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.

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Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Ensign’s Map of a Road to Concord

In 2016, Ed Redmond of the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division shared an interesting discovery about an item in that collection.

Redmond wrote:
Several years ago, I stumbled across an unsigned manuscript map with the supplied title of “Roxbury to Concord. Roads & distances, &c.”

This unique map was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1867 as a part of the Peter Force Collection, which includes more than 750 Revolutionary era printed and manuscript maps transferred to the Geography and Map Division. . . .

According to General Gage’s Instructions printed by Boston publisher J[ohn]. Gill in 1779, General Thomas Gage, the commander of all British troops in North America at the time, ordered two British soldiers, Captain [William] Brown and Ensign [Henry] De Berniere, to discretely survey the roads in the vicinity of Boston.

“We set out from Boston on Thursday night, disguised like Gentlemen in brown clothes and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks; at the ferry of Charlestown we met a sentry of the 52nd regiment but Capt. Brown’s servant, whom we took along with us, bid him not to take any notice of us so that we passed unknown to Charlestown. From that we went to Cambridge, a pretty town with a college built of brick. We next went to Watertown and were not suspected. A little out of this town we went into a tavern, a Mr. [Jonathan] Brewer’s, a whig, [and] we called for dinner…”

All of the towns mentioned in the text, including “Brewers” tavern, appear on the manuscript map. The two British “surveyors” then sent their various large scale surveys back to Boston with their servant and returned separately to avoid being discovered as spies.

A few weeks later, on March 20, 1775, roughly one month before the events of April 18-19, 1775, Captain Brown and Ensign De Berniere received additional instructions from General Gage to survey the road to Concord:

“We went through Roxbury and Brookline, and came into the main road between the thirteen and fourteen mile-stones in the township of Weston; we went through part of the pass at the eleven mile-stone, took the Concord road, which is seven miles from the mainroad. The town of Concord lies between hills that command it entirely; there is a river runs through it, with two bridges over it.” . . .

Following their reconnaissance of Concord and vicinity the spies continued on [actually back] to Lexington:

“We dined at the house of a Mr. [Daniel] Bliss, a friend to government; [who] told us he could shew us another road, called the Lexington road. We set out and crossed the bridge in the town. The road continued very open and good for six miles, the next five a little inclosed, (there is one very bad place in this five miles) the road good to Lexington. You then come to Menotomy, Cambridge, and so to Charlestown…”

Once again, all of the towns mentioned in the text (with the exception of Lexington) appear on our map. Additionally, the distances between the towns are laid down on the map and correlate with the figures given in the text, even though the map is not drawn completely to scale.
All that said, this map does not show the road from Cambridge to Concord that the British expedition followed on 18-19 April. Though the officers reported returning from Concord on “the Lexington road [through] Menotomy, Cambridge, and so to Charlestown,” they didn’t add that route to this chart.

Did that affect the British expedition’s level of preparation in April 1775? 

TOMORROW: More on this map.


Charles Bahne said...

This map is an excellent document, helping us to further understand the events leading up to April 19, 1775. But anyone who tries to compare it with a modern map should be aware that much of the geography is horribly distorted. This is a common problem with many of the Revolutionary-era maps of the Boston area, especially when you get away from the ocean. But this map is particularly bad.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Redmond’s essay notes that the map isn’t drawn to scale, but the roads are marked with mile distances that match the officers’ written report. I haven’t checked whether those distances themselves are accurate.

J. L. Bell said...

An email from Marilynne Roach of the Historical Society of Watertown suggests that the elevation marked “Camp hill Fields” in Watertown should actually be on the other side of the Charles River at Newton Corner.