginonhistory.com to explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the American Antiquarian Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use.

Access these resources and learn more about We Are One at http://maps.bpl.org/WeAreOne.

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