A superb example of the first and most highly sought after sea chart of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Des Barres's chart centers on Nantucket, eastern Martha's Vineyard and the surrounding waters, with particular attention given to the Sound separating the islands from Cape Cod. The detail is extraordinary, including both the surrounding waters as well as the island's natural and human topography. The hydrographic data includes soundings, shoals, rocks and other hazards, particularly north of the islands and in Muskeget Shoals. Several notes provide sailing directions for entering Nantucket Harbor, avoiding Muskeget Shoals, and navigating other difficult stretches of water. The terrestrial data includes hachuring and shading to indicate coastal and inland topography, roads, residences and even field boundaries on Martha's Vineyard. A tiny street plan of Nantucket Town is clearly visible, and numerous landmarks on both islands are identified by name.
The chart was first hurried into print in 1776, for use by British navigators during the opening months of the American Revolution. Des Barres repeatedly revised and improved the plate, pulling new impressions at least through 1781 and probably much later. These later states are the most desirable, as they include significant additional information and far more visually refined.
The present example is the seventh of the eight known states (per Henry Stevens), with the plate number "15" at top right and the imprint date changed to "Decr. 1st 1781" but without the islands' topography completely filled in as on the final state.
Des Barres' chart was the first published map of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Its extraordinary accuracy and level of detail were not exceeded until the United States Coast Survey began to chart the area in the mid-19th century.
J.F.W. Des Barres and The Atlantic Neptune
Des Barres chart of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard was issued both separately and in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of charts and views of North American waters used by British navigators throughout the Revolution. The charts were of an extraordinarily high quality and remained the standard for decades, becoming the standard reference work for cartographic information used by American and European engravers and publishers for decades thereafter. On a broad scale basis, it was not until the United States Coast Survey commenced issuing maps in the middle of the 19th Century that a more detailed and systematic charting of the Northeast was made under the auspices of a single project.
The charts of the Atlantic Neptune which focus on New England were based on work overseen by Samuel Holland, a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War. After the war, Holland had proposed "an accurate and just Survey… upon… a general scale and uniform plan" of North America east of the Mississippi. This was to be a "geodetic" survey following the most advanced methods then in use in Europe, but applied for the first time in North America: the locations of control points would be established by rigorous astronomical observation, intermediate areas pinpointed by triangulation, and details sketched in from direct observation.
Holland's proposal was approved by the British Colonial offices, and in 1764 Holland was named Surveyor General of both the Province of Quebec and the Northern District of North America, from the Potomac to the border with Canada. After several years work in the Canadian Maritimes, from 1770-1774, he focused on the New England coast, making his headquarters in Portsmouth. From Portsmouth, Holland sent out survey teams headed by his deputies Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler and Thomas Wright, utilizing the sloop HMS Canceaux.
Holland's finished surveys were sent to England, where Des Barres oversaw the work necessary for their engraving and publication. The demand for charts was high in those unsettled times, and Des Barres' operation soon occupied two townhouses and 20 assistants in compiling, drafting and correcting the charts. While The Atlantic Neptune was usually made up to order and had no standard collation, it ultimately extended to five sections: Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (based on the work of James Cook), the coast south of New York, and American coastal views.
Des Barres' Nantucket chart is very rare on the market and all-but unobtainable in such superb condition. The most recent example to change hands was an inferior, uncolored example at Rafael Osona Auctions for ca. $66,000 in 2014. The most recent impression recorded by Antique Map Price Record was sold by the firm of Martayan Lan in 1994.
Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres (1721-1824) was born in Switzerland where his Huguenot ancestors had fled following the repeal of the Edict of Nantes. He studied under the great mathematician, Daniel Bernoulli, at the University of Basel, before immigrating to Britain where he trained at the Royal Military College, Woolwich. Upon the outbreak of hostilities with France in 1756, he joined the British Royal American Regiment as a military engineer. He came to the attention of General James Wolfe, who appointed him to join his personal detail. During this period he also worked with the legendary future explorer, James Cook, on a monumental chart of the St. Lawrence River.
Upon the conclusion of the Seven Years War, Britain's empire in North America was greatly expanded, and this required the creation of a master atlas featuring new and accurate sea charts for use by the Royal Navy. Des Barres was enlisted to survey the coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With these extremely accurate surveys in hand, Des Barres returned to London in 1774, where the Royal Navy charged him with the Herculean task of producing the atlas. He was gradually forwarded the manuscripts of numerous advanced surveys conducted by British cartographers in the American Colonies, Jamaica, and Cuba, conducted in the 1760s.
The result of Des Barres's travels along the Atlantic seaboard was The Atlantic Neptune, which became the most celebrated sea atlas of its era, containing the first systematic survey of the east coast of North America. Des Barres's synergy of great empirical accuracy with the peerless artistic virtue of his aquatint views, created a work that "has been described as the most splendid collection of charts, plates and views ever published" (National Maritime Museum Catalogue).
The Neptune eventually consisted of four volumes and Des Barres's dedication to the project was so strong that often at his own expense he continually updated and added new charts and views to various editions up until 1784, producing over 250 charts and views, many appearing in several variations. All of these charts were immensely detailed, featuring both hydrographical and topographical information, such that in many cases they remained the most authoritative maps of the regions covered for several decades.
The atlas is of the utmost rarity; the last example sold at auction made $779,000 in 2009.
Des Barres After the Atlantic Neptune
After the Revolution, United Empire Loyalists were resettled throughout Canada. As part of this process, a new colony was created by separating Cape Breton from Nova Scotia. Des Barres served as lieutenant governor of Cape Breton Island from 1784 to 1787. He later served as governor of Prince Edward Island from 1804-1812.
He lived an exceptionally long life, even by today's standards, finally dying at age 102-years-old. Des Barre' funeral was held at St. George's Round Church in 1824. He was buried beside his wife Martha in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Des Barres was survived by his mistress Mary Cannon and their four children.