J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Monday, March 08, 2010

Old and New Views of Colonial Boston

I wish I had the tech and the knowledge to appreciate Charlie Frye’s Historical GIS: Boston 1775. Last year he posted his work at ESRI Mapping Center and explained:

One of the projects I undertook was to create a GIS of Boston in 1775, using only maps published from that period. I eventually included some later source material of reliable historical character to flush out locations for specific or notorious events, structures, and so on. My goal was to create an inventory and therefore as complete a picture as possible of Boston’s environs in 1775. Not only that, I wanted to be able to cite every feature, making it possible to create a map that was in essence a spatial argument for what I think was in Boston in the year 1775.
There’s also a discussion group on using GIS technology to illuminate the Revolutionary War.

I was able to enjoy the Harvard Map Collection’s image of William Price’s panoramic picture of Boston a few decades before the war. The Image Delivery Service page lets you zoom, pan, and (though it’s not really helpful with this view) twirl the image.

But don’t assume that the panorama Price created is entirely accurate. In New England Prospect, Peter Benes notes that Price included church towers that we know hadn’t been built yet. That’s the magic of drawing, after all.


Charles Bahne said...

After reading J.L.'s buildup, I was disappointed when I downloaded Mr. Frye's Historical GIS files. Like J.L., I lack the technical knowledge and software to fully appreciate GIS. But I was hoping to see an accurate map of 1775 Boston -- for example, one that would use layers to show where colonial-era sites stood with respect to modern-day features.

Just looking at the area around the Old State House, which I've been studying for many years, I can see that Mr. Frye's 1775 map is not accurate with respect to, say, the overall shapes of streets and buildings.

While it wouldn't be possible to get this level of accuracy for every building in town, it is possible for streets, public buildings, and other landmarks. It would require using 19th- and 20th-century maps to relate known objects -- street lines, public buildings, and other structures that survived long enough to be shown on detailed maps -- to present-day features. One could also incorporate Nancy Seasholes' recent research about the original shoreline and landmaking efforts.

Mapmakers and geographers, here's your challenge!

Charles Bahne said...

I should add that Mr. Frye's work is truly impressive, and a welcome addition to our body of research about what Boston was like in 1775. It just wasn't what I was personally hoping for.

John L. Smith said...

I like Charlie Frye's use of GIS technology very much for the "Boston 1775" mapping survey! I would only question his location of Knox's London Book-Store (#69). That would appear to be the location of Wharton & Bowles' book store where Knox apprenticed for so many years. I have a study open right now, asking for academic input, that would place either of Knox's two stores roughly across from #81 on Charlie's GIS map - The Old Brick meeting house. But I like this use of new technology to "put designs" on history. Its great!

J. L. Bell said...

ESRI’s headquarters are in Redlands, California, and Charlie Frye wrote about relying on British army maps and other documents, rather than measurements on the ground here. This might be an opportunity for long-distance collaboration.

The Bostonian Society has an ongoing “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website that also ran into trouble reconciling engraved maps from the 1700s with GIS technology today. That ended up sticking with the old maps as a way to graphically bring people into life in the colonial town.

But maybe there’s a way to bridge those approaches.

Charles Bahne said...

Mr. Smith's comment is an example of what I was referring to earlier. In real life, the Old Brick Meeting House (#81 on Mr. Frye's map) was much smaller than shown here, and much closer to the Old State House. The building marked by #69 would have been directly opposite the Old Brick, and near its south corner. This can clearly be seen on an 1895 map drawn by the City Surveyor's office, "Plan of Boston Proper, Showing Changes In Street and Wharf Lines, 1795 to 1895" -- available on the web through Harvard University at:

[The Old Brick was a square building, surrounded by a U-shaped street called Cornhill Square, part of which was later called Court Avenue.]

Another good, detailed source for this is John G. Hales' 1814 "Map of Boston in the State of Massachusetts", on the web through the Boston Public Library:

Finally, I would recommend that Mr. Smith consult the "Thwing Index" compiled by Annie Haven Thwing in the early 1900s, and based on deed research. This is available electronically at the Massachusetts Historical Society, or you can purchase it on CD-ROM from the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

J. L. Bell said...

As I read the 1771 tax roll, Henry Knox was listed as living in the property of Ame and Elizabeth Cuming, the sisters from Lincoln who had gotten in hot water the year before for importing from Britain. At that point, it looks like, he didn’t own a shop, and therefore wouldn’t show up in the real-estate records Thwing scoured. But maybe later?

Charles Bahne said...

I mentioned deed records since they were a major source for Ms. Thwing's research, but I believe she also compiled data from other sources as well.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Thwing’s database uses the Boston town meeting and selectmen’s records and other sources as well. (I was just revving up that CD again last week.) Almost all her data pool is public documents, so private arrangements like rentals, apprenticeships, and other contracts don’t show up there.

I haven’t tried looking up Knox in that, but perhaps John L. Smith has.

Charlie Frye said...

I appreciate the posting and comments. Here's a little more about why I created the map and what I undertook in terms of a scope of work:

First, I wasn't striving for spatial accuracy. I got interested because I had an ancestor who fought at the Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill. With my background I figured to map where he was. Long story-short, I figured out a method for using GIS and mapped most of Boston in the bargain, so I finished the job and made that map.

I decided not to use any source newer than 1784, for wanting to understand what, perhaps, my ancestor and others of his day knew of Boston. Almost no maps had been made in the colonies based on "accurate" survey techniques, instead the maps were based on celestial reckoning and varied from year to year, even for the narrow range of years I used as sources.

I wanted a map that looked like it used those maps by Lt. Page and others for sources, so I literally traced them. It is a great basis for relative accuracy (things that are supposed to be next to each other generally appear that way). That said, I totally get, and appreciate the "masonry" bit; and agree it would be most difficult to complete.

I'm also aware of Nancy Seasholes' past and present efforts and applaud her work. Although, as a geographer, I know it's darned hard to make a map of a present day shoreline, and given the variety of depictions of late 18th century Boston, there's not even a good way to "average" one. The simple fact is that tidal flats and mud flats moved from year to year. Page's maps with Adm. Howe's soundings are as good a source as any (and as Nancy has shown, there are better not too many years after 1784).

Mr. Smith, I'd love to hear what the answer on Knox's book store is (and will update based on any advice you can provide). I was essentially a one-man research shop, and figure there are a few errors and debatable items, and many missing items as well. I'll send an email directly.

Thanks again for the interest.

Charlie Frye

John L. Smith said...

Messrs. Bell, Bahne & Frye - This is an exciting discussion on colonial Boston maps and specifically details about Knox's book store; and exactly the type of public input I've been trying to receive for my research project, started about a year ago, on the location of Knox's book store(s). Mr. Bell is correct in that Knox apparently never "owned" his own store. According to my research, the landlords to his first store (about where Starbucks is now) were the loyalist sisters Ame & Elizabeth Cuming. His second book store landlord (located about where 1 Dorchester Place is currently located) was Benjamin Harrod. Nancy Seasholes and I also communicated last year about this subject, since she is a well-known architectural historian. I did much of my primary research at the MHS and up at the state archives at Columbia Point. However, I will check out the Thwing Index, as Mr. Bahne suggested. [I have the 3rd edition of Bahne's guidebook, (who doesn't?) which I have found as excellent!] I am actively looking for any guidance, hints, suggestions for my "Knox London Book-Store Location" research project from all interested parties. Eventually I'd like to have a commemorative plaque placed at a designated location along Washington [Cornhill] Street to honor this patriot and the historic location.

Brian K. Self said...

More thoughts on Mr. Frye's map:

When I read the box in the lower right corner entitled "Wards" I was a bit perplexed by the statement, "When Boston was occupied, beginning in 1768, by the British Army, the commanders divided Boston into twelve wards."

Even without looking up the history of wards in Boston, this just sounded odd to me. My best guess was that the British commanders may have used the wards of Boston as a guide for placing their troops, they did not create the wards.

So, just now, when I was looking through the index of Annie Haven Thwing's The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston and found an entry for "wards" I had to read it.

Here is what Thwing has to say:
"In February 1715-61, for the first time the town was divided into wards, and they were named. . . . On March 9, 1735-36, there were twelve wards, named numerically, 1, 2, 3, etc."

So, it seems pretty conclusive that the wards were pre-existing. It seems to me as well, although I don't have time to look it up, that the ward numbers appear on some of the maps of Boston which pre-date 1768.

We can bat around the notion that "Ostensibly the troops were assigned to and responsible for maintaining the peace and security of each ward" as well. The army had no policing powers outside the "Riot Act," which I do not believe they ever found a justice of the peace to read. Also, I think the members of the Town Watch, etc., would question this notion as well.

All for now,

Brian Self

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Boston’s wards had been laid out by the civil authorities decades before the army occupation. They were of roughly equal population, and each had its own town warden, Overseer of the Poor, and (I think) constable, elected by the populace at town meetings. (In other words, there had to be an official of each type from each ward, but everyone in town voted on all the officials.) During the war the wards were used for drafting men for the Continental Army.

The town watch divided up Boston in a different way, usually with north, south, and central watches.

And I’m not sure that the British military used the ward system at all. They didn’t have the same concerns. Once the war started, their authority overruled town officials, and some laws, such as the Riot Act and Quartering Act, bowed to military necessity.

Charlie Frye has written that he used British military maps for this project, so one of them might indicate the wards in a way that suggests they were military in origin.