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Rare Map on Display at Library Scored Some “Firsts”

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Abel Buell, "A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America," 1784. On deposit to the Library of Congress from David M. Rubenstein.
Abel Buell, “A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America,” 1784. On deposit to the Library of Congress from David M. Rubenstein.

Engraver Abel Buell “came out of nowhere,” at least in terms of cartography, when he printed a United States map in 1784. “He’d never done a map before,” says Edward Redmond of the Library’s Geography and Map Division. Nonetheless, Buell set records.

He was the first U.S. citizen to print a map of the United States in the United States after the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. The treaty formally concluded the American Revolution and recognized the United States as an independent nation. Buell was also the first person to copyright a map in the United States.

Buell’s “New and Correct Map of the United States of North America” is the centerpiece of “Mapping a New Nation,” an ongoing exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Philanthropist David M. Rubenstein purchased Buell’s map at auction in 2010 and made it available for public display at the Library.

The wall map contains no original cartographic material, Redmond says; instead, Buell combined elements of maps published earlier in Europe.

“Buell, who lived in New Haven, Connecticut, may have accessed other maps at nearby Yale University,” Redmond suggests. “That’s a supposition, however; we can’t prove it.”

Redmond worked with other Library colleagues to identify maps in the Library’s collections that Buell may have used as sources and include them in the exhibition. “As the largest map library in the world, we have in our collections the maps Buell likely would have had available to him,” Redmond says.

Buell’s map documents a unique time in U.S. history. “Before adoption of the Constitution in 1787, the federal government couldn’t establish boundaries between states or force surrender of the western lands some states claimed,” Redmond notes. “As a result, the boundaries of many states in Buell’s map extend west from the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Mississippi River.”

Buell petitioned the General Assembly of Connecticut for a copyright for his soon-to-be-printed map on October 28, 1783, nine months after Connecticut became the first U.S. state to enact a copyright law. By October 28, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey had also passed copyright laws, but none expressly protected maps, as Connecticut’s law did. Thus Buell became the first person to copyright a map in the new nation.

Lawrence Wroth, Buell’s biographer, described Buell as creative and versatile but also restless and impulsive, which perhaps explains his conviction in 1764 for counterfeiting. Buell served jail time, had the tip of his ear cut off, and had his forehead branded with the letter C, a standard penalty of the time.

His colorful life notwithstanding, Buell had the skill and wherewithal to create his own “cartographic conception of the United States,” rich in symbolism of the emerging nation, Redmond concludes.

Comments (2)

  1. The map of the United States was NOT Abel Buell’s first cartography effort as stated by Edward Redmond. Buell previously engraved a chart of the Connecticut River (not part of the Library of Congress collection) and assisted Bernard Roman with his maps of Florida, which were published by James Rivington prior to the Revolutionary War. Buell did not come “out of nowhere.” In 1784, Buell was the leading engraver in Connecticut. The 1784 map of the United States is not the work of a novice engraver. Amos Doolittle’s famous engravings of the Battles of Lexington and Concord were printed in Abel Buell’s shop as Buell was the only silversmith in New Haven known to possess the necessary equipment to produce prints from copper etchings.

    Christopher McDowell – author of Abel Buell and the History of the Connecticut and Fugio Coinages

  2. Abel Buell produced his 1783 map “at the Printing Office in Bennington,” Vermont, and advertised it as follows in The Vermont Gazette, 25 Dec. 1783, p.3:

    “New Haven, September 25, 1783. The public are hereby informed, that there is now printing, and will soon be published, a general MAP of the United States of America, with the bounds, as settled by the treaty of peace, 1783— containing also the adjacent territories of Canada, Nova Scotia, and the Floridas: Together with all the new discoveries of Carver and others, with respect to the countries on the Mississippi and the interior parts of this continent…. This map will be 50 inches in length, and 45 in breadth…. The whole is constructed from the ingenious and accurate surveys and drawings of Holland, Collet, Cooke, Jackson, Fry, Jefferson, Parks and Hutchins— improved by the observations of a number of Gentlemen of the American army, and others, who have in their Travels, critically examined and perlustrated the different tracts of this country. The whole, for exactness and neatness of execution, will surpass any map of America ever yet published. It will be delivered to the subscribers, elegantly coloured, at the price of two dollars per map.”

    Dr. Harald E.L. Prins, University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology (emeritus), Kansas State University
    Wisbee Creek Point, Bath, Maine

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